April 27, 2019
In 1956 the Sicilian Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote a novel called Il Gattopardo, The Leopard. It was published in 1958, after his death. The book won the 1959 Strega Prize, Italy’s highest award for fiction. In 2012 the Observor named the book one of the best 10 historical novels. It’s the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, the author’s great-grandfather and his response to the Risorgamiento, the effort that unified Italy. Garibaldi and his 1000 soldiers in landed in Sicily in 1860 to bring the island into the fold. Corbera, the last in a line of minor princes, finds that he has to choose between upper class values and the changing times. To go along with the latter ironically meant more influence for the family. His nephew Tancredi, who joined Garibaldi, put it thus: “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.” In the end Sicily’s ruling class joined the new Italy, setting aside centuries of Spanish rule.
In 2000 we met Gigi, Tomasi’s great-nephew. He was then in the process of writing a novel. He needed someone to help him write it in English. This was more than normal editing, as although he spoke English quite well, writing is another matter and often not easy to do even for native speakers. Peg took on the task. This led to stay in Sicily for 3 weeks.
We lodged in his family’s turn of the century residence outside Modica, a charming town whose houses line a steep gorge. His house was out in the flatter area however. His wife Marina was there with us as well. Marina was friendly and a very good cook as well. We had dinner with them most nights. I learned to make onions in bread crumbs with garlic, oregano and basil. She made pasta Palermitana, which here in Palermo they are calling pasta sarde, pasta with sardines, and which are very popular. She sauteed fresh sardines, then she added bread crumbs before mixing in the cooked pasta. Marina had a German Shepherd she’d rescued off the street. He had a wild-eyed look to him, like he was deciding if he would let you pass or attack, though he never even growled. She called him simply ‘Cane, ‘ ‘Dog.’ We had a whole apartment to ourselves, on the second floor, with its own kitchen, to give you an idea of the size of the place.
It was in the month of July. When Peg was not working we drove around in Gigi’s Renault 8. They have a dashboard mounted 4 speed manual transmission. It was old and the shifter clunky, but always ran. It was fun to drive such a French car. With it we went to a burial site dating to something like 4000 BCE, a Roman theater, stopped when we saw fig trees by the side of the road ripe with fruit, appearing to belong to no one. We ate fresh tuna in out-of-the-way places and well-known ones such as Noto. Tuna is plentiful that time of year when they run the straits between Sicily and Malta on their way to the cooler waters of the Atlantic. Siracusa is an ancient Greek city in an island with many, with churches built using Roman era marble columns. There is both a theater and an oracle, the oracle now just a cave, not far from town. I took the ferry to Malta, imaging the voyages of Ulysses and the Carthaginians along the way, just an hour and a half on the sea.
In one double take moment I saw a boy and a girl walking ahead of us. They looked just like my brother and the older of my sisters at that age. Unlike me, they are 100% Sicilian, not that all Sicilians look alike. Even in my own family there are vast differences. Zio Matteo, my mother’s half-brother, was blond and blue-eyed, although his hair was gray by the time of my earliest memories. He taught me to use a knife and fork, European style, right hand for the knife, left for the fork. In those days I think they did not allow for lefties. In fact the teachers, nuns I believe, forced her to write with her right hand. Lefties were somehow devils.
Gigi and Marina took us often to a bar in the mornings, one known for their coffee granitas topped with thick whipped cream. We went to a friend’s house one evening. They grilled veggies for the bruscheta (‘ch’ in Italian is a hard ‘k’ sound, so it is pronounced ‘brusKeta’) on great Italian bread. There was pasta and wine, and a secondi, either meat or fish. The food was endless, the conversation in Italian mostly, some of which we could follow with our combination of Spanish, French and a book called “Italian Made Simple.”
As far as we know, Gigi never published his book. Peg said he was rewriting her edits, which she then had to edit. She concluded he could finish it in English. Maybe he wrote it Italian. I read a short story he wrote. It was quite good. A yacht owner took his large boat into the Med with a group of friends. He let his regular captain take the day off. They all dove off the boat to enjoy the lovely waters. However they forgot to lower the ladder beforehand and found they could not get back on the boat. Everyone drowned.
We flew back to Rome from Catania, flying over the isle of Stromboli. It’s a volcano, cone is long gone, with signs of life rising from its depths.