The Dangers of Communication….
As part of my decision to read more New York Review Classics, I picked up To Each His Own written by Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia. To Each His Own begins with the delivery of an anonymous letter to Manno, a mild-mannered, married pharmacist who lives in a small Sicilian town. The letter’s delivery is caught with delightfully precise perfection in the book’s introduction:
“The letter arrived in the afternoon delivery. As usual, the postman laid the parti-colored sheaf of advertising circulars on the counter first; then carefully, almost as if there were some danger of its exploding, the letter. It was a yellow envelope; a small white rectangle bearing the printed address had been pasted on it.”
The anonymous letter, eventually opened by Manno in the presence of the curious postman is a death threat, and as the news of the letter spreads around town, no one–least of all its recipient–can imagine what Manno has done to provoke such behaviour. Sciascia efficiently creates a portrait of Manno, a man who is the embodiment of inoffensive: he’s mild enough to tolerate the postman loitering in his shop and ogling his letter, he’s spent a lifetime avoiding politics, and even a mention of Manno’s wife “the unbeautiful, slightly faded, slightly slovenly woman” hints at Manno’s ability to absorb domestic unpleasantness for the sake of peace and quiet.
Everyone who hears of the letter is convinced it’s a joke, and this collective reaction again endorses Manno as an inoffensive man; what could he possibly have done, what offense could he have committed that would provoke such a violent threat? It seemed impossible, and Manno finally settles, a little uncomfortably, on the idea that whoever sent the letter must be jealous of his prowess as a hunter.
The news that Manno has been murdered–along with his long-time hunting companion, Dr Roscio stuns the townspeople, but gradually a fiction is created that Manno was a secret adulterer and that Dr Roscio, an innocent man “caught in the middle” was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the fiction builds, rumours spread throughout town. Manno is gradually blamed for Roscio’s death, and a few other townspeople become necessary victims to the fiction and unsavoury tales that circulate–all unsubstantiated. Judgement is silently passed and everyone agrees that Manno received an anonymous death threat because he deserved it.
There’s a general mood of complacency in town towards the murders, and there’s also a great deal of speculation concerning the beautiful, ripe widow Roscio. Surely she won’t go to waste now that her husband is dead? The future amorous adventures of the widow occupy the minds of the townspeople while the murders, so unusual in this town fade from interest. Only Professor Laurana feels uneasy about the crime, but then he catches a clue about the letter’s origin. The clue is so obvious, and yet no one else seems interested. Laurana decides to take matters into his own hands….
To Each His Own starts out as a murder mystery (and an intriguing one) with Laurana as the amateur detective, but it very quickly becomes apparent that Sciascia is much more interested in the town’s reaction to the crime than its solution. After Laurana discovers the first clue, he cannot conceive that it’s been ‘missed’ by the police, and “out of vanity” he begins a very simple, informal investigation–just asking a few questions here and there. As Laurana rather ploddingly picks his way from one clue to another, the solution is right in front of his nose (and ours), but Laurana seems to not want that solution, and so he continues with his clumsy sleuthing. And it’s through Laurana’s refusal to at first believe the evidence right in front of his eyes that it becomes clear that his quest for the truth is more than a matter of crime solving. Laurana investigates not just the crime but his entire belief system. Laurana discovers that no one is what they seem, left and right politics no longer have any meaning, and instead all political positions have congealed into a rotting stew of self-serving corruption. Laurana is sucked into solving the crime; he cannot resist:
“But however he revolved the affair, turning it this way or that, it possessed some equivocal, ambiguous element, even though the relationships of cause and effect were still unclear, as were those of the protagonists among themselves and those details in the mechanism of the crime that he knew to be facts. And in that equivocation, that ambiguity, he felt himself morally and sensually involved.”
As the novel’s meta meaning moves beyond the entertaining plot into social commentary, To Each His Own becomes a powerful examination of Italian society, its passivity towards power and corruption, and the danger of asking too many questions, yes “it’s dangerous to nose about.” Indeed communication plays an important role in the novel–beginning with the anonymous letter, and continuing through Laurana’s questions.
Here’s one of my favourite passages from the book. It’s a scene in which Laurana meets a character called Benito, and the scene takes place in Benito’s impressive library. Benito admits to Laurana that he never leaves the house:
“Haven’t for some years. At one point in my life, I made a few quite precise calculations: if I leave the house in search of the company of one intelligent person, one honest person, I run the risk of meeting en route a dozen thieves and half as many idiots who stand poised to communicate to me their views on mankind, the national government, the city administration, Morovia…Does it seem to you worth the trouble?”
“No actually not.”
“And then I am very comfortable at home, especially here.” He pointed to the books and gestured as if to gather them all to him.
“A fine library,” Laurana said.
“Not that I can always avoid stumbling into thieves and idiots even here. I’m speaking of writers, obviously, not their characters. But I easily get rid of them. I return them to the bookshop or I present them to the first fool who comes to call on me.”
Benito choses to communicate with the world rarely. In his library “everything that happens in town … is pure theatre.” Isolated from society, Benito maintains his integrity and avoids corruption. Laurana’s journey towards the truth is so difficult because he encounters corruption on every level. This corruption is a mental stumbling block more than anything else, and then again, the bachelor Laurana who’s shielded from the world by his mother, falls under the spell of a woman. Society is infused with poison; love is both corrupted and corrosive, and gossip taints with innuendo. Truth is the ultimate victim.
The introduction by W.S. DI Piero outlines Sciascia’s life and argues that he “used storytelling as an instrument for investigating and attacking the ethos of a culture–the insular, mafia-saturated culture of Sicily–which he believed to be a metaphor of the world.” I wouldn’t presume to understand the intricacies of the Italian political/criminal scene; it’s vast and complex and probably best understood by the Italians. The introduction mentions that Sciascia was a great movie fan, and that’s interesting as the book’s very first paragraphs made me think of Le Corbeau.
Translated by Adrienne Foulke.