Sunday, 3 September 2017

Books set in Sicily

Well, like Arnie, I'm back! During the long summer break I've been reading, as ever, and there are books I want to write about.

This August we went to Sicily, and as usual, I hunted out some books set in the place where I would be staying. For one thing, it's fun to pick out places you've just seen in the pages of a book - and sometimes to be alerted to places to visit; for another, a book will give you a different perspective on a place, particularly if it's written by someone who lives there or who knows the place well.

The first book I turned to was Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, by Mario Giordino, and it was great fun. By chance, it turned out to be set very close to where we were staying, between Catania and Taormina, so that was another plus. It's a quirky detective story featuring the massively larger than life German incomer to Sicily, Aunt Poldi, and following her adventures as she gets settled in to her new home - and determines to find out what has happened to her charming young gardener, Valentino. Along the way she meets up with a policeman, Vito Montana, who has 'hands like a pianist's, slender but strong, with the curving thumbs indicative of power'. It's easy to see from this that Poldi - who is of a certain age and wears a wig (I don't like the wig or see the need for it; we're never told why she chooses to wear it) - will come to be interested in Montana not just as the investigating policeman.

It's a perfect holiday read - funny, quirky, with a strong narrative pull and loads of local atmosphere.

Being in Sicily was an obvious prompt to re-read some of the Inspector Montalbano books, which I've already written about here. There's a particular one that I want to single out: The Shape of Water. As ever, it has the lovable and very effective team - Mimi, Fazio, Catarella - but it's one of the darker books in the series. It's about the exploitation of refugees, and this is an issue that Camilleri clearly feels very angry about; it's also an issue which must feature very strongly for Sicilians, even more than it should for all of us - because Sicily, lying as it does just north of the African coast, is on the front line.

The book begins when Montalbano is present at the landing of a group of refugees. A small boy runs off; Salvo follows him, gains his confidence, and returns him to the person who is apparently his mother. Yet Salvo cannot shake off a feeling off discomfort; why did the child gaze at him with such despair in his eyes, if this was truly his mother?

Soon after this, Salvo hears that a six year-old child has been killed in a hit and run accident. With a sinking feeling, he knows that this child is 'his' child, and although the case is not officially his, he tales it on. And he discovers horrors. It is not just about unscrupulous traffickers extorting money from desperate refugees to crowd them into unsafe boats which will as like as not sink - it is even more calculated and vile. I think this is one of the most powerful - and most disturbing -  of the series.

Finally, The Optician of Lampedusa, by Emma Jane Kirby. This is the true story of a mild-mannered optician, who likes everything to be very orderly. One day, he goes sailing with a group of friends. Lampedusa, between Sicily and Africa, is even closer to the front line, and the friends find themselves in the midst of the terrible aftermath of a shipwreck. They manage to rescue over forty survivors, but though they are hailed as heroes, they continue to be tormented by the thought of all the people they were unable to rescue.

This is a beautifully written book. Emma Jane Kirby - a regular on Radio 4's PM - gets right under the skin of the people she is writing about. She makes you aware - as the optician and his friends become aware - of what it is truly like to go through such horrors. The optician tries to return to his normal life, but he can't forget what he has seen:

He saw the yellowing eyes full of terror, the shivering naked bodies slicked with the slime of diesel oil, the trembling forms cowering under gaudy beach towels. He realised that he was aching to be back with them. he wanted to take their hands again, to talk to them. He wanted to sit down with them, to ask how they were, who they were, why they'd come here...

The cathedral in Noto

One day we went to a town I'd never heard of before - Noto: a beautiful baroque city on a hill, built of creamy golden stone. It had been completely rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed the old city at the end of the 17th century. (I recognised it in a recent episode of Montalbano on BBC4; the building opposite the cathedral is the setting for the place where Salvo has to go and see his boss when he can't get out of it.) Inside the cathedral I saw this sculpture: it's made out of scraps of wreckage from refugee boats, and the notice at the bottom says something like Monument to solidarity.

I found this piece very moving: it drew together the beauty of Sicily and the terrible human tragedy to which its location has recently made it bear witness.


  1. Hi Sue... Lovely blog. Just begun your recommendation The Optician of Lampedusa. And yes I too took photographs of that very moving installation in the Cathedral of Noto. I thought it wonderful that a Catholic church so steeped in tradition should do this. The boat wreckage was iconic... almost in a way representing the Cross on the hill of Calgary. I found I could look at nothing else in the church I was so moved by it.

  2. You express it so well - I felt the same. Noto was full of surprises.