Read The Day of the Owl Online

Authors: Leonardo Sciascia

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Contemporary Fiction, #Crime Fiction

The Day of the Owl

BOOK: The Day of the Owl
8.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Translated from the Italian by

Introduction by

This is a New York Review Book Published by The New York Review of Books 1755 Broadway, New York, NY 10019

Copyright © 1961 by the Estate of Leonardo Sciascia Translation copyright © 1963 by Jonathan Cape, Ltd. Introduction copyright © 2003 by George Scialabba All rights reserved.

Published in Italy as
II Giorno della Civetta
by Adelphi Edizioni

First published in Great Britain as
Mafia Vendetta
by Jonathan Cape, Ltd.

First published in the United States as
Mafia Vendetta
by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Sciascia, Leonardo. [Giorno della civetta. English]

The day of the owl / by Leonardo Sciascia ; translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver
introduction by George Scialabba.

p. cm. — (New York Review Books classics)

ISBN 1-59017-061-X [pbk. : alk. paper)

I. Colquhoun, Archibald. II. Oliver, Arthur. III. Title. IV. Series. PQ4879.C54G413 2003 853'.914—dc22


ISBN: 978-1-59017-061-8

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper. 1 0 9 8 7 6 5 4



Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) was born and grew up in the central Sicilian town of Racalmuto, near the sulfur mines where his grandfather worked from the age of nine. The family was not prosperous, but it nurtured a modest literacy in the boy, as well as a robust skepticism about fascism and all other matters political. The young Leonardo became a schoolteacher, a job he held for many years. His first significant book,
Salt in the Wound
(1958), was a series of witty and penetrating essays about his Sicilian hometown, its history, mores, and variegated human fauna. His next book,
Sicilian Uncles
(1960), consisted of four novellas, each one politically barbed, soberly humanist, and exquisitely funny. With these two short, masterly works Sciascia joined the front rank of contemporary Italian writers.

After this promising start, Sciascia embarked on a career in crime—crime fiction, that is.
The Day of the Owl
(1961) was the first of his many detective novels and stories, the most straightforward and, perhaps for that reason, the most satisfying. Its characters are distinctive but not idiosyncratic, individuals but also figures—of age-old degradation, of folkish cunning, of refined corruption, of barbaric or civilized virtue. The plot has the directness of allegory; the conversational interludes among unnamed eminences form a kind of chorus,- and the narrator's comments have a sarcastic cogency not yet jaded by too-long contemplation of the unchanging Sicilian blight. Sciascia's subsequent detective fiction is a little more enigmatic. But in writing
The Day of the Owl
he already knew, as he notes sardonically in the coda, that "in Italy, as is well-known, some things must not be made light of"—except very obliquely.

"All my books taken together form one," Sciascia wrote in the preface to a later edition of
Salt in the Wound,
"a Sicilian book which probes the wounds of past and present and develops as the history of the continuous defeat of reason and of those who have been personally overcome and annihilated in that defeat."
The Day of the Owl
recounts a double defeat: chiefly of its hero, the carabiniere Captain Bellodi; but in the first place, of the murder victim.

Unlike most of Sciascia's victims, the contractor Salvatore Colasberna is neither bad nor even merely innocent but actually brave and upstanding. He refuses the Mafia's demands not from greed or foolhardiness but because he wants to compete fairly, pay his workers decently, and do a solid job. He is that freak of nature, an honest Sicilian. So of course he must be killed off on the first page, struck down while stepping onto a bus by an "invisible hand." "They've killed him," the bus conductor announces; and that characteristic "they" registers Sicilian malignity as pervasive and anonymous.

The evil "they" are at least active. The rest of the Sicilian humanscape is a nullity. The bus passengers are a mere backdrop to the murder, their faces "blank as the blinds ... mute ... as if disinterred from the silence of centuries," those centuries of intimidation and defeat. The victim's partners—his brothers, no less —pretend ignorance and are so relieved when the police interrogator pretends to believe them that "they went out quite forgetful of their mourning... longing to run and skip" like the children they are, morally speaking. The street vendor under whose nose the shooting takes place is a virtuoso of canny cowardice— what else could he be, caught between the almost equally ruthless forces of Sicilian law and Sicilian lawlessness?

Only an outsider can disturb this immemorial inertia. Captain Bellodi, formerly an antifascist partisan, is a cultivated man and a dedicated professional. A native of Emilia, one of Italy's best-governed regions, he finds himself assigned to one of its worst-governed ones. His courtesy and impartiality confuse ordinary Sicilians, for whom authority has never had anything to do with justice or public service. One of the townsmen—an informer, the craftiest of all—drops his guard for a moment and tells the Captain more than he meant to. It is enough: the threads are skillfully drawn together, the crime is solved.

But not, of course, punished. The opposing forces are too unequal: one honest officer is easily balked by the unidentified Excellencies and Honorable Members who inhabit the shadowy upper reaches of "they." Briefly the Sicilian silence is broken and a dark corner or two illumined; then silence and darkness re-descend, and the inertia of impunity is reestablished.

Not completely, however: the source of the disturbance, the Captain, will remain in Sicily. "They" had expected and intended that he would leave in disgust and return to the safer, saner North. It almost happens. At home in Parma for a rest, he looks back on the morass of the South and resolves, as he was meant to: "To hell with Sicily! To hell with it all!" But something changes his mind, and the novel ends with his recognition that "he loved Sicily and was going back." ("Even if it's the end of me," he adds wryly. Sciascia must always balance optimism and fatalism.)

Why return? What does Captain Bellodi feel about Sicily, and what does Sciascia feel? The emotional climax of the novel, the moment of the Captain's most intense engagement with any Sicilian, occurs during his interview with the Mafia chieftain, Don Mariano Arena. The Captain probes, Don Mariano parries. Then, spontaneously, a brief current of mutual admiration passes between them. '"You're a man.' ... 'So are you.'" It is an acknowledgment, on one side, of the Northerner's integrity and disinterestedness, his humane sympathy and devotion to justice; on the other, of the Mafia leader's own peculiar integrity, "beyond the pale of morality and law, incapable of pity, an unredeemed mass of human energy and of loneliness, of instinctive, tragic will." Later on, after being "cleared" through the intervention of his allies in government, Don Mariano repeats publicly his laconic tribute to his outmaneuvered adversary. Reading this in a newspaper injects "a note of ambiguity, of pleasure mingled with irritation ... [into] the turmoil of Captain Bellodi's feelings."

Presumably that brief glimpse of the Sicilian's tragic solitude, with nowhere to direct even superior energies except into violent self-assertion, is what moves the magnanimous Captain to remain. There is, too, his affection for the region's landscape and literature, which comes out at odd moments and endears him to the otherwise mistrustful natives. But he must also have been charmed, as the reader is, by the Sicilians' unflagging, unembarrassed wit—the recoil, perhaps, of their usual abjectness.
The Day of the Owl
is, among its other merits, very droll. The grumbling of the carabiniere sergeant over his commanding officer's high-mindedness; the antics of the street vendor and the other frantically evasive murder witnesses; the perfect pitch of the conversations among faceless, highly placed fixers; a raucous altercation in the Italian Parliament, observed by two scandalized visiting mafiosi: these are all comic tours de force, even if they leave one smiling a little crookedly.

Sciascia's feelings about Sicily are, naturally, even more complicated than his protagonist's. In
Sicily as Metaphor
(1979), a book of interviews, he says: "I hate and detest Sicily in so far as I love it, and in so far as it does not respond to the kind of love I would like to have for it." Sciascia's is an unsparing love. For Sicily is not, in his writing—or in Verga's, Pirandello's, Lampedusa's, or Vittorini's—very lovable. An unbroken history of rule by irresponsible elites—landowners, the Church, and the Bourbon monarchy—has left the island without civil society or the virtues it makes possible: no solidarity, no trust, no enterprise, no public spirit, not even simple honesty. The law, as one character broods in
The Day of the Owl,
is "utterly irrational, created on the spot by those in command," all of them exultant "in the joy of being able to abuse their powers, a joy the more intense the more suffering can be inflicted on others." Even fascism, the ex-partisan Bellodi reflects bitterly, was an improvement on this intractable Sicilian anarchy:

... his anger smouldered on, his Northerner's anger against the whole of Sicily, the only region in the whole of Italy actually to have been given liberty during the fascist dictatorship, the liberty of safety of life and property. How many other liberties this liberty of theirs had cost, the Sicilians did not know or want to know. In the dock at the assizes they had seen all the
the election riggers and even those Commanders of the Order of the Crown of Italy, the doctors and lawyers who intrigued with or protected the underworld. Weak or corrupt magistrates had been dismissed; complaisant officials removed. For peasant, smallholder, shepherd and sulphur-miner, dictatorship had spoken this language of freedom.

Sciascia lived long enough to see the democratic state, too, begin to take on the Mafia, though so far with mixed success. He deserves much credit for this. The brilliant portrait in this novel of an organization whose very existence virtually no one else at the time was willing to acknowledge has made
The Day of the Owl
a classic in Italy. Sciascia was universally revered in the years before his death, and one of the leading figures in the anti-Mafia campaign was a carabiniere general, Alberto Dalla Chiesa, whom some people compared to Captain Bellodi.

So it is all the sadder that the writer's inveterate and invaluable skepticism may have betrayed him, at last, into a grievous mistake. Two years before he died Sciascia published an ill-natured and almost entirely wrongheaded attack on the magistrate Paolo Borsellino and the politician Leoluca Orlando, two of the bravest and most effective anti-Mafia crusaders. He accused them and unnamed others (generally assumed to include Giovanni Falcone, the chief architect of the Mafia "maxi-trial") of careerism. They had become "anti-Mafia professionals," he charged. The attack was, unfortunately, extremely influential. Eventually he apologized to both, but the very considerable damage was already done. In mitigation, it should be said that Sciascia was in failing health, was badly misinformed by friends, and was understandably concerned about the wide latitude granted to prosecutors in the Italian judicial system.

Perhaps even this lapse teaches a useful lesson, one that Sciascia himself would no doubt have approved: an arch-skeptic, too, must be read skeptically. And as Borsellino (whose assassination in 1992, three years after Sciascia's death, was to convulse the island) said: "I can't be mad at Sciascia. He's too great."




And he that will not fight for such a hope

Go home to bed, and like the owl by day

If he arise, be mocked and wondered at.



bus was just about to leave, amid rumbles and sudden hiccups and rattles. The square was silent in the grey of dawn; wisps of cloud swirled round the belfry of the church. The only sound, apart from the rumbling of the bus, was a voice, wheedling, ironic, of a fritter-seller; fritters, hot fritters. The conductor slammed the door, and with a clank of scrap-metal the bus moved off. His last glance round the square caught sight of a man in a dark suit running towards the bus.

'Hold it a minute,' said the conductor to the driver, opening the door with the bus still in motion. Two ear-splitting shots rang out. For a second the man in the dark suit, who was just about to jump on the running-board, hung suspended in mid-air as if some invisible hand were hauling him up by the hair. Then his brief-case dropped from his hand and very slowly he slumped down on top of it.

The conductor swore; his face was the colour of sulphur; he was shaking. The fritter-seller, who was only three yards from the fallen man, sidled off with a crablike motion towards the door of the church. In the bus no one moved; the driver sat, as if turned to stone, his right hand on the brake, his left on the steering-wheel. The conductor looked round the passengers' faces, which were blank as the blinds.

'They've killed him,' he said; he took off his cap, swore again, and began frantically running his fingers through his hair.

'The carabinieri,' said the driver, 'we must get the carabinieri.'

He got up and opened the other door. 'I'll go,' he said to the conductor.

The conductor looked at the dead man and then at the passengers. These included some women, old women who brought heavy sacks of white cloth and baskets full of eggs every morning; their clothes smelled of forage, manure and wood smoke; usually they grumbled and swore, now they sat mute, their faces as if disinterred from the silence of centuries.

'Who is it?' asked the conductor, pointing at the body.

No one answered. The conductor cursed. Among passengers of that route he was famous for his highly skilled blaspheming. The company had already threatened to fire him, since he never bothered to control himself even when there were nuns or priests on the bus. He was from the province of Syracuse and had had little to do with violent death: a soft province, Syracuse. So now he swore all the more furiously.

The carabinieri arrived; the sergeantmajor, with a black stubble and in a black temper from being woken, stirred the passengers' apathy like an alarm-clock: in the wake of the conductor they began to get out through the door left open by the driver.

With seeming nonchalance, looking around as if they were trying to gauge the proper distance from which to admire the belfry, they drifted off towards the sides of the square and, after a last look around, scuttled into alley-ways.

The sergeantmajor and his men did not notice this gradual exodus. Now about fifty people were around the dead man: men from a public works training centre who were only too delighted to have found such an absorbing topic of conversation to while away their eight hours of idleness. The sergeantmajor ordered his men to clear the square and get the passengers back on to the bus. The carabinieri began pushing sightseers back towards the streets leading off the square, asking passengers to take their seats on the bus again. When the square was empty, so was the bus. Only the driver and the conductor remained.

'What?' said the sergeantmajor to the driver. 'No passengers today?'

'Yes, some,' replied the driver with an absent-minded look.

'Some,' said the sergeantmajor, 'means four, five or six ... I've never seen this bus leave with an empty seat.'

'How should. I know?' said the driver, exhausted from straining his memory. 'How should I know? I said "some" just like that. More than five or six though. Maybe more; maybe the bus was full. I never look to see who's there. I just get into my seat and off we go. The road's the only thing I look at; that's what I'm paid for ... to look at the road.'

The sergeantmajor rubbed his chin with a hand taut with irritation. 'I get it,' he said, 'you just look at the road.' He rounded savagely on the conductor. 'But you, you tear off the tickets, take money, give change. You count the people and look at their faces ... and if you don't want me to make you remember 'em in the guardroom, you're going to tell me now who was on that bus! At least ten names ... You've been on this run for the last three years, and for the last three years I've seen you every evening in the Cafe Italia. You know this town better than I do ...'

'Nobody could know the town better than you do,' said the conductor with a smile, as though shrugging off a compliment.

'All right, then,' said the sergeantmajor, sneering, 'first me, then you ... But I wasn't on the bus or I'd remember every passenger one by one. So it's up to you. Ten names at least.'

'I can't remember,' said the conductor, 'by my mother's soul I can't remember. Just now I can't remember a thing. It all seems a dream.'

'I'll wake you up,' raged the sergeantmajor, 'I'll wake you up with a couple of years inside ... ' He broke off to go and meet the police magistrate who had just arrived. While making his report on the identity of the dead man and the flight of the passengers, the sergeantmajor looked at the bus. As he looked, he had an impression that something was not quite right or was missing, as when something in our daily routine is unexpectedly missing, which the senses perceive from force of habit but the mind does not quite apprehend; even so its absence provokes an empty feeling of discomfort, a vague exasperation as from a flickering light-bulb. Then, suddenly, what we are looking for dawns on us.

'There's something missing,' said the sergeantmajor to Carabiniere Sposito, who being a qualified accountant was a pillar of the Carabinieri Station of S., 'there's something or someone missing.'

'The fritter-seller,' said Carabiniere Sposito.

'The fritter-seller, by God!' The sergeantmajor exulted, thinking: 'An accountant's diploma means something.'

A carabiniere was sent off at the double to pick up the fritter-seller. He knew where to find the man, who, after the departure of the first bus, usually went to sell his wares at the entrance of the elementary schools. Ten minutes later the sergeantmajor had the vender of fritters in front of him. The man's expression was that of a man roused from innocent slumber.

'Was he there?' the sergeantmajor asked the conductor.

'He was,' answered the conductor gazing at his shoe.

'Well now,' said the sergeantmajor with paternal kindness, 'this morning, as usual, you came to sell your fritters here ... As usual, at the first bus for Palermo ...'

'I've my licence,' said the fritter-seller.

'I know,' said the sergeantmajor, raising his eyes to heaven, imploring patience. 'I know and I'm not thinking about your licence. I want to know only one thing, and, if you tell me, you can go off at once and sell your fritters to the kids: who fired the shots?'

'Why,' asked the fritter-seller, astonished and inquisitive, 'has there been shooting?'


'Yes, at half past six. From the corner of Via Cavour. A double dose of
probably from a twelve-bore, maybe from a sawn-off shotgun ... Nobody on the bus saw a thing. A hell of a job to find out who
on the bus. When I got there they had all made off. A man who sells fritters remembered - after a couple of hours -seeing something like a sack of coal. He's made a vow of half a peck of chick-peas to Santa Fara because by a miracle he didn't get some of the lead, he says, standing as near as he was to the target... The conductor didn't even see the sack of coal... The passengers, those sitting on the right-hand side, say the windows were so steamy they looked like frosted glass. Maybe true ... Yes, head of a co-operative building company, a small one which seems never to have taken on contracts for more than twenty million lire ... small building lots, workers' houses, drains, secondary roads ... Salvatore Colasberna, Co-la-sbe-rna. Used to be a bricklayer. Ten years ago he formed the company with two of his brothers and four or five local bricklayers; he was in charge of the work, though a surveyor figured as director, and used to keep the accounts. They got along as best they could. He and his associates were content with a small profit, as though they were working for wages ... No, it seems they didn't do the sort of job that gets washed away by the first shower of rain ... I've seen a farm building, brand new, caved in like a cardboard box because a cow rubbed against it... No, built by the Smiroldi company, big building contractors. A farm building smashed by a cow! ... Colasberna, they tell me, used to do a solid job. There's the Via Madonna di Fatima here, made by his outfit, which hasn't sunk a centimetre, in spite of all the trucks that use it; while other streets, made by much bigger contractors, look like a camel's back after only a year ... Had he a criminal record? Yes, in nineteen forty ... here we are, in nineteen forty, the third of November, nineteen forty ... He was travelling on a bus - he doesn't seem to have much luck with buses - and people were discussing the war we had just declared on Greece;

someone said: "We'll suck it dry in a fortnight" - he meant Greece. Colasberna said: "What is
An egg?" There was a Blackshirt on the bus who reported him ... What? ... Sorry, you asked me if he had a criminal record and I, with the file in front of me, say he had ... All right, then, he hadn't a criminal record ... Me?... A Fascist? When I see fasces I touch wood ... Yes, sir. Yours to command.'

He replaced the telephone on its hook with the delicacy of exasperation and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. 'This one's been a partisan,' he said. 'I would have the luck to hit on someone who's been a partisan!'


The two surviving Colasberna brothers and the other members of the Santa Fara Co-operative Building Society were waiting for the captain to arrive. They were all sitting in a row, dressed in black; the brothers had black woollen shawls over their shoulders, and bloodshot eyes; they were unshaven in sign of mourning. Motionless they sat in the waiting-room of the Carabinieri Station of S., their eyes riveted to a coloured target painted on the wall with the ironic wording:
. They felt an overwhelming shame at being in such a place and at having to wait. Compared to shame, death is nothing.

Sitting apart from them, perched on the edge of her chair, was a young woman. She had come in after them and wanted to see the sergeantmajor, so she told the orderly. The reply was that the sergeantmajor was busy and the captain was on his way. 'I'll wait,' she said, and sat on the edge of her chair, fidgeting with her fingers so that it made the others nervy to look at her. They knew her by sight; she was the wife of a tree-pruner from another village who had come from near-by B. to settle down in S. after the war, married here, and now in this poverty-stricken place - what with his wife's dowry and his job - was considered well-off.

'She's had a row with her husband and has come to make a charge,' thought the members of the Santa Fara Co-operative Society, and the thought helped take their minds off that burning shame of theirs.

There came a sound of a car pulling up in the courtyard, and of the engine cutting off, then the click of heels down the passage. Into the waiting-room came the captain, for whom the warrant-officer opened the door of his own office with a salute so stiff and a head held so high that he seemed to be inspecting the ceiling. The captain was young, tall and fair-skinned. At his first words the Santa Fara members thought, with a mixture of relief and scorn, 'A mainlander.' Mainlanders are decent enough but just don't understand things.

Again they sat down in a row in front of the sergeantmajor's desk. The captain sat in the desk-chair with the sergeantmajor standing beside him, and on the other side, crouched over the typewriter, sat Carabiniere Sposito. Sposito had a baby face, but the brothers Colasberna and their associates were in holy terror of his presence, the terror of a merciless inquisition, of the black seed of the written word. 'White soil, black seed. Beware of the man who sows it. He never forgets,' says the proverb.

The captain offered his condolences and apologized for summoning them to the barracks and for keeping them waiting. Again they thought: 'A mainlander; they're polite, mainlanders,' but they still kept a wary eye on Carabiniere Sposito whose hands were lightly poised over the keyboard of the typewriter, tense and silent as a hunter lying in wait for a hare in the moonlight, his finger on the trigger.

'It's odd,' said the captain, as though continuing an interrupted discussion, 'how people in this part of the world let themselves go in anonymous letters. No one talks, but luckily for us-I mean us carabinieri, of course - everyone writes. They may forget to sign, but they do write. After every murder, every hold-up, there are a dozen anonymous letters on my desk. Even after a family row or a fraudulent bankruptcy they write. And as for my men's love-affairs ...' He smiled at his sergeantmajor, and the Santa Fara members thought he might be alluding to the fact that Carabiniere Savarino was having an affair with the daughter of Palazzolo the tobacconist, as was known in the whole town where an early posting for Savarino was expected.

'As for the Colasberna case,' went on the captain, 'I've already had five anonymous letters; quite a crop for something that only happened the day before yesterday -and there'll be more to come. One nameless correspondent says that Colasberna was killed out of jealousy and gives the name of the jealous husband

'Nonsense,' said Giuseppe Colasberna.

'I agree,' said the captain and went on: 'According to another he was killed by mistake, because he happened to resemble a man called Perricone, who - my anonymous informer says - deserves what's soon coming to him.'

'That might be,' said Giuseppe Colasberna.

'No, it mightn't,' said the captain, 'because the Perricone mentioned in the letter got a passport a couple of weeks ago and right now happens to be in Liege, Belgium. You didn't know that, maybe; certainly the writer of the letter didn't; but the fact could hardly have escaped the notice of anyone intending to bump him off... I won't waste your time with other even more ridiculous information, but there is one aspect of the case to which I would ask you to give serious thought... In my opinion, it might be the right track. I mean your own work, competition, contracts. That's where we should start.'

BOOK: The Day of the Owl
8.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Soul of the Fire by Terry Goodkind
The Convict's Sword by I. J. Parker
The Cannibal Spirit by Harry Whitehead
Now I Know More by Lewis, Dan
Angel Kiss by Laura Jane Cassidy
The Master Falconer by Box, C. J.
Miss Westlake's Windfall by Barbara Metzger
When You're With Me by Wendi Zwaduk
The Hole in the Wall by Lisa Rowe Fraustino