It has been written previously on this blog that we should engage more with literary fiction, in particular examples which highlight the barriers to implementing human rights effectively. Given the events of this year in Ireland, I thought I would recommend a book which captures the sense of chronic political failure and the insidious, veiled corruption that has left people bewildered by the actions of bankers and developers, and their own acquiescence in allowing this to happen. So my recommended reading over Christmas is the novel To Each His Own, by Leonardo Sciascia, a Sicilian crime novel which scared me more than anything else I have read in that genre, and not because of the crime.
As outlined in an introduction by W.S. de Piero in the New York Review of Books, although a mafia novel, this is not in fact about the mafia. The story opens with an anonymous letter posted to Manno, an innocuous pharmacist in a small Sicilian town. The letter is a death threat although no reason is specified, and as the news of the letter spreads, there is general bewilderment as to what the pharmacist could possibly have done. No-one really believes such an inoffensive man could deserve this, and the conclusion is that it is a joke, or as Manno himself uneasily posits, someone is simply jealous of his hunting skills. But when Manno and his friend Dr Roscoe go out hunting, they are both killed.
Rumours sweep the village, and a picture of Manno as an adulterer is constructed. The schoolteacher Laurana is the only sceptic as to this explanation, and he takes on the role of amateur detective. Rational and naive, Laurana starts to track the origins of the letter, and the sense of terrible collusion grows with each gain in his investigation.
Commentators point to the book’s transcendence of the crime genre, although many struggle to put their finger on what exactly Sciascia has done in this novel. However I like this quote from the Occasional Review blog: “its power lies in the fact that, as the professor conducts his desultory researches, the novel slowly takes in the entire society and, finally, implicates it in the crime, even as very few people are revealed to be guilty of anything.”
Beyond the surface crime, the aim of the book is to examine Italian society’s passivity towards corruption. For example, de Peiro comments on one of the characters, Rosello: “we learn that the lawyer Rosello, one of several cronies who gather daily in the piazza to trade gossip and philosophize on the state of things, has major business interests and is tied up in what people assume to be marginally but negligibly criminal enterprises. But he’s most admired for his political canniness.” Sounds familiar to me.