Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To Each His Own, by Leonard Sciascia

New York Review Books
originally published as A ciascuno il suo, 1966
translated by Adrienne Foulke
158 pp

(book #2 in my mini-series of posts called "What Would Montalbano Read")

 Just a brief note before I begin: if you have the NYRB edition, save the introduction until you've finished the book. It gives away a lot of plot elements within the story.


Italy is a country so blessed that for every weed they destroy, two spring up in its place.
It is very easy to understand why Andrea Camilleri would include Sciascia as an author read by Salvo Montalbano, and easier to understand how Sciascia's writings influenced those of Camilleri.  Actually, it is The Council of Egypt that comes up in one of Camilleri's novels, but To Each His Own highlights the author's exploration of the nexus of Sicilian identity, politics and criminality. And the real reason I chose this one is, truth be told, I already had To Each His Own in my tbr pile.  To Each His Own is only one of the author's long list of novels  translated into English; it is a literary, intelligent and yet unconventional novel of Italian crime fiction. And it's superb.

The story begins when the local pharmacist, Manno, receives a death threat in the mail:
"This letter is your death sentence. To avenge what you have done, you will die." 
He waves it off guardedly as a joke, because he can't think of anything he's done to merit this kind of warning, but when he and his friend Dr. Roscio go off hunting the next day, they do not return. Only their dogs are left to announce their deaths.  The authorities make a perfunctory appearance, questioning the pharmacist's widow as to what kind of behavior could have built up such animosity that it would be worthy of revenge. Settling on the fact that he must have been killed by a jealous husband or lover because of some kind of adulterous behavior, a sort of collective fiction is born regarding the pharmacist's (unfounded) extramarital flirtations. Once that ball has started rolling and the rumors start flying, his "adulteries" become the "official" reason for his death among the locals.    Roscio's death is put down to him being the poor guy who just happened to be an innocent bystander; caught in a bad place at a bad time, the victim of Manno's "bad" behavior.  After the funerals are over,  having settled on a reason for the murders,  the townspeople turn their focus to the future of Roscio's voluptous widow, Luisa.

There is, however, one person, high-school teacher Professor Laurana, who is still thinking about what may have actually happened.  He picks up on an important clue about the threatening letter, noticing that the word "Unicuique" comes through the paper in the light.  Laurana realizes that the words "Unicuique suum" is one of the mottoes printed under the masthead of the newspaper  L'Osservatore Romano.  At this point, Laurana's vanity and curiosity compel him to follow his hunches, and then he "doggedly sets about doing so", unable to let the matter rest like everyone else.  At the same time, it becomes clear that uncovering the truth is a very personal matter rather than a means of  securing justice:
"...Laurana had a kind of obscure pride which made him decisively reject the idea that just punishment should be administered to the guilty one through any intervention of his. His had been a human, intellectual curiosity that could not, and should not, be confused with the interest of those whom society and State paid to capture and consign to the vengeance of the law persons who transgress and break it." 
Laurana is an interesting character: he lives a sheltered life with his mother and in the halls of academia.  He has a firm "belief in the supremacy of reason and candor over irrationality and silence...", even though he's a lone stranger within a culture that exemplifies the opposite. He lives in a society where truth falls victim to the ongoing maintenance of the accepted status quo by people "who have every interest in working to keep the impunity coefficient high." His curiosity is unwelcome in such a system, and along the way his need to know will turn his understanding of the real world on its head and even worse.

Although the crime fiction aspect of this book will keep the reader turning pages trying to figure out exactly what happened, the story operates on other levels as well. It is a commentary on the justice system, party politics, the Church, and other facets of Sicilian culture. And, as di Piero notes in the introduction, Sciascia 

"used storytelling as an instrument for investigating and attacking the ethos of a culture -- the insular, mafia-saturated culture of Sicily -- which he believed to a metaphor of the world."

One of the basic points the author makes throughout this book is that there are various levels of criminality in which we are all complicit, so in that sense, the metaphor is not too far off the mark.

Readers of more socially and politically-oriented crime fiction will like this book, as will readers of literary fiction.  It's intelligent, thought-provoking and frankly, is very high on my list of good books for the year.

crime fiction from Italy


  1. This is so interesting. The friend who encouraged me to read Camilleri's books, and also Montalban's has suggested frequently that I read Sciascia's, as well.

    Am glad to see such a positive review, and may investigate further, when the TBR mountain (and list) ease up a bit.

  2. Thanks, Kathy. Your friend sounds like a walking crime fiction encyclopedia!


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