An extraordinary and formidable account of travelling in Sicily from one of the twentieth-century's foremost travel writers.
|Publisher:||Eland Publishing Ltd|
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About the Author
Norman Lewis is the author of thirteen novels and thirteen works of non-fiction, including Voices of the Old Sea, Golden Earth, and A Goddess in the Stones. He lives in Essex, England.
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MY EARLY FASCINATION with things Sicilian grew from a close acquaintance with Ernesto Corvaja, in whose London house I lived for several years and whose daughter Ernestina I had married. He was a man of the south in exile, with watchful eyes beneath heavy lids and whose skin, wherever exposed, had turned grey through deprivation of the sun. This, he told me, had happened quite suddenly within weeks of arriving in Britain and an attempt to remedy the situation by the use of a sun-lamp had been a failure. He spoke English fluently, except for some difficulty in pronouncing the letter h - thus the word 'hook', as he spoke it, became Vook'. On arriving in London he had been to a tailor in Conduit Street for advice as to how he should dress to pass as an Englishman, and from that time on he wore a dark blue pin-stripe suit every day. We got on extremely well, although I resisted his efforts to make me wear pin-stripe suits as well.
I met Ernesto shortly before the outbreak of the war, which was declared while Ernestina and I were on holiday visiting friends in the Americas. All British nationals were recommended by our embassy in Washington not to return by sea because of the possibility of an immediate U-boat attack on shipping, so Ernestina began what proved to be a long stay in the New World, while I returned to England, and continued to live with the Corvajas.
Ernesto spoke little of his origins. An ancestor, Prince Corvaja, had bought his princedom (one of 147) in Sicily from the Spanish Crown for 2,000 scudi in the eighteenth century. The Corvajas had in addition owned one of the island's fearful sulphur mines, in which children as young as five were driven under the whip to scrape up the sulphur through passages too narrow to admit an adult.
Of the twenty years Ernesto had spent in the United States little was revealed, although when I brought the subject up he agreed he had been a member of the Unione Siciliana, an organization he explained as engaged in charitable work in connection with the many virtually penniless immigrants arriving in America from his home country. A rumour that he had eventually been deported from the States was never confirmed. By the time I knew him he had become a professional gambler, playing cards each year for three months in the casino at Ostend, where he was generally referred to among the players as the 'Monsieur Anglais'. It was a profession that bored him, and tied to it for three months at a time he was increasingly repelled by the shallowness and crudity of the environment.
As a boy Ernesto had been taken by an uncle with antiquarian interests on a visit to a number of Sicily's historic sites where excavations among Roman, Greek and even earlier settlements had revealed evidence of a magnificent past. It was only when the strong black wine imported by the cask from his old country loosened his tongue that the memories of these experiences exerted themselves. He had watched spellbound while specialist grave-robbers cleaned figurines from Morgantina famous for moving their eyes - and had marvelled at a jewelled bull from Mesopotamia and a necklace that had adorned the throat of a courtesan or princess of the time of Philip of Macedon. Ernesto had approached his father to ask if he could train as a museum curator at Palermo or Rome, but he was sent off to Berne to take a degree in law, and in the end lived by shuffling and dealing out cards and thus lost sight of the brilliance of the past.
In the several years in which I lived in Ernesto's London house I can remember only a single reference made to his active life as a young man in Sicily. This concerned an occasion when he had agreed to become the second of a friend who had been challenged to a duel by one of the celebrated swordsmen of his day. Both were rich young men with too much time on their hands and given to brutal sports and the practice of unpleasant jokes. Starving cats were captured in the streets of Palermo and taken to the Parco della Favorita to be hunted down and eventually killed by young horsemen using steel-tipped whips. Another sport was to capture and strip black African immigrants, take them to the park and douse them in tubs of whitewash kept in readiness there.
It was in this romantically wild and still beautiful place that Palermo's duels were fought, and here Ernesto drove in his carriage accompanying his young friend Armando Mostella. Mostella's challenger, Angelo D'Alema, had killed nine opponents in a single year. The drawback with Palermo, Ernesto admitted, was that there were far too many rich young men with little else to do with their lives than defend their supposed honour, and the statistics of violent death responded to a fatal over-sensitivity in alliance with pride.
Armando's refusal to apologize for 'incivility' - he had pushed past D'Alema in the struggle to enter Palermo's cathedral when the doors were flung open on Easter Day - had led to the quarrel. By local standards it was his right to call on Ernesto's support in this crisis, since both men had been baptized in the font of the Duomo of Catania on the same day, and thus linked by an indestructible bond.
Ernesto recalled his doubts as to the likely outcome of the encounter. His friend would be fighting a duel for the first time, and his physical fitness was in decline due to a self-indulgent life. He had little to defend himself with but his courage. Ernesto had made a secret approach to the maresciallo (sergeant-major) of the police of the area, calling upon him to arrest the combatants on a charge of unlawful activity, but the man had refused, saying, 'The more they kill each other the better it is for us.'
Ernesto's heart sank as D'Alema's carriage rolled into sight through the trees. D'Alema was smiling. He remained seated when the carriage stopped. His second stepped down and Ernesto went to join him. D'Alema's man read out the formal complaint to which Ernesto replied with the usual sentence of five words. The weapons to be used, which were daggers of identical design and about eight inches in length, were then exhibited. The duellists spent a minute or two making small adjustments to the species of uniform they wore which provided some small protection in the shape of leather pads over the heart, the testicles and throat. They then saluted their seconds, and Armando, rooted to the spot, stood staring down at his knife as though it were some dreadful gift that had been forced upon him. D'Alema, his smile spreading, advanced to the attack.
Ernesto said that the speed of the final operation took him by surprise. D'Alema moved in quite close to Armando as if to initiate an intimate conversation, then struck a sudden blow low down in the body that curved round the perimeter of Armando's stomach, and his white shirt opened in a circular flap to lay bare a pink complex of intestines.
With this Ernesto went into action. He was wearing for the occasion one of the new bowler hats imported from England, and removing this he rushed to clamp it over Armando's stomach, and with an inch or two of entrail still showing under the brim, he manhandled his friend back into the carriage. A priest, previously warned of what was about to happen, came peddling up on his bicycle from a nearby hamlet, but was assured by Ernesto - a connoisseur by then of acts of violence - that it was not an occasion for the last rites.
And this was the case. It was possible, Ernesto believed, that even D'Alema could not bring himself to sacrifice this wholly defenceless victim in an action that would have added nothing to his lustre. D'Alema, said Ernesto, was shortly to be removed from the scene by sudden death. A car he had been driving in one of the early races round the winding Sicilian roads crashed on a sharp bend then fell into the sea, the general opinion being that someone had tampered with the brakes.
IT TURNED OUT, as the war got under way, that I was the possessor of a linguistic qualification at that time in some small demand. While on a journey in Southern Arabia I had picked up a smattering of Arabic which I hoped to improve by taking a course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Before this could be completed I was asked to call at an address somewhere in the West End where it was suggested that I might be able to put my few words of Arabic to good use by joining the Intelligence Corps. The plan was that I should be set ashore from a submarine somewhere on the North African coast, and transmit intelligence back to London.
To prepare for this adventure I was packed off to the Intelligence Corps depot at Winchester, where after many days of ceremonial marching, three weeks were deemed necessary to convert applicants for all kinds of intelligence duties into expert motorcyclists. Squad after squad of trainees, mounted on ancient and often defective machines, were taken to the top of a steep grassy hill on the city's outskirts down which they hurtled, brakes disconnected, into a field at the bottom where the ambulance awaited.
In this I was carried off to Winchester Hospital with a caved-in chest where a handlebar had almost pushed its way through. It turned out that Ernesto was officially my next of kin, and I awoke next day to find him by my bed. The London traffic was in disarray through heavy bombing, but, notified of what had happened, he had rushed out of the house, found a taxi that could be bribed to take him to Winchester, and despite closed roads and detours to avoid craters and collapsed buildings, he was there in three hours. Seeing him sitting by my bed, I remembered the moment when his daughter, with myself in tow, had marched into his house to announce that we were married. The opaque eyes were fixed on me. Not a muscle moved in that imperturbable face in indication of what was going on in his head. 'Give me the paper,' he said in an even voice. He read it and I noticed a slight convulsion in the throat. This was known to Sicilians as 'swallowing the claws of the toad'. He then said, 'I'll give you my blood.' At the time I took this as no more than a conventional and meaningless Mediterranean formality, but now, in Winchester Hospital, I knew that it was not.
When the shattered bones had knitted up, I rejoined such of my comrades-inarms as the motorcycles had spared to be despatched overseas. There we would confront military adventures for which we were imperfectly prepared. I went briefly to the Middle East, then to the Gulf, escorted three thousand Russians captured in German uniform back to their home country and spent a total of eighteen months in southern Italy. There we were in close contact with the Corps' Sicilian section in Palermo and swapped visits with them whenever we could. This enabled me to send Ernesto news of his own country and I learned from him that he had decided to return home as soon as he could. His house in London had been heavily damaged in an air raid, which had turned all the buildings on the opposite side of the road to rubble. He was hoping, he wrote, as soon as the war came to an end to return to the scenes of his youth in Taormina and Catania. In the meanwhile he was sounding out the possibility of buying a house in Aci Trezza, a beauty spot on the coast some five miles from Catania itself. Of this he would be interested to have news, he said, and I made an excuse to visit the place, suspecting at first sight that nothing much would have changed since he was last there.
Aci Trezza was a beautiful place but a little unearthly as it lay in the shadow of Mount Etna, with vast lava fields sloping towards it. Etna was said to influence both the appearance and personality of the people of such villages. The menfolk were taller and more handsome than their neighbours, and had the reputation of being more forthright in their dealings, and the women were famous for dowries that were richer than elsewhere. The pale shadows cast from the great peak brought out unexpected colours in the landscape. It was raining on the day I arrived and the water was jostling everywhere in the village. Green bubbles floated like uncut emeralds down every ditch. The sweep of the wind had left broom marks in the fresh snow and all the men in the streets had mourning shadows under their eyes.
I wrote back to London: 'You ask about the famous boats, and they're there as ever, with angels and flowers painted all over them. The big eruption hasn't changed anything except they have built churches these days with black and white lava. A village just down the coast was wiped out. The fishermen live in little round houses now, just like Africans. Nobody was killed and they've painted pictures of their saint on the rocks with arrows pointing away from the village to show which way the lava has to flow next time there's an eruption. Would you like to live here again? The answer is you're older now and that has to be taken into consideration. Probably yes - and so would I. Another thing is Catania has kept up with the times. They've actually opened a gambling saloon. You'd be in your element.'
I became so enchanted by the charm and the colour of the place that I borrowed a motorbike and decided to add a few days to my leave by exploring more of the area.
Everyone living under a volcano is affected by it whether they know it or not. Land is cheap and the work hard. They farm the fertile ground lying at the bottom of crevices and ravines, where, over three centuries, the lava has turned into good soil. Those who work this land look like Andean peones, with short legs, wide shoulders, high cheekbones, sleek black hair, and hands twice the normal size.
A cluster of roads led north from Catania and for the first few miles, until the lava came into sight, the going was easy. The lava fields, spreading over thirty-five miles, took my breath away. Many of those who had settled within fifteen miles of the city had bought land on the cheap, turning themselves into respected landowners. They had the famous Catanian sense of humour and they all laughed at nothing most of the time. 'If you're rich' - at least so they said - 'you have to plant palms around your house' - this being the local status symbol. They liked to point out that they were unlikely to live long enough to enjoy the fruit.
A few miles further north, with the volcano now in permanent view, the going became less easy, with narrower roads and sometimes diversions to avoid a recent lava flow. A cloud resembling in shape a Tudor flat hat hung above the cone of Etna and you could pick out fresh lava trails by the smoking vegetation. It was a landscape that demolished assumptions. You expected a white wilderness, whereas what you saw were narrow ravines crowded with wildflowers of every conceivable colour, which scented the surroundings with a perfume penetrating even the sulphurous fumes of the lava.
At Zafferana, quite near the crater, the local doctor specialized in nervous disorders. He told me he treated his patients by making them wear nothing but red clothing. If a house was wiped out by lava the tradition was it had to be built again, as soon as it was possible, but in red brick. At Cantoniere di Etna I was taken to see a houseful of catacomb figures in their funeral finery of a century ago. They had been bought at auction, and were now kept not only as a curiosity but because their presence, mysteriously enough, 'helped to steady the nerves'. Two miles up the road the great mountain had spawned a series of small pyramids as if in a self-imitation, and these appeared and vanished in the tides of mist.
I found a room for the night at Zafferana, dashing off next morning in a disorganized and planless fashion, enchanted by the weirdness of this landscape slanting up to the sky and determined to see as much of it as I could. People cut off from normal human routine in such places are inevitably at risk from the mania that can, for example, fill a living room with catacomb figures. Nature is constantly surprising in such a setting. Earth and sky tilt, rain hisses on scalding rocks, a path leading nowhere is barred by a cast-iron queen (or goddess) holding a rusted sword. Grape-vines gone wild climb through a wood full of blue violets. There are shrunken, discoloured fields of snow and even great rocks perched among the tundra.
Excerpted from "In Sicily"
Copyright © 2000 Norman Lewis.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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