The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (1972) French title : La mer couleur de vin.

c0515_sciasciaMER.inddI was preparing a trip to Sicily when Jacqui conveniently posted a review about The Dark-Wine Sea by Leonardo Sciascia. Lucky me, it was available in French. It is a collection of short-stories all set in Sicily and written from 1957 to 1972. It doesn’t give you an exact idea of 2016 Sicily but it makes you understand where it comes from.

The stories are varied. You’ll see higgledy-piggledy: historical fiction with the feud between two villages, immigration to the USA, journeys on a train, Swiss recruiters on the prowl to import young Sicilian workers, stories about saints and churches, the ugly face of the mafia and their vendettas, a dip in the Sicilian male’s mind and eccentric British settled in Cefalù.

Sciascia has a great sense of humor, mocking his fellow countrymen but in such a gentle manner than you can feel his fondness for Sicily. He’s not trying to picture a postcard Sicily either. The mafia is present in several stories, a sprawling monster infiltrated in the society. Philology is the dialogue between two Mafiosi, one briefing the other before he testifies in court. And the rhetoric is ugly, almost as if it was a tribe of boy Scouts. Sciascia wrote a lot about the Mafia and corruption in the Sicilian society. The Mafia Museum in Salemi is dedicated to Leonardo Sciascia and it is made of several dark chambers where the visitor can discover the many activities in which the Mafia is involved and the support it received from several institutions, including the Catholic Church. There is also a long fresco made of newspapers articles: killing after killing and eventual trials. It was very educational and my children were shocked by what they saw. Well, there’s no gentle way to present such a criminal organization.

Sciascia’s stories also picture the culture of rural Sicily, the superstitions, the rivalry between villages and the landscapes. They remind us that Sicily is a land of emigration. People leave permanently to the USA or temporarily to Switzerland. The dream of New York and of the wealth of America is still strong. Exodus is part of the Sicilian life. Jobs are also in the North of Italy. Some stories show the interaction between Italians from the North and Sicilians.

Religion is a huge part of everyday life. The story Affaires de Saints (Demotion in English) is such a funny story about a Communist husband going to church to bring his wife back home. She’s protesting against the demotion of St Filomena. For French readers, this one reminds you of an episode of Don Camillo with its unexpected ending and the husband’s behaviour in the church.

Sciascia also explores the relationship between husbands and wives and courtship, now and in previous centuries. Un cas de conscience (in English, A Matter of Conscience) is among my favourites. A man reads a letter written to a newspaper by a woman who committed adultery and wants to know whether she should confess to her husband or not. Through the details of the affair, the man tries to decipher who wrote this letter and who is the unlucky husband. He asks around and it creates a lot of gossip as a group of men talk and sweat, each one not wanting to be the cuckold. Imagine serious men speculating about their respective wives’ fidelity. Hilarious.

I really enjoyed The Wine-Dark Sea for the diversity of the stories, Sciascia’s fantastic style and his deep love for his island. In that he reminded me of Joseph O’Connor and his collection of stories set in Dublin, True Believers. Both collections are highly recommended.

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  1. June 14, 2016 at 2:51 am

    I haven’t read this one yet but I have it on my shelf. I really liked his crime novel To Each His own.

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    • June 14, 2016 at 1:08 pm

      You’ll certainly like the short stories.
      It’s the second time someone recommends To Each His Own. I’ll look for it.

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  2. June 14, 2016 at 3:45 am

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Sicily, and this is one of my favourite books about one of my favourite places.

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    • June 14, 2016 at 1:09 pm

      It is a wonderful ode to Sicily. It was a real pleasure to read the stories when I was there.

      What do you think of Camilleri?

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      • June 14, 2016 at 10:11 pm

        I’ve never read him, Emma. I’ve little appetite for detective stories, though interested in his Pirandello essay.

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        • June 18, 2016 at 8:33 pm

          Even if you’re not much into crime fiction, perhaps you could give him a try. I’ve only read one by him but I have the feeling The “Sicily side” is more important than the crime plot in his series.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. June 14, 2016 at 8:44 am

    So glad you enjoyed this collection, Emma – and I love the way you’ve highlighted the different themes across the stories. Sciascia seems to capture something of the cultural history of the island here.

    I wasn’t aware of the Mafia Museum and its link to this author – sounds worthy of a visit in its own right.

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    • June 14, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks Jacqui, I owe you this one, that’s for sure.
      The museum is a militant place against the Mafia. It’s there to show its history, its methods and picture it as a criminal organisation.

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  4. June 16, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Nice review, and I’m terribly envious of your trip. We had planned to go once but there was some kind of freak storm or something which blew out that part of the holiday (I remember the cancellation more than the cause) and we haven’t managed to reorganise it since.

    Anyway, when I do go I shall take this. I’m sure I’ll love it too.

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    • June 18, 2016 at 8:40 pm

      Sorry your trip was cancelled. Was it because that Icelandic volcano that stopped airplanes a few years ago?
      You’d probably love a trip there and this collection of short stories too.
      I’m rarely disappointed with Italian literature, now that I think of it.

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  5. June 16, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    I forgot to say, I’ve always found “the wine-dark sea” the most marvellously evocative phrase. It’s from Homer I think isn’t it originally? It’s also the title of one of Patrick O’Brien’s tremendous Aubrey/Maturin novels.

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    • June 18, 2016 at 8:42 pm

      I have no idea if the “wine-dark sea” comes from Homer. There was no footnote in my French edition but it doesn’t mean anything. They’re not big on footnotes in French paperbacks, unless it’s a classic.

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  6. June 16, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    Oh, you just made the longing in my heart for Italy beat all the stronger! Perhaps we should set up an Italian Literature Challenge some year! 🙂

    Love that you read it in French…

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    • June 18, 2016 at 8:45 pm

      It is a marvellous collection of short stories and really evocative. It’s a good way to travel by book.
      An Italian literature challenge would be great. Count me in if you organise one.

      I rarely read English translations of books. If I read in English, it’s almost always a book that has been written in English. I’m more comfortable when I read in French and I only have the influence of the translator from whatever language to French. I don’t add to it my imperfect understanding of the English language.

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  1. November 29, 2016 at 1:13 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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