Monday, July 21, 2008

Sicily As It Was

#93 The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

How'd you feel if you were kicked around for eternity?

I am Sicilian, yet I really do no know much about my heritage. Growing up, for whatever reason, I embraced and immersed myself more with the Irish half. I didn’t really have anything against the Italian in me, but it never really appealed as much. Possibly it was the language gap or the infatuation with style that held me back. In fact, until recently I didn’t even know that I was Sicilian (the other 25 percent is Neapolitan -- Naples, from what I hear, is pretty gross).

After graduating from high school, I traveled to Ireland. The love for the Emerald Isle grew, as did the indifference towards my Mediterranean roots. Following my sisters’ subsequent high school completion, they journeyed to Italy. Maybe that’s why they had a closer connection to my other homeland.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa made me appreciate my father’s background a lot more. It also gave me a little justification -- and relief -- for not knowing much about the culture: the real Sicilian culture.

Lampedusa’s surprisingly insightful and captivating novel on the demise of Sicilian nobility made me realize that I’ll never be able to know anything about one of homelands without visiting it. The ancient, backwards island has been kicked by the boot of the modern society, in addition to the geographic Italian peninsula, for hundreds of years. The French, Romans, Turks and probably the Mongolians at one point all colonized the island, ravaged it of natural resources and individual sovereignty, and imposed their respective tradition on the Sicilians. Oddly, a main point by The Leopard's protagonist, is that the Sicilians relish their sufferings and hardships.

As I’ve seen in many of the stories on this literary list, the setting is important. This would only be natural with many great works focusing on revolutions (social or otherwise), great trends or social injustices centered in a particular place and time. However, only half of a setting’s characteristics are important: the place, not the time. The Leopard itself occurs the period before, during and after the Red Coats act of uniting Italy under the leadership of Victor Emmanuel. Revolutionary leader Garribaldi’s visage hovers above the novel’s characters as he transforms from liberating demagogue to corrupt demi-goat over a 25-year span. The point Lampedusa makes, though, is that despite revolution, Sicily remains the same. Day-to-day actions of the islanders are not altered. A lethargic, blasé approach to life avoids political affiliation. Resistance to change and adherence to past and tradition rule the Sicilian mindset.

That past tradition is dying away with the Leopard himself, though. I suppose the time does matter, but not as much as one would think. The crux of the story deals with Don Fabrizio Salina's (the leopard is on his family crest) life. It starts during his middle age, the hight of his comfort. He is rich, powerful and will never have to worry about losing any his prestige. Yet, he does; not so much for himself, but about the future. He feels he is the last in a line of great Salina nobility, and he's accurate. Like in many societies, the nobles probably could have survived, but they, through inaction, do not move, do not alter the status quo. And while their loss of power is gradual, it is noticeable. At one point in the novel, it is evident that a character of non-noble has more money than him, making Don Fabrizio only the second richest person in Sicily. But that is symbolic in it of itself. Fifty years prior, it would be impossible for someone to rise up and secure funds. The nobility was the state. For the Leopard, he is now only a part of the state.

Later, Salina is offered a chance to serve in the newly established Sicilian senate. He scoffs at the idea, though. His way of dealing with problems is throwing money at it, not by establishing social programs or making education reform. Why would he demean himself by consorting with the common man? If Salina had wanted his family to prosper in the future, he could have begun a long line of Salina senators. Instead, his resistance ensured their death sentence.

But enough of that silly stuff. Let's talk about the grungy, dirty sex. Well, sort of. A significant portion of the novel dealt with fiery passions and lust. Early on, Don Fabrizio leaves his comfortable home for an evening with a whore. A lengthy discussion ensues detailing his love for his wife, but how their passions has been distinguished. Their sex life is over. So he has a chippy on the side. The author made it seem as this wasn't uncommon in 19th century Italy. Later, his nephew and his fiancée romp around the mansion doing everything but the nasty. They don't want to ruin the supposed marital bliss and feel the deprivation will make their sex life better. He heavily foreshadows that their life during marriage will be anything but happy and even their sex life will suck. Believe want you want about sex before marriage, but I thought it was bold for the time period for Lampedusa to suggest such improprieities against marriage.

Great book, though. Easy read and relatively short. If you have any Italian blood look up this masterpiece centered around the new nation-state of Italy.


(#92) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is next. Possibly by a guest blogger.

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