Saturday, May 05, 2007

To Each His Own, by Leonardo Sciascia

I read an article recently in the Boston Globe about an Afghan warlord who was one of America's allies towards the beginning of the war. He would report the position of various enemy forces and the Americans would go and bomb them. Eventually it became clear that he was just calling in airstrikes against enemy warlords and other rivals, and that any number of people who were not Taliban forces had been killed - including, apparently, guests at a wedding who were connected to someone that this guy happened to dislike.

After Karzai appointed a new governer in the region, the warlord - his name is Pacha Khan Zadran - started attacking government forces, including American soldiers. People that allegedly worked for him were captured and sent to Guantanamo - some, in fact, while he was still considered an American ally. Eventually, he was classified as an enemy and then, when it was decided that his support was necessary to stabilize the country, pardoned and made part of the government. Two of his alleged hirelings are still in Guantanamo - it is unclear what if any role they played in the attacks - and he lives in a mansion with the protection of our government. One of the major charges against the men still being held is that they have connections to him!

What do you do when you read stories like this, along with reports of accidentally gunning down families at roadblocks and people fishing by the river? What's an adequate response to the immensity of these injustices, especially in a war with so little justification? I have been thinking recently that American writers still haven't figured out how to convert the rage and bitterness that many people have felt over the last half dozen years into any sort of art. To Each His Own is the rare book that feels like a true artistic response to such massive institutional crimes. Unsurprisingly, Sciascia comes from Italy, the only Western country with a government that has been more corrupt than America's for the past few years, although mercifully with a smaller body count. I suspect it was as bad or worse in the 60s and 70s, when he wrote most of his books.

I discovered Sciascia through a list my friend made on The Powdered Wig. His book is very short, less than two hundred pages, and begins like an ordinary crime novel: a fairly unremarkable pharmacist receives a death threat saying that he will have to atone for a past crime, doesn't take it seriously, and is then killed along with a friend of his while they are hunting. People (mostly men) talk about the murder and spin out various webs of conjecture, then largely forget about it and move on to politics and other subjects. One man, a professor, something of a misfit inside these chattering groups, thinks he has a clue to the crime. Slowly, as he talks to various people (the book is filled with talking) he thinks he sees what was really going on with the murders.

No brilliant sleuthing is done, and the things he finds out many people already know. Unlike other detective novels, there is no great ingenuity in the crime. But there is something about Sciascia's book that gives it an emotional power and a feeling of greatness that most mysteries do not even aim for. I think its power lies in the fact that, as the professor conducts his desultory researches, the novel slowly takes in the entire society and, finally, implicates it in the crime, even as very few people are revealed to be guilty of anything.

Most mystery novels - as befits the increasingly atomistic life led in the countries where such books are produced - have a small cast of separate characters, each of whom is a potential suspect; they may have some connections to each other, but they are isolated and examined like specimens. Such books are not written out of the life of a society, as most of the great 19th century novels were. Modern novels do not show individuals against such a backdrop because such unified communities rarely exist anymore, even in rural areas. Sicily, at least when Sciascia wrote, still had the feeling of the sort of traditional communities that George Eliot or Hardy depicted and, as with those writers, this novel's power comes largely from the isolation of the main character from the society that surrounds him, a society that reveals itself in the end to be shot through with hypocrisy and corruption.

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