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Humanist Story-Essays From Italy

LEONARDO SCIASCIA's "investigative tales" (racconti-inchiesti, as he called them) stake out a territory between story and essay, history and fiction, a forum for exploring questions of crime and punishment, justice and corruption, as they are played out in a distinctly Italian setting.

The Sicilian-born novelist and essayist writes in the long tradition of Italian humanism, firmly planting himself on the side of life, truth, conscience, and justice tempered with mercy. The foes are Fascism, the hypocritical code of one hand washing the other, and the manipulations of terrorists and established authorities who each use the violence of their opponents as a justification for their own violence. Yet, for all his commitment to his beliefs, Sciascia writes in a spirit of tolerance and compas sion that leads him to understand rather than condemn the forces he opposes.

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The four novellas in this collection were published in Italy during the last four years of Sciascia's life: "1912 plus 1" in 1986, "Porte Aperte" ("Open Doors") in 1987, "Il Cavaliere e la Morte" ("Death and the Knight") in 1988, and "Una Storia Semplice" ("A Straightforward Tale") in 1989. The earlier two are longer, more essayistic than the later two, which possess a more satisfying economy and the closure we expect from tales - even from open-ended ones.

The collection begins with Marie Evans's translation of "Open Doors," a long-winded, oddly indirect look at Italian Fascism. The year is 1937: Benito Mussolini has been in power for more than a decade, and Fascism, with its promise of law and order - "you can sleep with the doors open" - has become a way of life. But against the promise of "open doors," as Sciascia points out, is the reality of the "closed doors" behind which decisions are reached, and the "closed doors" of corporate bodies that automati cally close ranks against any individual who opposes or attacks them.

Sciascia dubs the hero, "the little judge," a conscientious, thoughtful, unobtrusive man who has the difficult task of presiding over a murder trial involving the death penalty. The defendant is accused of having murdered his wife, his former employer, and the man his employer had hired to replace him. There is really no doubt that the defendant killed all three people, and that justice must be done. The only question that troubles the little judge is whether or not the death penalty - a punishment react ivated by the Fascists - is ever justified.

Unfortunately, Sciascia has little to say about the inequities of the death penalty that is likely to persuade anyone who does not already share his opinion that the state-sanctioned taking of a human life is morally wrong. On a question that has elicited some powerful and convincing arguments (Arthur Koestler's for instance), Sciascia's low-key, gray-toned, rather unfocused treatment is more like an overheard private muttering than the sharply anguished outcry or the clearly reasoned analysis one might have hoped for.

In "1912 plus 1," Sciascia takes us back to an earlier era: pre-World War I proto-Fascist. Mussolini has not yet come to power, but Italy is high on its imperial conquest of Libya. "1912 plus 1," as Sciascia ironically notes, is how D'Annunzio wrote that year's date, the admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche's "superman" who was still too mired in superstition to write 1913. It was also the year when the first Italian Parliament was elected by universal (or near-universal) suffrage, and the year of the Gentilon i Pact, signed by parliamentary candidates who wanted to reassure Roman Catholic traditionalists that there would be no change in their support of "family values" and "total opposition to divorce."

Amid his discourse on the climate of the times, Sciascia unfolds the true story of a celebrated murder case. In 1913, the beautiful, aristocratic wife of an army captain, Contessa Maria Tiepolo, shot and killed her husband's batman. The defense maintained that she shot the young man to protect herself from unwelcome sexual advances. The prosecution charged that she killed him to cover up their clandestine love affair.

Sciascia's story-essay discusses everything from the details of the trial and the difference between Italian and American rules of evidence to the hypocrisy of a code (embodied, he thinks, in the Gentiloni Pact) "dedicated to the cult and celebration of appearances, to the need to save them even at the expense of truth." His indignation is tempered with a fine sense of humor and irony, a kind of bittersweet, affectionate dismay:

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"Even the most rabid petitioners for divorce couldn't fail to admit that the Italians were not yet `ripe for divorce with the approval of a good proportion of the `unripe.' This matter of the Italian's `unripeness' for certain liberties, even for liberty itself, is an amusing if irksome opinion...."

But the strongest stories are the middle two. Both are set in 1989, the year of their author's death.

In "Death and the Knight," a saturnine, cultivated deputy inspector investigating the murder of a prominent lawyer finds himself pursuing two avenues: One leads to a radical terrorist organization, which may or may not exist, the other to a powerful and influential industrialist, who jokingly - or seriously - threatened to kill the victim shortly before his death. The ever more complex web of possibilities and interconnections the deputy discovers becomes a metaphor for the riddling beauty and mystery of

life itself.

"A Straightforward Tale," as we might have expected from this author, is anything but. This story pits a police officer against his superior, who wants to overlook the possibility of murder in favor of a verdict of suicide. As the facts of the case emerge, the junior officer not only finds his suspicions confirmed, but also finds himself on a collision course with his colleague.

Both of these briefer tales have the elegance, complexity, suspense, and surprise that readers of detective stories expect, along with the political and moral resonances one expects from Sciascia. But neither of these tales nor the longer pieces have the imaginative vigor we expect from the best fiction, or the cogent reasoning we admire in the greatest essays. There is a lot to admire about Sciascia's writing, and much of interest that he has to say. But somehow, disappointingly, almost nothing in these

tales catches fire.

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