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Leonardo Sciascia: The Day of the Owl

Before you read the book:

I had to take a break from the Booker longlist.  After reading nine of the thirteen – and really only enjoying a slim few – I wanted to read something that I wanted to read.  This is in no way meant to suggest that the tipping point was Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs, which in fact was one of the best on the longlist and a joy to read.  If anything, it was because I finished that book and then started another longlist title and was disappointed quickly.  I had to branch out!

The cover, and the fact that it is a NYRB book, made me buy The Day of the Owl (Il Giorno della Civetta, 1961; tr. from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver, 1963 (as Mafia Vendetta).  I knew next to nothing else about it, though I had heard of Sciascia and that his books were a bit condemning of the way Italy ran its state in the 1940s and 1950s.

This is a book that is perhaps better approached with only a vague idea of its plot because it is short, sly, and rewarding.  But, there are a few things I can say that might make it more appealing to some out there who are wondering whether to venture into this Italian classic.

The book begins with a crime.  An innocuous contractor named Salvatore Colasberna is shot when attempting to board a bus.  When the investigator, Captain Bellodi, arrives at the scene, no one seems to have any clue what happened.  The ambitious detective cannot get anyone to tell him anything:

To the informer the law was not a rational thing born of reason, but something depending on a man, on the thoughts and the mood of this man here, on the cut he gave himself shaving or a good cup of coffee he has just drunk.

Bellodi needs to crack this case to prove he is worthy of his position, but no one, not even those on his side of the law, is helping.  The situation is exacerbated as one crime leads to another which leads to another.  Knowing exactly what happened, Bellodi must find a way around the obstacles built to hide or deny the existence of a group we all know about these days: the mafia. 

We have an idea what happened to Colasberna:

Obviously, if nine companies out of ten have accepted protection, thus forming a kind of union, the tenth which refuses is a black sheep.  It can’t do much harm, of course, but its very existence is a challenge and a bad example.

We trust in Bellodi’s theory.  However, knowing what has happened and even why is not the main point of this detective novel.  I found this more interesting: how do you bring about justice under these circumstances?

The great thing about this book is that the compelling plot is not just some gimmick a writer came up with to entertain his readers.  In fact, Sciascia’s intent with this book was to show the failure of the state to engage with the mafia. Sciascia has a way to make the reader care about Bellodi’s situation even though the crime itself is resolved early on – we don’t lack the evidence; rather we lack a legitimate way to bring the evidence to light.

It is unfair to compare this book with Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize this year, but I’m going to do it anyway (when I say “unfair,” by the way, I meant unfair to Sciascia; it’s flattering, I’m sure, to Smith).  Here is a detective novel that has at its heart a man’s fight against a state with its back turned.  Here, however, everything was done subtely and with good characterization.  Here is a compelling read that at one-fifth the length of Child 44 covers more ground and engages the reader with the subject.  And here is a book with a provoking resolution that is far from cheap.  For those of you looking for a good crime novel, don’t go to the Booker longlist – here is a nice quick one that will please you much more.

After you read the book:

For any of you interested in criminal procedure, I’d like to know your thoughts on the manner of the investigation and interrogation.  I found it very interesting how Bellodi deals with a system that refuses to acknowledge a problem, making its process even more frustrating for a detective who knows exactly what has happened.

13 thoughts on “Leonardo Sciascia: The Day of the Owl

  1. That’s more like it Trevor, that sounds fantastic. I’ve started to find it depressing myself, seeing Booker after Booker reviewed and found wanting. It’s nice to see something unequivocaly well written and interesting with serious things to say getting a write-up.

    Are you going back to your Booker list next? If so, I hope the next few prove more exciting than the previous. But for now Sciascia is a writer I’ve long meant to try but never known where to start with, now I know and I’ll be definitely adding this to my TBR pile.

  2. redheadrambles says:

    You have got me intrigued with this book. I really do want to read a crime novel, and even though I brought Child 44 it is not high on my TBR list. I have 2 books to go in my chosen Booker reading list and then it is back to reviewing other, hopefully, more satisfying books.

  3. My impression is this is more a novel which is born of a crime, than a crime novel Red. Trevor, would you call this a crime novel?

  4. To answer your first question, Max, I’m still going through the Booker longlist (I’ve only got three more I’m going to review: From A to X, Sea of Poppies, and The Northern Clemency. I am not going to read Girl in a Blue Dress because I didn’t get it when I was buying the rest and am now just tired). However, I’ve decided that I must read some other things in between, so I’m not sure when the rest of my longlist reviews will be posted. Soon, I hope!

    Now about this being a crime novel: In a way it is. We have the crime, some clues, and then some other crimes that tie into the first. But that’s really just back story for the real problem of trying to prosecute the crimes. It’s still exciting, though, and I’d say a bit suspenseful at times. At any rate, well worth your time, redhead!

  5. Actually, that does sound like a crime novel, just a very good one. Thanks for the response there Trevor, and as I say, definitely one for my TBR pile.

  6. John Self says:

    Interesting, Trevor. I picked this up a few months ago because (a) it was cheap in a local charity shop, (b) it was short, and (c) the title reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s superb The Cry of the Owl. Incidentally it’s published (as are most of Sciascia’s novels) in the UK by Granta, if anyone is looking for them. I hope to get around to it soon, now I’ve finished the Booker botheration!

  7. John, congratulations on finishing the Booker longlist! I have to say, I’ve always wanted to embark on this project, but this year really demotivated me. I’m close to finishing it, but I’ve definitely slowed down my pace. Here’s hoping next year’s better!

  8. KevinfromCanada says:

    Trevor: Given your observations about the role of the state in this book, I’m wondering if in any way you would compare this to The Garden of The Finzi-Continis. I realize that comparison is definitely a stretch, but one of the things that has always interested me about the Garden is the almost negative role of the state.

  9. Kevin, I’ve not yet read Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, though I’ve been meaning to. I’m a pretty big fan of William Weaver’s translating ability, though I’ve not read enough yet.

    I first heard of The Garden when I saw the 1971 film on display in a local video library. Decided not to watch the film until I read the book, which hasn’t happened in the five years since seeing the video on display! So thanks for the reminder! It is now back on my radar and I hope to get to it sooner so that this book is still in my head.

    It sounds like one you recommend – is it?

  10. KevinfromCanada says:

    I certainly would recommend the book. I read the Everyman’s Library version of the Weaver translation — I gather there is a new translation out, but I haven’t read it. The book is much, much better than the film (which I also admit I liked). I’m not sure that it does relate to this book (although there is enough in your review to suggest it might and I will be ordering this volume) — but I think given your thoughts here you will find The Garden more than worthwhile.

  11. Isabel says:

    Congrats for finding an interesting book.

    I am glad that you could take a break and find a great book.

    Good luck with the rest of your Booker reading.

  12. John Self says:

    I have the new translation of the Bassani by Jamie McKendrick (published in the UK by the reliable Penguin Modern Classics). I didn’t realise Weaver had done it before; like Trevor, I’m an admirer of his and would have sought it out.

  13. I’m always interested in a new translation, John, so I’m anxious to hear your thoughts. I’m going to stick with reading the Weaver for my first time, and then if it’s just one of those books, I’ll try the McKendrick translation if you find it worthy.

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