The Knight and Death & One Way or Another by Leonardo Sciascia

Having discovered Sciascia for the first time a few months ago, in a chance encounter at a Leiden bookshop, I grabbed four more in London, wrapped them up for Christmas and waited….

This slim volume is in the same vein as To Each His Own. Both contain murder, but one wouldn’t recommend them to a crime fiction aficionado. Nothing is solved, the stories stop and some observations about the human condition have been made. The first of these two stories, some fifty pages, is a reverie by a dying detective, who is on his last case whilst reflecting on life, death, and setting about some of the things one might do in the face of a rapidly and permanently closing window of time.

The second story, One way or Another, is the more substantial of the two, around one hundred pages.  An artist happens upon a most peculiar hotel, run by priests and about to host some of the movers and shakers (as they would no doubt now be called) of Italy. Industrial and political leaders rubbing shoulders with cardinals. It’s a yearly spiritual retreat. Fine food is eaten, the best wine drunk and five mistresses are lodged there, though they never appear in company. Deaths – murders – begin to take place. But whereas in the average murder mystery such occurrences are at the heart of the story, here they are – not incidental – but merely part of the story. The priest who organises the event and the curious artist who is permitted to stay, verbally joust with each other throughout. Interesting thoughts about religion consequently abound. Poirot it is not.

I suspect that both of these stories may be allegorical, but I’m way too literal to get that. On a concrete level, Sciascia deals with the realities of institutionalised corruption in Italy. Can one do that and be allegorical as well? I don’t know.

At any rate, I strongly disagree with the way these stories are presented on the cover of my edition:

The Knight and Death follows an unnamed detective, investigating the killing of a prominent lawyer named Sandoz. A terrorist group, the ‘Children of the Eight-Nine’, are the convenient prime suspects. But hours before his death, Sandoz was exchanging cryptic notes at a dinner party with Aurispa, the president of a large corporation, and the detective believes that Aurispa knows more about the death than he is letting on.

In his troubling and mysterious One Way or Another, the narrator chances on a cement palace in a square surrounded by beautiful oak and chestnut trees. The palace is filled with the great and good of Italy, making deals, making conversation and seeking spiritual respite. It is an idyllic, idealistic scene – until the murders begin.

Interesting that this is so accurate and yet so misleading. I suppose this is deliberately trying to give the impression that these are typical murder genre fiction – that will sell some copies. (I can’t help thinking of James Thurber at this point.) I will end by countering this with the start of One Way or Another. The cover blurb makes it sound like an episode of Midsomer Murders. Please judge for yourself:

The greatest Italian critic of our time has written: If, as a famous definition puts it, the Kantian universe is a chain of causalities suspended on an act of freedom, we could likewise say that the Pirandellian universe is endless slavery in a world devoid of music suspended on an infinite musical potentiality – on the unimpaired fulfilled music of an isolated man.

I believed I’d retraced a whole chain of causalities. Reached, an isolated man, the infinite musical potentiality of those childhood or adolescent experiences when, in the summer in the country, I used to retire for long hours to some spot which became in my fantasy remote, inaccessible, full of forests and streams and my whole life, its brief past and long, long future, merged musically and endlessly with my present freedom. And for a number of reasons – not least that I was born and had lived for years in Pirandellian landscapes, among Pirandellian characters, with Pirandellian traumas, so that between the author’s text and the life I’d led till I grew up there wasn’t a gap either in my memories or my feelings – for a number of reasons, that critic’s words rang in my head (with such persistent clarity that I can now transcribe them from memory without checking) rather like a phrase or a theme of that infinite musical potentiality I’d achieved. Or thought I’d achieved.

Highly recommended!

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