The Day of the Owl
by Leonard Sciascia (Il Giorno della Civetta, 1961)
translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver (1963)
NYRB Classics (2003)
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. 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.