"What is there to say about Elio Vittorini that hasn't already been said? Quite a lot, as it happens."
Andrew Stevens reviews Elio Vittorini's Conversations in Sicily
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
What is there to say about Elio Vittorini that hasn't already been said? Quite a lot, as it happens. The beating heart of anti-fascist literature, Vittorini was born in 1908 in Siracusa on the Italian isle of Sicily, with an aptitude for the political -- something of natural-born rebel it would seem (no stranger to school exclusion).
There he developed a passion for political writing, his maverick imprint causing something of a stir throughout his life -- supporting Republican Spain in 1937 and taking a 'heterodox' line against the Italian Communist Party in 1946.
As founder of the journal Il Politecnico, Vittorini moved in a more libertarian socialist direction after the war (he had originally stood as a Communist candidate before falling foul of party apparatchiks) and was elected to Milan City Council in 1960, only to resign in order to concentrate on his vocation as a writer. He died six years later in 1966.
Originally published in 1949 and written in 1937 under the watchful gaze of the fascist state censorship regime in operation at the time, Conversations in Sicily possesses the grandeur its title would suggest, something of an Italian literary gem if the likes of Italo Calvino (who regards it as the literary equivalent of Picasso's Guernica) are to believed.
It stands out as not only a classic amongst anti-fascist literature, but also as an existentialist work as well. The well-established detachment of the protagonist (or "hopelessness" as he calls it) is propelled by the evocations of everyday life in Sicily, capturing the sounds and smells with its descriptive prose.
The reader must persevere to progress through the story however, as it could prove impenetrable through the sheer volume of such prose before a discernable narrative is uncovered. Given its purpose as an anti-fascist work written during a period of heavy state censorship, this is not surprising however.
The tale concerns the journey of a Sicilian back to the land of his birth following his father's abandonment of his mother. Like Vittorini himself, his father is a railway worker and we are treat to tales of his father's entertainment of his co-workers. Railways form an important feature -- the mode of transport on which the journey takes place.
"No one wants them… No one wants them… As of they were poisoned… Damned oranges!" say the agricultural workers on the train, despondent at the collapse of the market for their produce.
Ultimately, it is a tale concerning humanity: "But perhaps not every man is a man; and not all humanity is humanity." -- where Vittorini attempts, successfully in my estimation, to describe the fickle nature of this subject, though this is far from an unattempted feat either. Others may wish to correct me here, but that is my reading of the situation.
Every nation needs its cultural critics -- the Herbert Reads and Gunter Grass' of this world. Alane Salierno Mason should be thanked for this translation and bringing Vittorini to our attention once again. Conversazione in Sicilia remains an important part of the work of a fine political journalist and cultural commentator, a sometime politician but permanent writer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is a Chief Editor for 3am Magazine and lives in London, England.