,I have been reading crime fiction for around thirty years, stretching back to the days when it still had something of a grubby reputation, one notch up from sci-fi. It was still considered pulp fiction and was clearly not to be mistaken for anything as elevated as literature. Back in the eighties of course the healthy flow of excellent writers from America was set to turn the tide of opinion. But aside from Belgian creator of Maigret, Georges Simenon or Swedish husband and wife team, Sjowall and Wahloo, European writers whose work was published in English, however, were decidedly thin on the ground. Then two decades on from that new wave of American writers (Leonard, Salis, Elroy et al) publishers started to tap into a new market of crime fiction in translation.
Whilst the intelligentsia have finally accepted crime fiction as worthy of their attention, it is fair to say that, in general, the literary standard of most of the actual writing hasn't really changed. In fact, as enjoyable as much of the European writers are in reading, it might be said that the standards of crime fiction itself have hardly risen, as various cliches are trotted out time and again in order to meet the demands of the market. Which brings me, somewhat long-windedly to the masterful writing of Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia, who began writing crime fiction in 1961 with The Day of the Owl. Though he wrote other books, it his crime writing that he is now remembered for - much of it political. His output has been published sporadically in translation by small presses since the late 1980’s, but it wasn’t until the Granta reprints of a couple of years ago that I came across his work myself, and he is already one of my favourite writers.
Sciascia doesn’t use the stock in trade tropes that most might expect and be familiar with. He has detectives to be sure, but they are often powerless or complicit in the crimes being investigated. Being set in Italy, this might perhaps come as no surprise, as famously corrupt as the country is. And so, in a novel like Equal Danger, the detective doesn’t proceed to crack the case in any way that is designed to satisfy the reader. The guys in white hats don’t win in the fiction of Sciascia. Instead they are drawn deep into the spiders web of political corruption of the state - be it at local or national level. In his key works, the guilty aren’t serial killers, rapists and other specimens of the lower orders - they are the people right at the top.
The Moro Affair - a work of non-fiction - was published in 1978 - written that summer in the immediate aftermath of the actual events and death of Italian politician Aldo Moro, who had been prime minister five times and at the time of his kidnap and subsequent assination was President of the Christian Democratic Party. The straight-up story, as reported at the time and accepted for much longer, was that Moro was kidnapped and then murdered by the Red Brigade. The official version of events however has since been called into question. It is not that the involvement of the Red Brigade is being refuted, but that they may not have acted without assistance, with a number of theories as to the most likely suspects - ranging from the P2 masonic lodge to US and Israeli intelligence.
Sciascia acts as detective through the only evidence available to him - the letters that Moro sent during his captivity. He does this by a deft linguistic analysis that, whilst naturally concluding in theory rather than fact, still proves quite devastating as he casts his net wider and looks at how language is used by Moro to damn the language used by his treacherous party members, as well as their act (which ironically is their own inaction). Though we have to allow for what might be lost in translation, it is clear how finely and precisely Sciascia uses language. Reading his work is a reminder of how casual most writers are, and how much this matters. Only such a controlled exponent of the written word could so clearly reveal how language is used to obfuscate, to deceive, and divert from the truth.
But he doesn’t stop there. He also shows how language is linked to memory and how it can be used to reinforce a historical perspective that may not actually be true. He uses the following quote from the Borges short story, Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.
Historical truth, for him, is not what had happened; it is what we judge to have happened.
This comes as early as page 24 and so, early on, he unfolds a message that not only reveals his own measured scepticism but serves as a constant reminder as to the need to be vigilant, to be analytical, to question. You do have to be a careful reader of course and that is another pleasure of picking up one of Sciascia's books - he forces you to slow down and in doing so recover the pleasures of reading, not just for pleasure but for intelligence and insight.
Sciascia’s book has an important message. It is less to preserve the memory of Moro - a man of many faults after all - more to preserve the memory of what happened, as opposed to what was judged to have happened. Moro’s letters increasingly point out the fact that the state’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists (by freeing prisoners in return for the life of one of their own), when other states have proven to be prepared to do so, means they are complicit in his murder. In one letter he goes even further by referring to “cases of guerrilla warfare (or anyhow of virtual guerrilla warfare)”. It is within the parenthesis that he cuts to the quick. Blink and you miss it but Moro is quite reasonably suggesting that the act of terrorism that will lead to his death is not the same terrorism that the public thinks it is. It is perhaps a flash of intuition on Moro’s part but the implication is that the hidden hand of the state is the only thing that makes the Red Brigade’s acts - at least in this instance - possible.
The betrayal of his party members is drawn out agonisingly by Sciaiscia, using Moro’s own words as well as the writer’s commentary and analysis. Though those who betrayed him survived and prospered Sciascia offers the following; “The deadman speaks in the dreams and nightmares of his friends. And he is still speaking.” Ask yourselves - are you listening?
In The Knight and Death, published ten years after The Moro Affair, a much shorter book (barely 54 pages in the latest Granta edition), Sciascia uses fiction to shine a light on much the same subject. Here, an unnamed detective suffering what we gradually learn is a terminal illness, uses the knowledge of his own impending death to dare to question the official narrative of the murder of a lawyer called Sandoz. Whilst his chief - who has the rest of his life to live and clearly does not want to shorten it, believes that Sandoz was murdered by a mysterious revolutionary group called The Children of eighty-nine, the detective believes that powerful businessman Aurispa is involved in the crime. In musing over the case with his chief he says;
were the Children of eighty-nine created to murder Sandoz, or was Sandoz murdered to create the Children of eighty-nine?
This brilliant piece of analysis (remember that this was written in 1988) is countered by the chief with the words, “As far as I’m concerned, and as far as this office is concerned, I proceed on the basis of established fact. Sandoz received menacing phone calls from the Children of Eighty-nine; Sandoz was murdered; the Children of Eighty-nine have claimed responsibility. Our job is to find them and bring them, as they say, to justice.”
So on the one hand we have the unnamed detective looking for historical truth, and on the other the chief only interested in what is judged to have happened.
And again Sciascia looks at the link between language, history and memory. On page 49 comes this:
Memory was to be abolished, all Memory; and similarly those exercises which aimed at making it flexible, subtle or retentive.
With the abolition of memory, of course, the possibility of challenging what has been judged to have happened, of revealing the truth behind the lie, is gone. All hope vanishes like the picture of an old fashioned television, reducing itself to a white dot on a black screen when it is turned off. Truth flatlines.
In the devastating last chapter of The Moro Affair Sciaiscia reveals to the reader the secrets of our predicament. This is what they do. And if you look closely at the shadows his careful prose throws up between the lines you can make out just how they do it. And still they do it. Like an animal driven mad, scratching at a wound, unable to stop.
These books, written ten years apart, are so prescient it seems uncanny, but if Sciascia were alive and writing today he would no doubt be reminding us that we have been here before, albeit on a local (to him certainly) scale. A blueprint remains a blueprint however - sadly memory of the blueprint has not been abolished. Sciascia plants clues throughout his texts, but at the same time he makes the reader work, makes them think, and then they, perhaps, become like the detective who ends up guilty of knowing the truth.