Leonardo Sciascia — The Day of the Owl (1961)
What it’s about: In one of the first novels to talk about the mafia, an investigator tries to track down a murder in Sicily through a see of complicit silence. Sciascia excoriates a society in thrall to the mafia with a loving sense of humour for a parade of darkly comic, stoic Sicilian characters.
With the mafia on the resurgence around the world, this story of an honest investigator doggedly trying to see justice in a society corrupted by avarice, struggling against the enforced, silent complicity of a terrified citizenry.
Why you should read it: This is more than a detective story: it is a story of politics and culture. We see Sicily through the eyes of an urbance northern investigator, who uses charm to try to untangle the web of silence, only to uncover deeper conspiracies. With its disturbing ending you feel the overpowering pessimistic scepticism that resonates throughout Sicilian and Italian culture.
That apolitical lethargy is identified in the original Sicilian classic of an island and a stunted society – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic story of a Sicilian noble family in decline, The Leopard.
When the murder that starts the novel happens, we are introduced to that same society through the silent, oppressed passengers just trying to get by:
The conductor at the dead man and then at the passengers. These included some women, old women who brought heavy sacks of white cloth and baskets full of eggs every morning; their cloths smelled of forage, manure and wood smoke; usually they grumbled and swore; now they sat mute, their faces as if disinterred from the silence of centuries.”
The point, for Sciassia as for Lampedusa, is how can a society cleanse itself of malignant forces if the citizenry are disempowered from building something better?
The best book from Italy? There are so many Italys, so many novelists, notably Primo Levi and Italo Svevo. Honorary mentions for Cesare Pavese’s The Political Prisoner and
For Italy’s modern working class — Silvia Avallone’s Steel. For actually learning Italian, Alessandro Baricco’s dreamy romance Silk.