Tuesday, June 6, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Leonardo Sciascia's To Each His Own:
In 1891, when my grandfather was a young boy living in New Orleans, a mob broke into the jail, beat to death some of the eleven Italians held there, most of them Sicilians, and then hung the rest. It was the largest lynching in the history of the United States. Both the New York Times and Teddy Roosevelt thought that, on the whole, it was a rather good thing. Someone had to teach Sicilians the consequences of criminality. That several of those killed had just been acquitted by a jury of the murder of the New Orleans chief of police proved only that, if justice were to be done, the mob had to do it.

A dozen or so years later, my grandfather, by then a young man with a young wife and child, warned that he was about to be arrested for a crime which he may, or may not, have committed, left New Orleans and made his way to San Francisco. Thanks to Prohibition and his own ingenuity he cornered the market on illegal liquor and became one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the city. The local police, for reasons of their own, never gave him any trouble; the federal agents who arrested him had similar motives. He was given a choice: prison or his money, and with a Sicilian’s sense of honor, he gave them his money and in that way protected the family name. It was a decision that some of his grandchildren have sometimes regretted.

Some years ago, on my first visit to Sicily, a distant cousin, a prominent physician in Palermo, suggested I change hotels and stay at the luxurious Villa Igiea, where we were having a drink. Though the desk clerk assured me they had nothing available with a view over the marina and the sea, the hotel where I was staying was small and noisy and the next day I decided the view did not matter. As I was checking in, I mentioned to the clerk that I had been told there was nothing with a view. He started to nod, then looked at my last name, and became, suddenly, marvelously polite and attentive.

“It happens that we do,” he remarked, with a quick, nervous smile. “It’s one of the best rooms we have.”

Which meant I probably could not afford it. “How much more will it cost?” I asked, with lying indifference.

He shrugged it off as an irrelevancy. “There is no extra charge.”

My cousin who had been, when he first graduated from medical school - and even now this seems too good to be true - the only doctor in the town of Corleone, thought it both funny and tragic.

“Everyone in Sicily has seen The Godfather. He probably thought you were the head of one of the American families.”

I almost regretted that I was not. Almost, until I remembered that what Hollywood had so dramatically glorified as an organization that at least sometimes tried to mete out justice to those who deserved it, was in the eyes of every decent person in Sicily the source of nothing but evil. It was something no one had ever had to tell Leonardo Sciascia, one of Sicily’s greatest writers.

Born in 1921, the year before Mussolini marched on Rome, Sciascia grew up under fascism, but because he lived in Sicily, which for more than two thousand years had been almost always occupied by some foreign power, neither he, nor many others, believed what they were told by the government, or for that matter, by anyone else. Unlike many other Sicilian writers and artists, Sciascia stayed in Sicily and even, for a brief period, served on the city council of Palermo, where nothing was ever done or discussed, and where “everything is bought and sold, preferably twice over.” It is this absence of all public spirit that informs much of what Leonardo Sciascia writes, especially his short novel, To Each His Own, a detective story which is not a detective story at all. It is much more than that. It begins with an anonymous two sentence death threat sent to the town pharmacist:

“This letter is your death sentence. To avenge what you have done, you will die.”

The letter, like everything else that happens, is discussed among the pharmacists’ friends when they gather together, the way they do nearly every day. Dr. Roscio, a physician; Rosello, the lawyer; Professor Laurana; Pecorilla, the notary; and Don Luigi Corvaia try to imagine who could have sent it. Don Luigi does not exclude even those present as capable of doing this. In a single sentence, Leonardo Sciascia reveals the Sicilian character: “In a word, Don Luigi, bred in the ways of mistrust, suspicion, and malice, was prepared to attribute to each man as much spitefulness as his own mind easily distilled.”

No one, especially the pharmacist himself, Dr. Manno, can think of anything he might have done that would explain why he might be subject to a threat. A week later, on August 23, 1964, while out hunting with Dr. Roscio, the two of them are murdered.

Professor Laurana becomes interested in the crime when he discovers that the anonymous death threat had been made with letters cut from the Osservatore Romano, a paper with only two subscribers in town. One of them, Dean Rosello, the highest ranking Church official in the area, the uncle of Dr. Roscio’s widow, is devoted to his niece who had “lived in his home until the day of her marriage.” The deanery, a great house owned by the Church, had been the home, twenty years earlier, of two married brothers and their families, including the dean’s nephew, Rosello the lawyer.

Paolo Laurana, a professor of Italian and history who spends summers “with his literary criticism, which was published in magazines that no one in the town read,” is not very intelligent, but honest and meticulous, with “a secret vanity and arrogance.” Almost forty, he was a “victim of his mother’s jealous and possessive love.” This, it should be noted, was not a unique situation. D. H. Lawrence once met an old woman in a Sicilian church and asked her why the tortured figure of Jesus was always shown in such awful detail. The old woman replied: “Because he was unkind to his mother.”

After learning that anyone could have picked up copies of a discarded paper, Laurana would not have thought about the crime again had he not, quite by chance, met in a restaurant in Palermo someone he had known in college, a Communist, who is now a national deputy. He tells him that Roscio had come to Rome to see him shortly before his death, “To ask whether I would be willing to denounce on the floor of Parliament and in our Party papers and at Party meetings a prominent person in your town. Someone, he said, who held the whole province in the palm of his hand, who made men and unmade them, stole, bribed, swindled….”

Laurana has come to Palermo to see Roscio’s father, a famous eye specialist who is now ninety years old and almost totally blind. He asks Laurana about his daughter-in-law, the widow of his murdered son. She is “very beautiful, isn’t she?” When Laurana agrees, the old man qualifies the description. “Or perhaps simply very much a woman…. The kind that when I was young used to be called bed-worthy.” Beautiful or not, he does not care much for his daughter-in-law or her family. He dismisses them with the remark that in the course of his very long life he has never met, not even once, a real Catholic.

When Laurana returns home and tells Rosello the lawyer what he has learned, Rosello insists that Roscio “must have said something to his wife.” They go to see her. Roscio had told his friend in Rome that he had documents to support his allegations. Rosello asks his cousin if they might glance through her husband’s papers. They search his study but find nothing. It all seems confusing to the widow. Everyone knows her husband was killed because he had the misfortune to be with the pharmacist, who had received the death threat. “The pharmacist was the false target,” Laurana explains. He was “the screen.” The widow is “stunned, devastated,” and Laurana reproaches “himself for having upset her with a hypothesis of his that, in point of fact, he did not consider totally improbable.”

All Laurana knows is that there is someone, a “prominent person who bribes, swindles, steals,” who may have had Roscio and the pharmacist murdered. “Who comes to mind?” he asks the rector of Sant’Anna, who knows everyone in town, brags about his own corruption, and despises the Dean. “Rosello, the lawyer,” the rector replies without hesitation. Rosello is involved in everything. If “someone were to tell me the white-slave traffic is in his hands, I would believe it without an oath.”

Laurana still does not believe it, but then, one evening, he listens to a discussion at a local club and Don Luigi, who, as we have seen, believes everyone capable of everything, remarks, “Who knows whether the widow of Dr. Roscio will remarry.” She “is so young and, let’s say it frankly, so beautiful, that a man feels a kind of, I don’t know, it hurts a man to think that she just remain closed in forever with her grief and her mourning.” But, someone objects, she has a young daughter, which would make some think twice about marrying her. “About a woman like that?” exclaims Don Luigi with derision. “Who wouldn’t go after her without a second thought, hook, line and sinker?” The discussion turns to who might be eligible and Don Luigi is not lost for an answer. “When the lady decides to marry, she’s got a husband ready and waiting right in the family.” Her cousin, Rosello the lawyer.

This provides a possible motive for the crime, and removes the doubt Laurana has had about the guilt of Rosello. But he does not go to the authorities, not because he has not yet got conclusive proof, but out of pride, a pride peculiar to Sicilians, the result, explains Sciascia, of “the centuries of contempt that an oppressed people, an eternally vanquished people, had heaped on the law and all those who were its instruments….”

Accompanying his mother to the cemetery, Laurana finds Roscio’s widow, Signora Luisa, “in elegant mourning, kneeling in prayer on a velvet cushion” in front of her husband’s tomb. When they say goodbye, it seemed to him that when she shook his hand, “she held it for one meaningful moment and that there was a gleam of imploring understanding in her eyes. He imagined that her cousin, her lover, might have told her everything, and that therefore she was urging him to remain silent. He was deeply disturbed, for that confirmed her complicity.” And then Sciascia adds something that puts everything in a new, and for Professor Laurana, a far more interesting, perspective. When Luisa gets up, she exposes “a further whiteness of thigh above her tightly drawn stockings.”

A few days later, Laurana finds her on the bus he is taking. Sitting next to her, she “aroused in him a painful, physically painful, desire,” a desire that immediately becomes more intense when he remembers the crime, “the passion, the betrayal, the cold perfidy with which it had been planned; evil had become incarnate, had been obscurely, splendidly transformed into sex.” But then she tells him something that changes everything. She has found her husband’s diary in which he wrote about someone “whom he doesn’t name,” but, she is certain, is “my cousin.” She is on her way to get the proof. She thinks she knows where her husband kept it. Laurana asks if she would really be willing to take action against her cousin. “And why not?” she asks. “If the death of my husband….But I need your help.” They agree to meet the next evening at a cafe around seven. They get off the bus and he watches her walk away, “a marvelous, innocent, courageous creature. He was near to tears.”

They were to meet at the cafe at seven, but she does not come. Laurana begins to imagine her dead, killed in an accident, or perhaps murdered because of what she has discovered. At 9:20, he leaves for his train. At the station square, a car stops and someone he recognizes offers him a ride. Laurana is never seen again. His body is “lying under a heavy pit of lime, in an abandoned sulfur mine,” miles from town.

A year later, on September 8, the first anniversary of Dr. Roscio’s death just the month before, Dean Rosello opens his home for the feast day of Mary the Child. He announces the “betrothal of his nephew the lawyer and his niece Luisa.” He explains how it all came about. “Could my poor niece - young as she - be left with a child, to spend the rest of her life alone? And, on the other hand… how to find her a good husband… one who would have the goodness of heart, the charity, to consider the child as his own?” His nephew - Rosello the lawyer - decided “to take this step out of justice and compassion.”

Don Luigi has an explanation of his own, one he is careful to share only outside in the garden with the town notary who has also learned the truth, that the affair between the cousins had started when they were still in college, at the Dean’s house, and then, after her marriage, was continued in her husband’s house; that Roscio had caught Rosello and his wife together, and had told the Dean that if he did not send Rosello away and make sure he never came back, he would turn over certain documents that would send Rosello to prison. The Dean, having been told that his niece had betrayed her husband by sleeping with the Dean’s nephew, told his nephew and then kept secret the murders that followed. Not for the first time, and not for the last, the Church and the Mafia had been conspirators in crime, a crime that Don Luigi, and who knows how many others, learned about and said nothing. In Sicily, knowing everything and saying nothing was a way of life. At least until Leonardo Sciascia started writing the truth, something my grandfather had known all along.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

--Marshal Zeringue