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Authors: Lawrence Durrell

Sicilian Carousel

BOOK: Sicilian Carousel
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Sicilian Carousel

Lawrence Durrell




Map of Sicily

The temples of Juno Lucina and Concord at Agrigento

Grecian temple at Segesta

Palermo, the cathedral

View of Messina before the earthquake


to Deeds more than once during the course of our breakneck journey round Sicily in the little red coach, nobody has ever had better reasons than I for not visiting the island. I had let my visit go by default for many a year, and now with increasing age and laziness and the overriding fact—no, Fact, in uppercase—of Martine's death, what on earth was the point? I could surely spare myself the kind of sentimental journey which would be quite out of place and out of context? Yes or no? Deeds only shook his head and tapped out his pipe against a wall. “If you say so,” he said politely, “but you seem to be enjoying it very much.” I was.

The bare fact of my arrival in Martine's own private island had in some way exorcised the dismal fact of her
disappearance from the scene—so much had it impoverished life in general, and not for me alone. Moreover, the luck was that I was able to talk a little about her, for though Deeds had not known her he had actually seen her quite often driving about Cairo, Alexandria, and lastly about Cyprus where I had helped her to build the ambitiously beautiful house which Piers had designed for her around a cruciform central room which both vowed was based on a Templar motif. But now they were both dead! In some of those long telephone conversations which somehow never succeeded in fully repairing our long-relinquished attachment to the Cyprus past, I could hear, or thought I could hear, the chatter of waves upon the beach of Naxos, the Sicilian Naxos where she had at last come to roost like a seabird, secure at last from politics and civil strife alike. Happy, too, in the possession of the Man That Never Was and her “blithe and beautiful” children.

Unexpected and fateful is the trajectory which life traces out for our individual destinies to follow. I could not have predicted her Sicilian life and death in Cyprus, years ago. In fact, the Sicilian invitation was one of long standing, and the project of a visit to Naxos was one which had hung fire for many years. But it had always been there. I must, I simply must, she insisted, visit her on her home ground, see her children, meet her husband. And once or twice we almost did meet, the very last time in Rome. Yet never here, for each time something suddenly came up to prevent it. I
think neither of us had seriously reflected on the intervention of something as unusual as death—though my wife, Claude, among her warmest friends, had suddenly surprised and saddened everyone by falling ill of a cancer and disappearing. Lesson enough, you would think; but no, I delayed and procrastinated on the Sicilian issue until suddenly one day Martine herself had floated out of reach. That last long incoherent letter—no, absolutely indecipherable—had not alarmed me unduly. An impulsive girl, she was accustomed to write in letters a foot high on airmail paper, and so terribly fast that the ink ran, the pages stuck together, and the total result even under a magnifying glass was pure cuneiform; say, an abstract drawing done in wet clay by the feet of a pigeon. But now the plane hovered and tilted and the green evening, darkening over the planes of colored fields girdling Catania, swam up at us. The island was there, below us.

Thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand, it had a sort of minatory, defensive air. From so high one could see the lateral tug of the main deep furling and unfurling its waters along those indomitable flanks of the island. And all below lay bathed in a calm green afterglow of dusk. It looked huge and sad and slightly frustrated, like a Minoan bull—and at once the thought clicked home. Crete! Cyprus! It was, like them, an island of the mid-channel—the front line of defense against the huge seas combing up from Africa. Perhaps even the vegetation echoed this,
as it does in Crete? I felt at once reassured; as if I had managed to situate the island more clearly in my mind. Magna Graecia!

But it wasn't only Martine I had come to see. I had other pressures and temptations—inevitable when half my living came from travel journalism. Yet it was she who placed her darts most cunningly in spots where they cost me most pangs of guilt. For example: “You are supposed to be somewhat of an authority on Mediterranean islands—yet you neglect the biggest and most beautiful! Why? Is it because I am here?” A question which must remain forever unanswered. “After all,” the letter continued, “fifteen years is a long time.…” It wasn't that either. It was just my old slavish habit of procrastination. The invitation had always been accepted in the depths of my own mind. But circumstances were against it—though I made several false beginnings. And of course we missed each other elsewhere: Paris, New York, Athens; it was extremely vexatious yet it could not be helped. And of course there would always be time to repair this omission and repair the fifteen-year-old breach in our friendship.…

In Cyprus, during those two magnetic summers we had discussed at great length the meaning of the word I had invented for people stricken by the same disease as ourselves: islomanes. I had even written a trilogy of books about Greek islands in a vain attempt to isolate the virus of islomania; with the result that later, in an age of proliferating tourism, the Club Méditerranée
had even adopted the phrase as a
cri de guerre
, blessed by the French glossies. I had the impression that it had all but made the
Medical Encyclopedia
. And now?

Well, I had brought with me a few of those long amusing and tender letters to look over as we voyaged; almost all that I knew of Sicily today came from them. In Cyprus she had been a fledgling writer and I had tried to help her tidy an overgrown manuscript about Indonesia called
The Bamboo Flute
. Somewhere it must still be knocking about. It had moments of good insight and some metaphors vivid enough to incite cupidity, for I borrowed one for
Bitter Lemons
, but
so to speak: that is to say, honestly.

There were of course other strands woven into the skein, like the repeated invitations from an editor in New York to consider some long travel articles on the island. I visited my travel agent in the nearby town of Nimes where, like an old stork, he nested in a mass of travel brochures and train tickets. He was rather a cultivated old man, an ex-schoolmaster who had a tendency to think of himself as a cross between a psychiatrist and the Grand Inquisitor himself. “The thing for you,” he said pointing a long tobacco-stained finger at me, “is the Sicilian Carousel—every advantage from your point of view. You will have Roberto as guide and a fine bus.” My soul contracted. But truth to tell, the invitation from New York had in some queer way settled the matter. It was also as if Martine had given me a nudge from beyond the grave: had summoned me.
But the thought of facing up to the chance adventures of the road made me uneasy. I had become a bit spoiled with too much seclusion in my old bat-haunted house in Provence. My friend must have divined my train of thought for he at once said, “You need a change—I feel it. And the Sicilian Carousel will give you what you need.” He handed me a clutch of tomato-colored brochures which did nothing to allay my misgivings at all. The beauties of Taormina—I knew of them. Who does not? I did not need French commercial prose to excite me. Yet as I drove homeward across the dry garrigues of the Languedoc I was in some obscure way rather happy—as if I had taken a decision which was, at that particular stage, appropriate and necessary. So be it, I thought. So be it.

On arriving home I switched on the lights and took a perfunctory look at Sicily in the encyclopedia. They made it sound like the Isle of Wight. Then the evening papers arrived with their talk of strikes and lockouts and so on, and my resolve faltered at the thought of spending days and nights asleep on my suitcase at Nice or Rome or Catania. But somehow I could not draw back now. I lit a log fire and put on a touch of Mozart to console me against these dark doubts. Tomorrow my friend would ring me with the reservations. I cannot pretend that my sleep was untroubled that night. I regressed in my dreams and found myself in the middle of the war in Cairo or Rhodes, missing planes or waiting for planes which never came. Martine was
inexplicably there, behaving with perfect decorum, dressed in long white gloves, and subtly smiling. It was the airport but in the dream it was also Lord's and we were waiting for the emergence of the cricketers. I slept late and indeed it was my friend's call which shook me awake. “I have the whole
lined up,” he said. He liked to make everything sound official and legal. “When do I leave?” I quavered. He told me the dates. Technically the Carousel started from Catania; my fellow travelers were converging on that town from many different points in Europe.

So it was that I began to land hop sideways across France on a strikeless fifth of July with the pleasant feel of thunder in the air and perhaps the promise of a night storm to come and refresh the Midi. And there was no sign of that old devil the mistral, which was a good omen indeed. It is always sad leaving home, however, and in the early dawn, after a spot of yoga, I took a dip in the pool followed by a hot shower and wandered aimlessly about for a bit in the garden. Everything was silent, the morning was windless. The tall pines and chestnuts in the park did not stir. In the old water tower the brood of white barn owls snoozed away the daylight after their night's hunting. The old car eased itself lingeringly away across the dry garrigues with their scent of thyme and rosemary and sage. The Sicilian Carousel was on. All my journeys start with a kind of anxious pang of doubt—you feel suddenly an orphan. You hang over the rail watching the land
dip out of sight on the circumference of the earth—than you shake yourself like a dog and address yourself to reality once more. You point your mind towards an invisible landfall. Sicily!

BOOK: Sicilian Carousel
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