Tuesday, 22 July 2008
secrets and tears
'Without Sicily, Italy leaves no clear and lasting impression; this place is the key to everything' (Goethe, Italian Journey: Palermo, 13 April 1787).
‘Psyche chooses its geography’ (James Hillman).
The reasons why Sicily so inhabits my psyche remain mysterious to me. Why is my dream life so animated and intense when I am there? Why do I feel so 'at home' in this place of extremes? The following text & images - a version of a presentation at a Lone Twin symposium in Lancaster, 2007 - stem from a number of journeys to Sicily since 2002, a period that overlaps with my collaborations with Lone Twin (in particular during the preparation of Alice Bell). I had talked in a bantery way with Gregg & Gary about my fascination with Sicily, but had never really begun to articulate its complexity. This presentation endeavoured to touch on more personal interests.
Perhaps there's a circuitous link with Lone Twin insofar as these materials touch on the relations between travelling & stories, and on travel as a machine for generating stories. Perhaps there are other connections of sorts in some of the paradoxes & ambiguities of Sicily: in the spaces between generosity, compassion, sumptuous beauty and poverty, damage, dereliction, cruelty, suffering; between a celebratory joie de vivre and infinite sadness & tears; between wonder and horror; between unashamed & miraculous revelation and the repressive silencings of enforced secrets - so much of what happens there is invisible, half-glimpsed, or it cannot be spoken about, it is ‘unspeakable’; and in particular between hope (an action, a thing you 'do' in Sicily) and loss or even despair.
secrets and tears
In the noise of Sicily there are many different kinds of silence, and at least three gestures for a silence that is also a silencing:
1) Sew the lips together ('Cusitti la vucca') - 'Acqua in bocca' - 'Bouche cousue' - 'My lips are sealed'
2) Two fingers over the lips, slightly pushing up the nose ('Spiuni, muffuttu, cascittuni, sbirru') - 'As well as referring to a policeman, the gesture defines the informer, and all those who break the code of silence. When such a person appears, people say he stinks. The stink is due to the custom, in the past, of shoving such a person’s head into the toilet in the cell …'
3) Hands up, palms forward, leaning back ('Nenti sacciu, nenti haiu dittu, e se dittu e chiddu c'haiu dittu, nun l'haiu dittu') - 'Niente so, niente ho detto, e se detto e cio che ho detto, non l’ho detto' - 'Je ne sais rien, je n’ai rien dit, et si j’ai dit ce que j’ai dit, c’est comme si je ne l’avais pas dit' - 'I know nothing I have said nothing, and if what I said is said, I didn’t say it'
There’s an exquisite novel called The Leopard, by Lampedusa, about a Sicily in perpetual transition. In the novel Lampedusa describes the instability of truth in Sicily: ‘Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily: a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, annihilated by imagination and self-interest: shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves on the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether’ (216).
Perhaps I could try to tell you about the hot breezes – the sea – the sky – the smell of rain on the burnt earth.
Or some of the mythical stories about Sicily. The island is said to be supported above sea level by three huge marble columns, one of them broken. And Etna is the ‘forge of Vulcan’ – the Titans are said to be trapped under the volcano belching sulphur and rock.
Or Sicily's complex cultural layerings from a succession of invasions and occupations: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Muslim Arabs, Normans, Spanish Bourbons, Fascists in the 2nd world war, Americans in the wake of WW2. A composite, a palimpsest, a contradiction: it seems closer to North Africa than to Rome (or indeed to Europe), and perhaps inevitably so many people remain suspicious of outsiders.
Or some of its place names: there are towns called Pachino, Rossollino, Cinisi, Cimino – all of these mafia towns – and a ‘Coppola’ is a hat traditionally worn by rural mafiosi.
Or the graffiti – in this culture of silences, disallowed agendas and beliefs seep out proliferatively into these anonymous textual interventions: ‘HOW COULD HELL BE WORSE THAN THIS PLACE’ / ‘MUSSOLINI LIVES’ / ‘NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER CONFESS, NEVER COOPERATE’ / 'ANDREOTTI = MAFIA' / ‘THANK YOU FALCONE’
Or the recent ‘t-shirt wars’ (another textual outlet): Last year, t-shirts with the slogan La Mafia: Made in Sicily were on sale in Palermo markets & shops – there were huge sales, particularly in the wake of the arrest of the then boss of bosses, Bernardo Provenzano, found in a hut very close to his home town of Corleone. The shirts generated political outrage, and there were unsuccessful attempts to ban them. Particularly vocal was a man called Salvatore Cuffaro the Governor of Sicily (who was himself, ironically, under investigation for aiding & abetting the Mafia).
Then in the UEFA Cup, West Ham were drawn against Palermo: in London, before the first of the 2 matches, unlicensed vendors were selling t-shirts with the slogan The Hammers v. the Mafia, with the marionette strings logo from the Godfather films. Great offence was caused among Sicilians & politicians, including Cuffaro again. West Ham lost 1-0. At the return match in Palermo, free t-shirts were distributed outside the ground in the local team colours (pink) with the slogan La Mafia fa schifo (is disgusting): la liberta e la cosa nostra (freedom is our thing). After their team’s first goal, Palermo fans hummed the theme tune from The Godfather ... Palermo won 3-0 … Almost inevitably, there was some rioting after the match.
Then last summer (2006), the Corleone town council, as part of a re-branding of this most notorious Mafia town in Sicily, produced a festival called ’I love (heart) Corleone’, with t-shirts to match. The money raised was to be used to fund projects to turn confiscated Mafia properties into schools and farming co-ops. However – get this - the town council is being sued by the daughter of the former Mafia ‘boss of bosses’ Salvatore Riina (now serving a life sentence); the Riina family owns a clothing company called Mania Max, who claim a copyright on the slogan; they have been producing their own ‘I love Corleone’ t-shirts for a number of years …
Or perhaps I could tell you about the astonishing food and the markets - ‘a hungry person’s dream’, according to the great Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia: 'a market is more than a market, it's a vision, a dream, a mirage'. Lemons, figs, peaches, grapes, melons, always sprigs of leaves around the fruit: cartoon perfect vegetables; fish – tuna, swordfish, octopus, squid aglow under the red tented canopies; vats of olives, cheeses, almonds, pistachios – more often than not the markets are a kind of vision, a fantasy of plenty … and a sensory overload. Flayed goat’s heads hanging over the meat stalls. A chicken’s head in the gutter. The wind-scattered trash in the market’s wake.
Or the weddings you see everywhere in the summer months: one in particular I remember, in Piazza Armerina, where the bride seemed to be so much more in love with the photographer than with her new husband.
Or perhaps I could tell you about Paul, the father of a friend Daniel: a Dutch hippy walking along the Alcantara river valley in the 1980s, through the plain and into the gorges, eventually finding a cave to live in; he believed he had found his dream river/valley, and he has been there ever since.
Or the places I love: the white shell beach in the Zingaro park; the tonnara at Scopello, and the view over the bay from Vito's; the waves and sand of Calamosche, near Noto; Siracusa, and in particular the streets and baroque tufo buildings of the adjoining island Ortigia; the crumbling old city around La Kalsa in Palermo; the hills around Palermo's conca d'oro, with its ghosts of Salvatore Giuliano; the Catania fish market; Castiglione di Sicilia; the Alcantara valley; Leonardo's abundant orchards, and the woods near Pantalemi; the luminous baroque beauty of Noto; the road through the mountains past Novara di Sicilia towards the coast at Tindari; Cefalu; the blue water at Favignana ...
Or the birds everywhere ... The swifts Hannah filmed flocking & swooping around the facade of the Banco di Sicilia in Palermo, en route to Africa for the winter – catching & drinking water droplets from the condensation coming from the air conditioning units. Then the thousands of startled birds that scattered from a grove of trees in Noto when the fireworks started during the fiesta ... Then there’s the hunting season: gunshot echoing around the valley, any bird seemingly a potential target: the tension in your spine ...
Or the wild dogs everywhere ... moving slowly from pocket of shade to pocket of shade during the summer months - scavenging around the edges of the markets - or the dog I saw asleep on the steps of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, re-enacting Al Pacino’s death scene at the end of Godfather 3 - or the wild dogs running on the pitch during rioting at a Catania v. Palermo football match in early February 2007, the local derby match that led to the temporary suspension of all football in Italy. There were pictures on the news of players with their shirts over their heads to protect themselves against the tear gas as the match was abandoned and the dogs ran free …
Or - football - calcio - everywhere: oh the bewilderingly troubled state of Italian football ... The world cup triumph, high-level corruption, match fixing, demotions from Serie A including Juventus, etc. But what of the football itself, and the Italian aesthetics of football? Of the three vital ingredients required for the best football players and teams, Italians say the unruly passion of British football lacks all three: fantasia (the ability to do unpredictable things with the ball, surprising inspired instinct, imagination, flair); furbizia (cunning, slyness, tactical bending of the rules, all aspects of gamesmanship: all those things that offend and frustrate English fans so much); and tecnica (technique, skill). Surprise – cunning – skill ...
Or perhaps I could tell you about getting lost with Sue in the backstreets of Corleone, a little panicked, abandoning the car on some impossible vertical cobbled surface heading for some impossibly narrow gap between the houses. Meeting a sparkling-eyed man, telling him ‘Siamo perduto’ ('we are lost', I thought; in fact, 'we are desperate') – he laughs and says, ‘How can you be desperate when you can see the Madonna on the hillside?’
Or the countless Madonnas in little niches everywhere: votive candles, flowers, often in states of some disrepair, with dead flowers propped up in cans & coke bottles. The Madonna carrying a skull in her hand in the wall of Palermo’s Ucciardone Prison, the so-called ‘Mafia University’. Or the 'Weeping Madonna' (‘Madonna delle Lacrime’) in Syracusa: a ceramic Madonna who ‘wept’ for five days in 1953. Her tears are kept in a tiny glass phial in an ornate gilded centrepiece inside a giant dome built to resemble a tear drop. Or the Black Madonna at Tindari in the north of Sicily – La Madonna Nera, with her Latin plaque underneath her: Negra sum, sed formosa - 'I am black, but beautiful’. When this icon first appeared mysteriously ‘from the East’ a series of miracles occurred: for example, when a child fell from the cliffs towards the crashing sea below, the Black Madonna emptied the sea from the beach and cushioned the child’s landing with the soft sand. Since that time that stretch of beach has never been covered by the sea …
Or the roadside memorial in Alcantara to the young man whose body was thrown from a bridge into the gorge below in May 1950 during a car accident: somehow, miraculously, he survived … He was caught by St Antony, the memorial suggests.
Or my friend Leonardo telling me about his son-in-law, tragically killed when he fell backwards off building site scaffolding onto rocks: his tearful description of his young grandson asking about his disappeared father – ‘Why can’t he come down from the sky?’
Or Etna - the attitude of people living under the volcano: a mix of living in the moment and a kind of philosophical indifference. Its snow-covered peak: hundreds of years ago, ice was collected by the Arabs in great slabs from the summit, covered in ash, transported as far afield as Palermo and the mainland of Italy, for refrigeration.
Perhaps I could tell you about Empedocles, a hermit philosopher and early volcanologist who lived in an observatory near Etna’s summit, and studied it closely. Finally, in 433 BC he dived into the main crater (‘La Bocca Grande’) in attempt to prove that the gases spurting from the volcano would support his body weight and that he would float …
Or the lava sculptures on sale at stalls in the midst of the surreal lunar landscape near the mouth of the volcano: a row of Mussolinis and a row of Scots Terriers amongst the Madonnas ...
Or perhaps the virgin martyr Saint Agatha, the patron saint of Catania and becalmer of Etna. She was put to death under the Roman regime in the 3rd century for refusing the sexual advances of the local Roman magistrate; she was imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and her breasts were crushed and cut off. Later canonised by Catholic Church for her miraculous intervention in the 17th century, her veil was carried from her tomb in Catania towards the eruptions, and the volcano stopped - saving the city from complete destruction by the lava flows. Agatha is still invoked against volcanic eruptions, as well as fire and lightning. Every February on her feast day, the bejewelled reliquary (purportedly) containing her breasts and various sinews is taken from the cathedral in Catania and paraded through the streets.
Or Pio Padre, pictures of whom are everywhere, on most motorbikes, cabs, shops. Known to all modern Italian Catholics, the Capuccin monk ‘received stigmata’ - bleeding wounds on his hands, feet and abdomen – and then performed miracles until his death until the late 1960s; there were inexplicable cures with his bandaged hands, instant conversions, visions & prophecies …
Or the African migrants illegally landing their boats on the beaches of Lampedusa (south of Sicily) every summer. There have been thousands of these economic migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in recent years; over 2000 have died in the sea en route to a new life. Many of the survivors are held in detention camps near Syracusa.
Or the storms: A nocturnal electrical storm over the bay of Castellamare, west of Palermo, burning ephemeral images of coast and sea and sky onto our retinas - and our failed attempts to photograph the lightning.
Or the nocturnal fires apparently out of control in the olive groves on the hills; no one seems to notice as they burn through the night ...
Or 17 year old Rita Atria, daughter of a Mafia family whose father and brother had been murdered, who broke the vow of omerta/silence and went to the police. Denounced and threatened by her mother, she was given a safe house in Rome where she befriended the Mafia investigator Paolo Borsellino; he treated her like one of his own daughters and he became her one trusted link to home and the outside world. In 1992 a week after Borsellino was killed in a car-bombing in Palermo, Rita threw herself off the balcony. In a suicide note, she wrote: ‘There is no one left to protect me’ … Three months after her funeral, on the Day of the Dead, Rita’s mother smashed her headstone and obliterated the photo attached to it.
Yes, perhaps I should try to talk about the Mafia: Cosa Nostra, 'The Octopus', 'The Organisation', the State-within-the-State. Cusitti la vucca!
The complex hierarchies and codes of honour and respect, each family structure called a cosca, an artichoke, a unit with inter-folded leaves. The initiation rituals for becoming a ‘made man’ or ‘a friend of the friends’: a pricked finger, blood on the picture of saint, the image set on fire, the flames held in the hands, the oath sworn on pain of death. The connections with party politics, secret histories beneath the surface of Italian democracy: covert associations and conspiracies. The close links with the Christian Democrats (in their common horror of the Communists, like the Catholic Church – in 1948 voters were threatened with excommunication if they voted Communist). The particularly close links with seven-times prime minister Giulio Andreotti, and with members of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia - a party named after a football chant: 'Go Italy!' The murky rise of 'il Cavaliere' Berlusconi, from sleazey cruise-ship crooner to media monopolist, owner of AC Milan, three-time president in alliances with nationalists and fascists, always one step ahead of the law ... The protection money, pizzo, a word for the beak of a small bird - and an estimated 80% of businesses in Palermo are still thought to be paying the pizzo). The heroin refineries. The money laundered in real estate contracts, disastrous totalitarian-style housing development and unfinished public works projects – blocks of flats that collapse, roads that suddenly stop, flyovers in the middle of nowhere. The Mafia’s word for the Law – la sonnambula (the somnambulist, and it’s a female sleepwalker). The apartment in Palermo found by police in the mid 1980s, its rooms stacked floor to ceiling with bank notes. The illegal horse racing, closing off the roads in Palermo & Messina. The coded actions: the look, the gesture, the entry-phone button covered in glue (a common warning), the silent phone call, the threatening note, the poisoned dog, the dead fish sent through the post, the banker hanging off Blackfriars bridge with bricks & stones in his pockets, the body with money stuffed in its mouth, the precise coding of floral tributes at funerals ... The Corleonese psychopaths Luciano Liggio (the so-called ‘Black Knight’, although he preferred to be called ’The Professor’) and Toto ‘the Beast’ Riina, AKA Uncle Toto or Shorty - although you wouldn’t call him that to his face - he was responsible directly or indirectly for over 800 murders; Bernardo ‘The Tractor’ Provenzano in hiding for over 40 years (‘he shoots like an angel, but has the brains of a chicken’, according to his boss Liggio, who was reading Kant and Freud in Ucciardone prison, the ‘Mafia University’) - Provenzano was finally arrested in April 2006; and now probably the new capo di tutti capi, the Porsche-loving, computer operating, Latin speaking, playboy killer from Trapani, Matteo Messina Denaro, ‘Matthew Money’, who once strangled a rival’s pregnant girlfriend – ‘I filled a cemetery all by myself’, he once bragged; he has been in hiding since 1992 ... The massacres of the 1970s and 1980s, a systematic ‘terror’ engineered by Toto Riina, the psycopath from Corleone who just loves Corleone ... The killings, hundred & hundreds of people. The victims were rival Mafiosi, local and government politicians, judges, investigators, policemen, journalists, doctors, businessmen, the so-called ‘excellent cadavers’ or ‘distinguished corpses’: one lawyer’s severed head was found on the front seat of his car in Naples, the rest of his body had disappeared ... And then there were hundreds of other people simply in the wrong place at the wrong time – knives, garrottes, strychnine, sawn-off shotguns, kalashnikovs, grenades, acid vats, even a bazooka was once found; and then the bombs, there were lots of bombs …
Those that were murdered included: Giuseppe Russo - Michele Reina - Giorgio Ambrosoli - Boris Giuliano - Cesare Terranova - Piersanti Mattarella - Emanuele Basili - Gaetano Costa - Pio la Torre - Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa - Rocco Chinnici - the pentito Leonardo Vitale - Ninni Casara - Antonio Saetta - Giovanni Buonsignore - Giuseppe Insalaco - Rosario Livatino - Antonio Scopelliti -
These were all resisters – and I’d like to mention just a few remarkable others here:
In particular, prosecuting magistrates Giovanni Falconi and Paolo Borsellino – who recognised the ‘highly refined minds’ of some of the Mafiosi, and said the octopus was first of all inside all of us. They were responsible for bringing hundreds of core figures in organised crime to trial. Top Mafia enemies, extraordinary figureheads in exposing the structures and key players – both were murdered within a few weeks of each other, both with car bombs in the early summer of 1992 – Falcone on the way from the airport to Palermo with his wife and bodyguards, Borsellino while visiting his mother in Palermo on a Sunday afternoon.
Earlier on, Peppino Impastato: the son of a Mafioso who witnessed the death of his uncle (a local Mafia boss & heroin trafficker) in a car bomb when he was 15. Peppino refused to become Mafioso, broke off relations with his father, and became a left-wing activist. He started a community radio station (Radio Aut) that derided the local Mafia bosses in satirical & grotesque sketches; his radio programme ‘Onda Pazza’ (‘Crazy Waves’) used the cash registers in Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ as an intro theme tune. A year after his father was ‘accidentally’ killed by a passing car, and on the same day in 1978 when former Prime Minister Aldo Moro’s body was found in the boot of a Fiat in Rome, dumped by the Red Brigades, Impastato was shot, his body was dumped on a railway line near Cinisi, explosives tied to his chest were detonated – a death designed to look like the suicide of a terrorist. Two days after his death he was elected as a local councillor. His murderers were only convicted in 2002, mainly due to the persistence of his mother & brother.
Libero Grassi, the shopkeeper who in August 1991 went on TV to signal his refusal to pay protection money (the pizzo): he was shot two days later ...
The seven students who one night in 2005 plastered the streets of Palermo with stickers demanding an end to protection payments, the pizzo: ‘A people that pays pizzo is a people without dignity’. Local pressure forced the city council to come on board and support this campaign, which continues today. So far over 7000 shoppers have been encouraged only to use retailers who refuse to cooperate with the Mafia; more than 150 local businesses are now involved in this grassroots ‘addiopizzo/consumo critico’ movement (‘Goodbye to protection/critical consumption’).
Letizia Battaglia, photographer/documenter of Mafia killings, community activist, local politician, who took to the streets to clean up needles and plant trees.
Perhaps above all, Rosaria Schifani. Live on television, the young wife of one of Giovanni Falcone’s bodyguards, killed in the same explosion at Carpaci, was one of the first 'ordinary' people (i.e. not in public office) to speak out to a mass audience against the Mafia and its connections to the State. The first words she spoke were: ‘My beautiful Vito. He had such beautiful legs’. She went on:
'I, Rosaria Costa, wife of police escort Vito Schifani, in the name of all those who have given their lives for the state – the state – I ask first of all that justice be done, now. I’m speaking to the men of the mafia who are here among us. You can ask for forgiveness. I will forgive you but you must get on your knees, if you have the courage to change. But they don’t want to change – they won’t change! … I ask, on behalf of the city of Palermo, Lord, which you have turned into a city of blood, too much blood, I ask you to work for peace, for justice, for hope, for love – love for everyone – but there is no love here … there is no love here … there is no love here …'
This final outrage, and her tears and her words, changed a lot of people’s hearts. Her public grief - and accusations - helped bring huge public pressure for change, and encouraged the growth of a popular anti-mafia movement throughout Sicily. Her words remind me of Carlo Levi’s description of the mother of a murdered communist peasant speaking out at the trial of her son’s killers in the 1950s: ‘And so this woman created herself, in the course of a day: tears are no longer tears, they are words now, and words are stones’.
(Extracts from 'Secrets and tears', a presentation as part of ‘I Can’t Go On Like This: a Lone Twin symposium', Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster University, February 2007 - © David Williams).