Leonardo Sciascia, one of Sicily’s most famous writers, is said to have claimed that he had never swam in the sea. It sounds like a proud statement, even a statement of identity. Islands usually have a complicated relationship with the bodies of water that surround them and the British Isles are no different from Sicily in that respect. Sadly, for some Britons, the English channel (la Manica) appears to be wider than the Atlantic.
One of us writing this piece is a water baby, the other has to admit to his own brand of thalassophobia, although it is certainly not a mental fear of the other, but a rather understandable physical reaction to being dipped in the freezing Bristol channel as a child. Modern-day evidence would seem to suggest that Sicilians have overcome their fear of water as so many of them enthusiastically throw themselves into the Mediterranean, during the dog days of summer, from the island’s spectacular beaches. However, as we’ve noted, a physical embrace of the medium doesn’t guarantee a mental trust of it’s properties.
On one occasion, when showing our amazement at how many were still swimming off the coast of Cefalù in late October, we were gently rebuked by a local who told us that they had to be foreigners as no self-respecting Sicilian would swim that late in the season. The remark is quite telling, indicating as it does a reluctance to contemplate the water once its cooling utility has been outlived. None of this implies that Sicilians are xenophobic, in most cases, far from it, but that they have a mistrust of what the sea might bring them. Let’s take a look at the evidence.
The roll call of Sicily’s invaders has been listed so often it tends to loose impact, but if you really look at it, the list can leave you stunned: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, other Spaniards, Bourbons, Germans, the Allies and some would say, continental Italians. Is it any wonder that the sea is seen as a harbinger of doom rather than a bringer of wealth. Of course, these cultures enriched the island enormously, but they also brought top-down government and enriched themselves in the process.
We first encountered this seaborne debate in Alejandro Luque’s excellent book following in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges around Sicily. It seems there has been more written on the subject than one would imagine. Sciascia, himself, thought that a Sicilian’s way of life turned away from the water, as evidenced by the settlements perched on their eyries. It may be simple fancy, but they do give off an aura of defensive sanctity, looking down with trepidation on the valleys that lead to the sea. As far back as the Athenian siege of Syracuse, that most outward looking of Sicilian cities, historians have noted how their navy was stunned into inaction by Athens’ mastery of the waves.
Even one of the island’s most popular myths, the tale of Colapesce, so seemingly redolent of one boy’s love of the sea, has a darker side. The irrepressible hero dives to the bottom of the Mediterranean to see the three columns supporting Sicily, discovering that one of them is broken he consigns himself to the depths for eternity acting as the third column. Without Cola protecting Trinacria from the voracious waters, the island would topple into the sea.
Peter Robb quotes this legend at the start of his Midnight in Sicily as he arrives in Palermo on a ferry. It didn’t escape his notice that the city was full of carabinieri, a response to the fateful events of 1992 – maybe another continental invasion, this time designed to combat a nefarious island phenomenon with roots in the complex power politics of history. Robb tells us that the carabinieri manoeuvres were called Operation Sicilian Vespers, a name that evokes the thirteenth century uprising against the Angevins.
In throwing aside the Angevins, the Sicilians turned to Pedro of Aragón, a decision that saw another army cross the sea, thus ushering in a long period of Spanish domination in one guise or another. Imperial cultures like the Spanish, French and British have used water routes to export their rule and import riches; Sicilians simply exported themselves in large numbers, especially from the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Those arriving on Sicilian shores today are of a very different stamp to the imperialists of yore. The desperate migrants pitching up in towns like Augusta have generally had a sympathetic reception from the locals if not always the authorities. In one New Statesman article a local Augustan journalist was quick to point out that the people see the difficulties these refugees are in, especially the young. Their ire is directed towards a leaden burocracy and a lack of funding or international responsibility. Although things could change, the phlegmatic attitude of many is best summed up in an episode of Commissario Montalbano, with the Inspector telling a colleague that Sicilians know the issues, they have been there.
Returning to Alejandro Luque’s discourse on the islanders’ fears, he quotes a few proverbs, including the blunt and to the point, ‘the sea is bitter’. We would like to add one of our own we recently read: ‘Throw three silver coins into the sea beneath an August moon and you will be granted one wish.’ Perhaps that wish should be a desire to embrace the sea, after all, as Alejandro pointed out in his book, ‘if you can’t beat it, it’s far better to join it’.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.
Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.