Sicily: through writers’ eyes


Sicily: through writers’ eyes


Sicily, at the epicenter of the Mediterranean, has endured more than its fair share of invaders and Imperial viceroys. It is a crucible of European culture, a place where the Phoenicians, Athenians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Habsburgs, Bourbons and Byzantines all flourished, producing some of their finest and most distinctive art and architecture. Yet this always coexisted with a resilient indigenous culture, expressed in its own mythology, cuisine and wine as well as in its attachment to secret societies – from the Sicilian Vespers to the Mafia. These influences, along with some ineffable magic, have inspired many writers. Novelist and travel writer Horatio Clare has, with his own passion for Sicily, chosen a kaleidoscope of enchanting tales, detailing the island through the eyes of princes and peasants, from Palermo to Syracuse, and from arrival to departure.

Including: W.H. Auden, Cicero, Goethe, Homer, Ibn Jubayr, Giuseppe de Lampedusa, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Gavin Maxwell, Plutarch, Danilo Dolci, Luigi Pirandello, Melissa P., Peter Robb, Steven Runciman.

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Sicily: through writers’ eyes
Edited, collected and annotated by: Horatio Clare
ISBN: 978-0907871-94-1
Format: 320pp demi pb
Place: Sicily

Extract from 'Arrivals'

THE FIRST TIME I saw Sicily was at daybreak, from the deck of the overnight boat from Naples. The sky was fretted with grey and gold and there was Palermo, ahead of us. I had not expected the city’s rearing ring of mountains, with their mists and clouds, their rocky spines, teeth and crests. To the right the leonine lump of Monte Pellegrino jutted up, to the left the mountains ranged down to the sea, and in the middle was the city. Small, open fishing boats were trailing out of it – single occupants looking up, out of their little shells, impassive, at what must have seemed the vast bulk of the ship. Palermo has seen many ships, many landfalls. Beyond the cranes of the port there were domes, baroque spires, blocks of flats and campaniles. It looked as though it was all still asleep. A man came out onto the deck in front of me. He was of young middle age, broad and not tall, in a smart dark coat. He faced the city. His head tilted back a little as he squared his shoulders and raised his chin to the prospect. He looked at the boats, the sea and the splendid Monte in its scarves of cloud, he took in the dimpled yellow crust of the city, enclosed like a coral in a reef. He gatheredhisbreathandletitout,‘Ai...’hesaid,histonesomewherebetween a wish, a tribute and a reproach, ‘...Palermo!’

He rolled the sound slightly between the syllables. ‘Ai, Pa-lermo!’

I felt I could immediately appreciate, though it has taken me all my time here to understand, something of what he meant.

My flat is on the very top of a block in the new city, the grid which lies to the north of the knotted ancient heart. When I come up in the lift at supper time, it is like rising through the aromas of a gigantic feast: through all the layers of a lasagne, with a macaroni on top of it, mackerel above that, and sausages with fennel at the top. The succulence makes my head swim. But my tiny bedroom (the flat was a ‘mistake’, according to my landlord – the architect’s grandson) has a view south across all of Palermo. When a new ship comes into port I can see its funnels. I can see the cranes of the docks, and count my way inland from dome to dome until I reach the cathedral, the Duomo, then the tower of the Porta Nuova, then the countless spatter of concrete apartment blocks thrown up in the ‘sack of Palermo’, the mafia-backed building frenzy of the 1950s. My kitchen has a balcony which looks north, affording a spectacular and ever-changing close-up of Monte Pellegrino. All around, the humped and sharpened semi-circle of mountains joins the city to the sky.

‘What is civilisation?’ asked the great Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, ‘Civilisation is a city by the sea.’ In Palermo, and throughout Sicily, one can see and read every twist and turn of the history of the various visions, variations and nightmares which have attended man’s pursuit of this concept, civilisation. Sicily is a fascinating anthology, in stone, blood and letters, to which this book can only serve as brief introduction, a series of sample tastes. Sicilian flavours are often strong and lingering, and the reader will find many such in these pages.

It takes no imagination to see Palermo from up here, as it has been seen from afar, as a magical capital, one of the fairest cities in the world. And as a rogue, bandit town, lethally insular. It was once the most civilised, advanced, learned and cultured place in Europe. Its Norman-Arab masters created here a harmony of east and west, north and south; something European, African and Oriental that has perhaps never been surpassed: a vision before which my own time is humbled, a political and cultural symphony towards which we can only aspire. And the best part of a millennium later, in our time, Palermo has spawned, harboured and been ruled by monsters. It is an intensely evocative and eerie place.

The rhythms are peculiar. They collect the rubbish, loudly, at midnight. Six and a half hours of silence follow, interrupted occasionally by barking dogs. Then at daybreak, around six thirty, everything wakes up. By eight thirty everyone seems to have had their first coffee and a cornetto crema: croissants stuffed with pale custard, dusted with icing sugar, presented with a flourish, in a girdle of tissue, the way a boy might give a girl a flower. Hammers tap, drills whistle, lifts clunk, little three-wheeled pick-ups appear on street corners, lugging great carapaces of bright vegetables. The streets are flooded with schoolchildren, and again at twelve thirty, when they beseige their favourite cafés. Lunch is a serious business. No food, not even a ham, cheese and tomato panino, is prepared with anything less than loving concentration. By one everything has stopped for the meal. By two only the cafés and restaurants are still open. The city slumbers, digesting, until four, then the shutters crash open, fishmongers smash ice all over their trays again and lay out the catch; stall holders fill their racks, women descend on clothes shops, Palermitans of both sexes and all ages press their noses against the windows of shoe shops, and the butchers, bakers, supermarkets, tabbachis, delicatessens and bars fill with eager purchasers. The streets roar with traffic – cars chase buses and are in turn harried by scooters. The noise is astonishing, but in the old quarter, where the pale paving stones gleam like smooth old teeth, the passage of a horse and trap – hooves and steel-shod wheels combining in a racket like a building falling down – you are reminded that it was ever thus. Ohmy-God, Ohmy-God, Ohmy-God blare the sirens of ambulances. In the horse-drawn era one would have been spared the cacophony of beeping horns, but to judge by the aggrieved shouts with which motorists berate each other, it would not have been much quieter then. Girls stroll, arm in arm, eyeing up boys; couples buzz by on Vespas, the lazy turning and staring of men alerts the street to the passage of a particular beauty. By five the granite and gelati have thawed sufficiently to be scraped into cones and everyone licks ice- cream. A deep siren-blast rolls in from the port as an incoming ferry welcomes the harbour pilot. By eight it is all over: shutters down, doors shut, the flickering light of televisions play over the ceilings of living rooms. The smell of cooking is everywhere. Between nine and ten most of the town dies, except for the stop-start stroll of women taking dogs around the block, and when they have gone the city is still, abandoned to the noiseless dart of bat-eared cats. The velvet blue silence of the southern night descends, interrupted briefly at midnight by the passage of a rubbish truck.

On my first morning I went for a walk in the park. The Favorita is a kilometre-long area of dense shrubbery, citrus groves and pine wood at the base of Monte Pellegrino. It contains the Palermitans’ beloved football stadium, and the hippodrome, which bustles, in the morning, with horses, training and exercising with their buggies. They spin around the track at an impressive, almost perilous speed: the drivers, their feet up higher than their hips, look as though they are in some danger, so close to their own and each other’s whirling wheels, until you notice that one is smoking a cigar, and another is talking and laughing into his mobile phone, clamped between chin and shoulder. A stroll through the Favorita is not the proverbial walk in the park. First there was the huge black snake, thick as a horsewhip and twice as quick, which slashed away through the undergrowth after I had almost trodden on it. It may have been harmless but it looked like a mamba. Then there was the army: platoons of rather unthreatening soldiers, shambling along the long shady paths, for all the


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Sicily: through writers’ eyes

world as if they have been ordered to take a proper constitutional. A few wary joggers passed, then I encountered a gaggle of dissolute and disreputable looking men, hanging apparently pointlessly around a car park, up to no good. It was only eleven in the morning but they looked at me uneasily as I attempted to pass nonchalantly by, as though I was the oddball. Two buzzards floated overhead and a redstart flicked his tail, and I was just about to relax when there emerged from a bush a beautiful, milky-brown woman with matching scars on her cheeks, wearing tiny pink shorts, who looked me in the eye and pointed baldly at her crotch. In Palermo, it seems, people don’t go for innocent walks in the park.

Although this book is intended to be a broadly chronological selection of writings from and about Sicily, I make no apology for opening it, as it will end, with a poem by an Englishman of the twentieth century. After all, in the dawn of discernable human time, before the Sikels and the Sikans, the first identified tribes of the island, there were the Palaeolithic people, who left their paintings, around 8000BC, in caves on Monte Pellegrino. Dwelling beside them were beings, depicted in their designs, which are still here: beasts, birds, and snakes, and no one has caught the relationship between a man and a Sicilian serpent with more feeling and acuity than D H Lawrence, who lived for a while, in 1920-21, at Taormina.