The Past Never Dies – Though God Knows it Tries: An Interview with Anthony Di Renzo

An Interview with Anthony Di Renzo, author of Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily
Andrew Edwards

In this interview Antonio di Renzo gives us an insight into his writing life and the background behind his forthcoming novel, Trinàcria.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Anthony Di Renzo

     Although born in America, I am culturally Sicilian, thanks to my mother. A wonderful storyteller, whose chapped hands braid the air as she speaks, Mamma inspired me to become a writer. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to publish my fiction. Agents and editors were baffled by Sicilian characters who were not gangsters and rejected plots that refused to perpetuate the myths of assimilation. When poverty finally defeated me, I worked as a copywriter until I had saved enough money to enter graduate school.

A fugitive from advertising, I now teach writing and Italian American history at Ithaca College and live near the city’s West End, a former Italian neighbourhood gentrified into a haven for hipsters and coffeenistas. One neighbour describes me as “an Old World man in a New Age town.” But I have never forgotten what I call the Babylonian Captivity, that humiliating period when a New World economy completely violated my Old World values. Not surprisingly, then, my work often examines the ongoing war between traditional Sicilian culture and global capitalism. Sicily usually loses, which explains why I’m such a fierce satirist.

2. You mention that Trinàcria was part of a larger work. What inspired you to focus on this story?

      Originally, Donna Zita was a supporting character in After the Fair is Over, an immigrant saga dealing with her great-grandson Attilio Tumeo, who briefly appears in Trinàcria. Ironically, money from his used car dealership pays to preserve the Marchesa’s crypt in the Catacombe dei Cappuccini. Unable to forgive Attilio for accidentally killing her, the old woman’s ghost plays Juno to his Aeneas, thwarting his destiny in L’America.

Because Donna Zita’s story complicated and slowed the plot, I removed it from the novel, but this background material never stopped haunting me. How could I transform it into another book? I had the canvas but lacked a frame and perspective. I found both when I saw Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard for the first time. The screening triggered a childhood memory.

The Leopard – Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Burt Lancaster

As a boy, I recovered from a nearly fatal bout of dysentery in Villabate about a year after Visconti had filmed his epic. Many locals had attended the shoot. Some had even worked as extras. Everyone, however, had stories to tell. The most amusing story concerned Ciminna, a mountaintop commune 30 miles southeast of Palermo. Visconti had used the town as Donnafugata, Prince Fabrizio’s ancestral fief. The mayor and the council had petitioned 20th Century Fox to rebuild the sets. Apparently, the American tourists didn’t want to see Ciminna’s authentic Greek ruins, a three-thousand-year-old temple to Demeter. Instead, they wanted to pose in front of Burt Lancaster’s fake palazzo and collect autographs. I had thought this anecdote was a tall tale, until a documentary on the film confirmed it. History doesn’t stand a chance against public relations.

3. Nevertheless, you struggle to be a historical novelist. What drew you to this period of Sicilian history?

      Two reasons. The first is personal. According to family legend, my mother’s ancestors were minor Spanish nobility, colonial administrators for the new Bourbon regime, who settled in Bagheria in the early 18th century. After the English constitution of 1812 abolished primogeniture, they lost their estates and moved to Villabate, where they married shrewdly and prospered in Sicily’s emerging middle class. This success changed their political allegiances. During the Risorgimento, they supported the revolution. My great-grandfather, Antonio Coffaro, even smuggled arms and supplies to the Red Shirts. Besides his name, I’ve inherited his love for Giuseppe Verdi’s patriotic operas. Unification, however, made the family sing a different tune. Their fortunes declined along with Sicily’s, until they were finally ruined in the Great War.

The second reason, however, is political. Trinàcria tries to explain how Sicily became the Island of the Dead and why its ghosts can never be appeased. The region’s collapse in the late nineteenth century caused mass emigration. Ten million people around the world trace their origins back to this exodus. Almost overnight, one quarter of Sicily’s population disappeared, and the region has never fully recovered from the calamity. The lessons of this time period, therefore, remain all too valid. Then as now, internal corruption and outside exploitation created a financial meltdown, which the rich and powerful blamed on the character and habits of the poor and the powerless. More to the point, the Risorgimento’s fiasco in Sicily suggests the limitations of nation building and neoliberal economics in a so-called postcolonial world. Good intentions never exempt would-be reformers from the Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.”

4. As she narrates the novel, what do you believe the Marchesa of Scalea’s attitudes tell us about this period?

Piazza Pretoria – Palermo

      The Marchesa of Scalea embodies Sicily’s wounded pride. Many readers, therefore, will sympathize with her—but only up to a point. Repeated trauma has transformed this once notorious beauty into a monster. If readers directly faced her suffering, they would turn to stone, so I provide a mirror. That mirror is history.

 The Marchesa’s bitter journey from guarded liberalism to rabid reaction reflects Sicily’s political disillusionment during the nineteenth century. Like the Medusa, the beautiful maiden raped by the sea god Poseidon, Donna Zita suffers a series of violations: her failed romance with British wine merchant Benjamin Ingham, her humiliation at London’s Great Exhibition, the destruction of her splendid carriage. Her outrage petrifies the well-meaning fools who try to help her and paralyzes her until she becomes a monument to her own pain, much like the statues in Piazza Pretoria’s Fountain of Shame.

5. You draw heavily on countries that have influenced Sicily – the Piedmontese under Garibaldi, but also the Spanish and English. How do you see their influence and a possible Sicily without the Risorgimento?

     For over two millennia, Sicily has been the Mediterranean’s greatest melting pot. The Greeks considered the island their America, an enchanted western land where anything was possible. The Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards also projected extravagant fantasies onto Sicily. The island’s art has fused these competing visions, as is evident in its unique architecture, but its politics have never cohered. This is partly because, until quite recently, Sicilians have never had the opportunity or the resources to govern themselves. Even liberal democracies, such as England, Italy, and the United States, have presumed to dictate policy in the name of liberation and reform.

What would have happened, however, if Sicily had achieved independence in 1848? What if it had become a functioning democracy of Sicilians, by Sicilians, and for Sicilians? Either Sicily would have remained a separate country or it would have joined Italy on its own terms. The novel speculates on why this didn’t happen, but it is a question worth considering during the bicentennial of the Sicilian constitution.

6. The Marchesa indulges in long conversations with the poet Leopardi. Why did you choose Leopardi?

      Giacomo Leopardi, Italy’s greatest Romantic poet, was also a brilliant cultural critic and an existential philosopher. Decades before Nietzsche, he addressed the crisis of values caused by the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions and mocked bourgeois civilization’s self-serving myths about prosperity and progress. Leopardi and the Marchesa are kindred spirits, but Leopardi still allows himself to feel. Echoes of the chorus from his “Dialogue between Frederich Ruysch and his Mummies” can be heard in Donna Zita’s monologues.

7. What are your other literary influences?

      While earning my doctorate at Syracuse University, I first read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Despite its abuse at the hands of Northern Italian educators, it remains one of my favourite books. I admire Manzoni’s commitment to la gente senza storia, the people without history, relish his humour and irony, and am constantly impressed by the way he handles his research materials and even openly questions his sources.

Stylistically and politically, however, I am more indebted to such Latin American magic realists as Miguel Ángel Asturias, Eduardo Galeano, Gabriel García Márquez, and Juan Rulfo. These writers not only broke the stranglehold of Anglo American literature on my imagination but also taught me to challenge official narratives about the past.

But my biggest influence, obviously, has been Sicilian literature. Margherita Ganeri, author of The Italian Historical Novel, rightly calls my book a postmodern response to Federico De Roberto’s The Viceroys and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, two different and perhaps even opposite historical novels. Luigi Pirandello, however, schooled me in the art of caricature, while Leonardo Sciascia, trained as a journalist, taught me to compress and polish my prose. My editor Michael Mirolla complimented my manuscript for being so lean. “Sicilian diet,” I explained.

8. The central family could be seen, in modern terms, as dysfunctional. Do their relationships have a wider metaphorical meaning?

      “All happy families are alike,” Tolstoy claimed. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But is that entirely true? Dysfunction isn’t always caused by individual failings and individual feelings. Sometimes one family’s unhappiness springs from and reflects the collective unhappiness of an entire community or at least an entire class at a particular time.

De Roberto does this so well in The Viceroys. The Uzedas represent Catania’s aristocratic old guard, cynically adjusting to the political realities of post-revolutionary Sicily. The Spinellis and the Tumeos, more disadvantaged, are less successful. They are too divided to defend their own interests, too insecure not to envy and wish to emulate their opponents. This grudging admiration, often expressed as ambivalence and resentment, prevents both sides of the family from either accepting or rejecting the new social order.

9. For those who know a certain amount of Sicilian history, some of the events and characters leap recognisably from the pages. How difficult was it melding fact and fiction? For example, does the Villa Urania bear a resemblance to the Villa Valguarnera in Bagheria?

      Villa Urania indeed is modelled after Villa Valguarnera, just as the Marchesa of Scalea is partly based on Alessandra Spadafora, the Duchess of Santa Rosalia. I consulted many sources when writing this book, most notably Raleigh Trevelyan’s Princes Under the Volcano, which chronicles the Ingham-Whitaker Marsala wine dynasty, but melding fact and fiction wasn’t difficult at all. That’s not surprising. Ever since the Cyclopes built their forge in the bowels of Mount Etna, Sicily has been a crucible of the imagination. Its volcanic core melts all differences between fact and fiction.

10. What role does humour play in the book?

      Like Pirandello, I try to distinguish the comical from the humorous. The comical is merely “a premonition of the opposite,” laughing at something that seems merely ridiculous. The humorous, however, is “a feeling of the opposite,” recognizing the tragic in the ridiculous without denying its grotesqueness.

Unlike Pirandello, though, I am a political rather than an existential writer. I care more about history than psychology. The carnival of history constantly juggles and transforms human values, turning our lives sottosopra, topsy-turvy. Sooner or later, everyone—Bourbon and Red Shirt, alleged tyrant and supposed liberator—ends up a clown on a dunking stool. We ridicule the past to justify the present, forgetting that the future will ridicule us. The novel’s peculiar humour, therefore, challenges readers to be more compassionate, or at least less smug.

11. The book begins and ends with a film director, based on Luchino Visconti, exploring the Capuchin catacombs. What made you chose this location as a conduit to the past?

      No other location better captures the Sicilian cult of the dead. I can’t think of another place more starkly opposed to the Disneyfication of the past. Even so, the novel does not romanticize the Capuchin catacombs. The crypt was a status symbol in its day. It still is. I call it Club Dead. People are dying to get in.

12. Did you feel you were fighting against Sicilian stereotypes in trying to get this novel published?

Donna Zita

      Forty publishers rejected this manuscript before Guernica Editions finally accepted it. Although many fine nonfiction books have been published about Sicily, most recently John Keehey’s Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean (Thomas Dunne Books, 2011), commercial fiction still traffics in stereotypes.

For most publishers, Sicily remains an exotic setting for chick lit or crime stories, a spa where discontented women executives can eat, pray, and love or a finishing school for junior gangsters yearning to get in touch with their roots. The ignorance, even bigotry, I encountered shocked me. “Nobody cares about Sicilian marchesas,” one editor said, “unless they’ve written a cook book.”

At that point, I gave up. Donna Zita made a mean pasta Bellini, but she was no Anna Tasca Lanza.

13. Are you writing anything further?

      I’m revising After the Fair is Over, the sequel to Trinàcria. State University of New York Press, which published my last book Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics, and Ethnicity from the Imperial Kitchen (2010), has expressed interest in the manuscript. I’ve also begun a biography of Antonio Salieri, an unjustly maligned composer who was nothing like F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus.

Almost everything I write challenges official history at a time when History is just another cable channel. But this dilemma isn’t new. As Voltaire observed 250 years ago, history is a pack of tricks the living play on the dead.

Andrew Edwards

Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
In addition to freelance writing, Andy and Suzanne both work in education. Andy is also a translator who gets most enjoyment from translating literary works and Suzanne is a lecturer and linguistics graduate. They are frequent visitors to Sicily and have spent a great deal of time exploring its back roads in search of the landscapes that inspired the imaginations of many writers, both Sicilian and from overseas. Literature, art, food and society are their focus and their passion. Sicily has it all. They are the authors of the books - Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, His Master's Reflection: Travels with John Polidori, Lord Byron's Doctor, Ghosts of the Belle Epoque: The History of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo and Down to the Sunless Sea: A Troubled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Mediterranean. Andy is the translator of Borges in Sicily and Federico De Roberto's Agony.

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