“Sicilian identity is strong because it’s impure”

tedesco1       Tedesco, Emeritus Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Palermo, remembers the Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia, and reflects on the south’s distinctive characteristics.

For Spanish readers, the name of Natale Tedesco (Palermo, 1931) is indisputably linked to that of Leonardo Sciascia, above all by being the first editor of the book Spanish Hours, Ore di Spagna, which had Sciascia’s text and Ferdinando Scianna’s photographs.  To remember the writer, his friend, Tedesco visited Seville last week in order to participate in Hispalense University’s seminar dedicated to the maestro from Racalmuto.

Mediterraneo Sur spoke to Tedesco on the morning of the 20th November, exactly 20 years after the death of Sciascia, ‘Europe’s last great political writer’ according to the late Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.  In the opinion of Tedesco, “although Sciascia was an elected deputy, it’s an error to think of him as a politician by profession.

On the contrary, we think of him as a writer, a writer who makes a contribution to a specific public situation, but who does it as a man of letters, although his opinion has relevance in the political field”, he explains.  “Twenty years have passed and today we are in the hands not of politicians, but bad parliamentarians, political dilettantes, people who enter for their own interests.  Does this mean there was no corruption previously?  Clearly there was.  The problem now is that it has been converted into a routine event”.

On the other hand, the commonly held opinion behind the idea that the Italian political class is nothing more than a reflection of the average Italian, would have been refuted by Sciascia, and is dealt with by Professor Tedesco in linguistic terms.  “Through his media power, Berlusconi has created a language, and once established he proclaims it to be the language of the Italian people.  For example, his idea of safety in cities comes from broadcasting a version of insecurity, and then, once the citizen feels threatened, he decides that Italians are demanding safe surroundings.  But I have no doubt that the Italian has always had a political morality, a resistance to fascism”.

One can imagine that Sciascia, who for years harshly criticised la Democrazia Cristiana as the incarnation of all abuse and corruption, would now be surprised to discover how, two decades later, a politician would be holding power who was even capable of inspiring nostalgia for the old DC.  “At least they had a sense of the State”, shrugs Tedesco, “and they had some background.  Today the politicians are improvisers; they lack objectives in civic, politico-societal terms.  It seems incredible that the only figure from the Right who has an institutional idea of politics is (Gianfranco) Fini, from the Alleanza Nazionale: an ex-fascist!”

Writer and Essayist

What place, today, does the figure of Leonardo Sciascia have?  Is his legacy still alive, or is he a museum piece?  “No, I wouldn’t say he is a museum piece, but his personality was very complex, too much so to have a simplified idea of what his inheritance means.  It is very difficult to find a great fiction writer who at the same time can develop a body of essay-based work like Sciascia.  Today, perhaps Claudio Magris is the most similar case”, the professor explains, himself an author of essays about Quasimodo, Ignazio Buttitta, Lucio Piccolo and Pirandello, among others.

And he adds: “I think, with regard to the actual literary situation, the most interesting things aren’t being produced in the centre, but to the periphery.  At the moment there is a group of southern writers, Sicilians, Neapolitans, Calabrese, who possess an idea of their origins but who are capable of projecting that much further, as a concrete way of responding to the globalisation phenomenon which is everywhere today.  I’m thinking about Giuseppe Montesano, Robert Alajmo, Valeria Parrella, Giosué Calaciura…  In truth, they are all in some way heirs to Sciascia, but they have their own narrative”.

Tedesco defends the notion that this regional strength, which he calls ‘the style of the south’ isn’t exclusively from the Mezzogiorno, “but, in general, from the south in world terms, although each place has its own characteristics.  However, today identity is a plural concept.  Something, which in Sicily, incidentally, is well known.  “Sicily has been multicultural since the time of Federico II – with the meeting of Latins, Arabs, Normans, Swabians – and possibly from much earlier.  It is impossible to imagine bouts of racism in Sicily, as Sicilian identity is strong precisely because it’s impure.  The Sicilian cultivates these differences in order to construct a plural identity: such construction is perhaps more difficult, but the result is also much stronger”.

Finally, Natale Tedesco talks of his native town, Bagheria – cradle of notable talents like the painter Renato Guttuso or the photographer Ferdinando Scianna, but also of renowned Mafiosi -, and of an illustrious ancestor, Prince Gravina, who built in this very location the spectacular Villa Palagonia or the Villa of the Monsters, a palace surrounded by grotesque figures which has been attracting scholars and tourists for more than two hundred years.  Tedesco, himself, lived in the Villa until recently, during which time the idea of converting the principal salons into a museum to the Sicilian baroque started to take shape.

“Bagheria is a good example of the contradictory nature that meridional society can have, where there are areas of poverty next to splendid focus points, and this is also reflected in the culture.  It’s a town that still has a large uneducated, illiterate part of its population, yet it also produces many university professors.  (Giuseppe) Tornatore explains this very well in Baaria, his latest film”.

Alejandro Luque

This interview by Alejandro Luque first appeared on the website, Mediterraneo Sur, (www.msur.es) in November 2009 – translation Andrew Edwards.

Alejandro’s book, La defensa siciliana, is available from Amazon – click here

Alejandro Luque
Alejandro Luquehttp://www.alejandroluque.com
Alejandro is a journalist who writes for the Culture section of the Spanish newspaper, El Correo de Andalucía. He is also part of the team behind the website Mediterraneo Sur. He has had two books with Sicilian themes published: the collection of short stories, La defensa siciliana and his travelogue in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, Viaje a la Sicilia con un guía ciego – The Sicilian Defence is now available in English translation; the Journey is awaiting publication.

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  1. Thank you for this information. Please continue to send articles like this. While reading the articles in Italian is helpful for learning purposes, the english ones are more fully understood
    Joe Zarba
    Brooklyn NY
    Sant’alessio Siculo

  2. When discussing with friends about this article, we had different interpretations about the meaning of Prof. Tedesco’s sentence: “Sicilian identity is strong precisely because it’s impure” which happens to be the title as well.

    In my humble opinion, this has been said in good faith. Prof Tedesco, himself, is a proud Sicilian, isn’t he.

    It is true that we could argue about the meaning of “impure”. Has this word been used to prove the point that in Sicily there cannot be racism? In fact he said:
    “It is impossible to imagine bouts of racism in Sicily”.

    On the other hand, not being “mixed” with other races is a synonym for being “pure”? Can’t we be “pure” if we are multicultural?

    From a personal perspective my children are “multicultural” and I’m damn proud of it. At the same time I do think my children are pure Sicilians, with pure multicultural identity.

    I think the words pure and impure come from an old theory, a surpassed theory and Tedesco is using them just to prove they are wrong? Again, this is my opinion, these are my two cents worth.

    Ecellent Interview!! I look forward to reading other articles from Alejandro Luque

  3. I do not think that he word “impure” was said in bad faith. Prof. Tedesco did not mean to say that, or not even imply, with the word, any affiliation to racism. As I said privately, I say it now, that will be a stretch. No the less the word has a bad connotation and applied to any group of people can even be understood in an offensive way. We all know that Sicily is multicultural but that does not make it “impure” not even allegorically. The fact that your children have a mother non-Sicilian, does not make them “impure”. They are Sicilian.

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