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Midnight in Sicily
By Peter Robb
Picador Copyright © 2007 Peter Robb
All rights reserved.
I WOKE with a start about an hour after midnight. The boat was still throbbing doggedly through the dark but I couldn't breathe. The roof of the cabin was a few inches above my face and there was no oxygen in the damp salty fug that was gathered there. The passengers on the other three bunks made no sound in the darkness. Maybe they were dead. I sweated, pressed and paralyzed, buried alive. Deep regular breathing brought no calm. I scrambled down without the ladder, putting a foot on an unseen face. The dim corridor was hardly better. The fug was thick with ship's smell of engine oil and paint and stale brine. I found a companionway up to a deck where I waited till dawn among the lifeboats, still oppressed by the visible and palpable marine haze but breathing. All the oxygen seemed leached from the air on this fine and starless night.
Summer hadn't yet broken. The voyage south brought back other unbearable summer nights in the Mezzogiorno. The canopy of that heavy, airless dead stillness was over us like a fallen tent. In the morning, back in the cabin, I saw someone had screwed shut the cabin's ventilation duct. Everybody seemed to have had a bad crossing. As we eased up to the dock in Palermo smartly dressed passengers were pressing like desperate refugees or immigrants at the place the gangplank would reach. I tried to imagine the place the arriving Greeks and Phoenicians called Panormus, all port, three thousand years ago. A wheelchair with a slavering lolling-headed idiot was shoved into this edgy ill-tempered crowd, ready to be first off. A cluster of nuns was poised for flight.
The yellow taxis lined up on the dock were all gone when I disembarked. After a coffee, several coffees, near the waterfront, I trudged up toward the centre of Palermo, past a showroom with half a dozen new red Ferraris on display. A little further on the carabinieri had set up a road block. There were carabinieri and soldiers, a lot of them, and fretful. The little hotel on via Maqueda, the hotel opposite the art nouveau kiosk, was abandoned. The windows on the first floor were shuttered or glassless, and the peeling wooden door on the street swung open on ruins. Retracing my steps, I found another place, in a third floor warren back toward the harbour, reached in a rattling metal cage. The room was above a coffee wholesaler's, and full of the smell of roasting coffee. Down the road soldiers in camouflage were standing guard with legs wide apart at the entrance to a building of no evident interest. One of them caught my oblique glance as I passed and slipped the safety catch on his machine gun. Seven thousand troops had arrived in Sicily from the continent in the summer of 1992. Three years later the troops were still there. In a certain view, Operation Sicilian Vespers was yet another foreign occupation, and an oddly named one, since it recalled the bloody thirteenth- century uprising by the locals against the occupying Angevins from France, when thousands were massacred in days.
The new place was even closer to where I was headed, which was the panelleria. A lot of the best things in Sicily have lasted since Arab days, and fried slices of chick pea flour must have been around since the ninth century. I've never seen panelle outside of Palermo, and hardly ever outside the Vucciria market. The panelleria was down in a side alley of the tiny market square, a small bare room on the street with a table for cutting out the small rectangles of chick pea dough and a vat of hot oil to fry them in. The panelle were a cheap and austere food, but they were surrounded by abundance.
As in certain sweet and savoury dishes that contain everything, where the savoury merges into the sweet and the sweet into the savoury, dishes that seem to realize a hungry man's dream, so the most abundant and overflowing markets, the richest and most festive and the most baroque, are those of the poor countries where the spectre of hunger is always hovering ... in Baghdad, Valencia or Palermo, a market is more than a market ... it's a vision, a dream, a mirage.
The market the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia had in mind here was the Vucciria. It'd been like a dream when I first wandered into it at the end of an earlier summer years and years ago. Whenever I went back to Palermo, the market was the first place I headed for. It was a way of getting my bearings. That first time, twenty-one years earlier, I'd arrived in Palermo mapless from Enna, in the high parched bleak centre of the island, the poorest province in Italy, and strayed through the ruins of the old city. The old city centre of Palermo had been gutted by bombs in 1943, in the months before the allied armies invaded Sicily. A lot of its finest buildings, palazzi of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the family homes of the Sicilian nobility, about a third of them, were destroyed.
Other European cities had been bombed in the forties, and many worse than Palermo. What was unique to Palermo was that the ruins of the old city were still ruins, thirty years, fifty years on. Staircases still led nowhere, sky shone out of the windows, clumps of weed lodged in the walls, wooden roof beams jutted toward the sky like the ribs of rotting carcasses. Slowly, even the parts that had survived were crumbling into rubble. There were more people living there in the early seventies, in the buildings that were still intact, or partly so, and it must've been a Monday because the washing was strung across the alleys like flags, whipping and billowing everywhere in the the powerful sun. It was a very hot day. When I stepped into the Vucciria from a narrow crooked alley, it was a move from the wings on to a stage set in mid-show. The noon sun fell vertically on the tiny space and the stallkeepers had winched out brown canvas awnings. The piazzetta of the Vucciria market was so small and deep that on one side you climbed a flight of stone steps to leave, and when the awnings were out on all sides the sky was covered and everyone was inside a kind of circus tent. The sun beating on the reddish canvas filled the space with a warm diffused light, and the canvas trapped and intensified the odours of the food that was steeply massed on display. It was the belly of Palermo and the heart too. The visual centre of the close and brilliant and almost claustrophobic indoor outdoor theatre was the big fish. On the table were the black eye and the silver rapier and the tail's arc of a swordfish whose body had been mostly sliced away, and blocks of blood red tuna.
The swordfish and tuna were flanked by many smaller fish, striped mackerel and fat sardines, and squid and prawns and octopus and cuttlefish. I don't remember seeing shellfish. I remember how the diffused red light of the market enhanced the translucent red of the big fishes' flesh and the silver glitter of the smaller ones' skins. The meat was bright red too, redder than usual in this hot muted light. The eye passed more rapidly over the rows of flayed kids' heads with melancholy deep black eyes. There were coils of pearly intestines. There was horse flesh and beef and pork and veal and skinny Mediterranean kids and lambs. There were pale yellow chooks strung up by their bright yellow feet, red crest downmost, and batteries of eggs. The fruit and vegetables were summer things with the sun in their colours. Purple and black eggplant, light green and dark green zucchine, red and yellow peppers, boxes of eggshaped San Marzano tomatoes. Spiked Indian figs with a spreading blush, grapes, black, purple, yellow and white, long yellow honeydew melons, round furrowed canteloupes, slashed wedges of watermelon in red, white and green and studded with big black seeds, yellow peaches and percocche, purple figs and green figs, little freckled apricots. There were sprigs of leaves around the fruit.
It may have been too early for the oranges, but the lemons were there. There may have been only one kind of fig. On that day. There was bread, cheeses, sacks of chick peas, lentils, white beans and nuts, ranks of bottled oil and tinned tomatoes, big open tins of salted anchovies and tuna in oil, blocks of dried tuna roe, there were wine shops and coffee bars. Fat produce from the north, hams and salami, parmesans and gorgonzolas, was harder to find. The odori were in an alley just off the piazza, a bravura massing of thyme and oregano and marjoram and rosemary in dusty drying clumps, chilli bushes uprooted with their leaves still green and the fruit fat, larger chillies dried a dark laquered red and hanging like cords of horns against the evil eye, plaited ropes of garlic, papery white and tinged with purple, dried mud clinging to their root hairs, vats of olives, black and green, large and small, in brine and oil, spiced and not. The booth smelt like a hill in Sardinia at dawn in summer, a concentrate of fragrant Mediterranean scrub.
I list these things now because a lot of them were already gone by 1995. The Vucciria in the summer of 1995 was a slowly fading and diminished place, and words in any case seemed inadequate to recall the lost plenty. What you once found in the Vucciria, and all the markets of the south, were the dense, scarred, irregular and deeply coloured fruit of backbreaking labour. The meaning of this produce was in how it looked, and that was beyond semantics. It might have been caught in an image. Taste, texture, what each thing might become when cooked and combined, these were also matters for the eye. Flavour was form and colour. Freshness translated into the gleam in a fish's eye, the sheen on an eggplant, the resilience of a leaf, the moistness of a speck of manure still clinging to an egg.
There was no shouting at the Vucciria. We weren't in Naples. People in Sicily moved with quiet purpose, and the cadence when you heard it was reproachful, not protesting. The silence of buyers and sellers, housewives and growers and labourers, is enhanced now by the dreamlike patina of memory and the underwater feel of that heaped earthly plenty, and the sea's too, glowing under canvas. And high above the narrow alleys, the faded cottons whipping against the blinding sun. Years after wandering into this hungry man's dream, I learnt that this massed harvest was at that very same time being fixed in an image, though not in Palermo and not from life. It was taking form in the summer of 1974 as a painter's dream in the far north of Italy, and in writing the following winter about the sweet and savoury markets of the Mediterranean, Leonardo Sciascia was describing not the market itself, but this painting of The Vucciria, this dream, by Sciascia's friend the famous Sicilian painter Renato Guttuso, on the occasion of the first showing in Palermo of the painting that would thereafter be the icon of Palermo, the city's ideal image of itself. In the way of images, it represented, that dream of Mediterranean plenty and a people who gathered and consumed it, something that was no longer real. The market and the old city it fed were dwindling and fading as Guttuso painted them from miles away. If I hadn't seen the market for myself that first summer day when I was hungry, I'd've doubted now whether it ever existed.
Guttuso's name prompted a further twenty-year leap back in time, to 1954. In England 1954 wasn't a specially good year, half way down from coronation euphoria to the humiliation of Suez. But food rationing ended in 1954, and at the year's close Evelyn Waugh named Elizabeth David's Italian Food as one of the year's two books that had given him most pleasure. Elizabeth David was stunned by the compliment, coming as it did from Mr Evelyn Waugh, a writer whose books have given me more pleasure than I have power to acknowledge. She was particularly gratified because the book had given her a lot of trouble. All that pasta. We've got enough stodge here already, her English friends had said as she set off to garner material. First maddened by the preindustrial imprecision of Italian cooks, then stirred by a fever to communicate, finally returning home to be chilled by her publisher's indifference, she'd felt her two years' work was in vain. Then Renato Guttuso's promised illustrations, long awaited, started arriving one or two at a time from Rome.
To have had for my book those magnificent drawings and the dazzling jacket picture ... I would have gone through the whole agony of writing it all over again.
What she liked was their unsentimentality. The cheap battered aluminium pans, the ravenous pasta eaters, the glistening fatty salame, the bunches of artichokes: everything was everyday,
but by Guttuso invested with a quite dangerously blazing vitality, for this artist even the straw round the neck of a wine flask is unravelling itself in a manner positively threatening in its purpose and intensity.
Elizabeth David was as good a critic here of drawing as of cooking. Her book matched its illustrations. Italian Food was a great hymn to the intensity of everyday eating pleasures and a sustained denunciation of Englishness in food, a denunciation whose fury seemed to intensify in each new edition's revisions. Forty years after Elizabeth David's book appeared, its author was lately dead and Italian Food was still in print and still made an exhilarating read. The 1995 edition still included Elizabeth David's passionate praise of Guttuso, but the object of her praise was now gone. The new edition eliminated his illustrations. Only the brilliant lemons remained, in colour on the Penguin cover. The others had been replaced by plates from a sixteenth century cooking manual. Another tiny step had been taken in Guttuso's progress toward oblivion. Twenty something years ago he'd been at the height of his fame and painting The Vucciria.
That first blazing summer vision hadn't been my only sight of Palermo before 1995. There'd been other visits in between. The second was five years after the first, at the end of the seventies, a wet winter's fag end when I started seeing the shadows in Palermo. By then I'd been living in Naples for a couple of years, and Naples then was terminally decrepit but intact. The old capital of the Bourbon kingdom belonged to the people who lived in it. By virtue, it had to be said, largely of neglect. Naples was lived in, and densely, all through its centre. It was a city whose people possessed their streets, stayed out in them until the early morning. It was a city whose days and weeks and seasons were strongly marked for everyone by meal hours and holidays and the sea. If it were March the nineteenth, for instance, it was San Giuseppe and that meant zeppole, huge grooved shells of choux pastry baked or fried, flattened in the centre by a splodge of yellow pastrycook's cream and a fleck of bitter cherry conserve and dusted with icing sugar, would be on sale hot and fresh every few yards. It meant that the street where I lived, a main street of the business centre, would be given over, inexplicably, to an animal market, and full of goats, turtles, ducklings, goldfish, puppies, monkeys.
I returned to Palermo at the end of the seventies with a certain feel for the resources and shadings of city life in the Mezzogiorno, and by comparison with Naples Palermo was desolate. The streets were closed and shuttered outside business hours, and empty of pedestrians. I saw for the first time the extent of the ruination in the centre, the rubble, the abandon, the places you couldn't see if they were lived in or not. Rain sharpened the sour smell of rotting masonry. Life after dark was silent files of cars along the main arteries. What spooked most was the newer area, the smart part of town I hadn't seen before, stacked with rows and rows of big apartment blocks along the via della Libertà, in place of the art nouveau villas and the parks of the belle époque. In the sinister quiet of Palermo, I realized, there was a lot of money, as there wasn't in Naples. Ingenuously, I asked a couple of people about the mafia. I remember the polite, puzzled blink, the inquiring gaze and the slightly cocked head before my interlocutor vanished. Mafia?
Excerpted from Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb. Copyright © 2007 Peter Robb. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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