Not all journeys are physical; at times we find ourselves travelling within ourselves, discovering, slowly, realities hitherto unknown. It is that metaphysical pilgrimage that perhaps, even if taken only once in our lifetime, leaves us irrevocably changed.

Not by coincidence, I found myself drawn to that book on my library shelf, that I had not picked up since my university days; I had just finished writing my post on Ortigia (Siracusa) and Conversazione in Sicilia kept hovering in my thoughts, not excessively, but enough to finally convince me to reread it. It is one of those books whose story could not ever be fully grasped or internalized by young minds, but that nevertheless, can take a hold of you and leave you with a sort of inquietude for the rest of your life. It’s a story that has always stayed with me.

I write about holidays and travel destinations that reawaken the soul and stir the senses. Travelling to one’s past can have the same effect.

Elio Vittorini’s protagonist, Silvestro, in the neorealist novel of 1941 Conversations in Sicily, (translated by Alane Serlierno Mason) travels back to his village near Siracusa, to his past, and to a reality he had never been able to come to terms with. He is a young typographer from Milan, who has fallen prey to great despair for himself, for the state of his country, Italy, within the Fascist regime, and ultimately, for humankind—“il genere umano”. He says “Io ero, quell’inverno, in preda ad astratti furori” (I was that winter, in the throes of abstract furies).

This state of mind he finds himself in is made worse by the arrival of a letter from his father from whom he learns, has left his mother for another woman. Silvestro decides suddenly to leave and return to his native village in Sicily, from which he left fifteen years before. During the long train voyage he will meet up with many sorts, both real and imaginary, all afflicted and oppressed, either by great poverty, or by the political regime, and who will become the basis for the protagonist’s spiritual “return”. Most significant, among the people Silvestro meets is the figure of il Gran Lombardo (the Great Lombard): a landowner named both for his imposing physical presence and for his proud bearing, who when he breaks his silence, says that the time has come “di assumere una nuova coscienza, di aspirare a nuovi e più alti doveri” –to take on a new consciousness, to aspire to new and higher duties. It is at this point in time that the reader has the first hint of the theme of inner awakening, and more importantly, the cry for change and a break from the omnipresent tyrant; universal themes that relate to all peoples, at all times. Nevermore than at the present.

The three-day trip is the framework for this short novel, and which is above all, of symbolic value: Silvestro, who is in fact Vittorini himself, in the course of this spiritual journey discovers through his conversations with the people of Sicily that he encounters, “un’umanità offesa” , (an offended humanity): the old Man of the oranges and his Little Wife afflicted by poverty; the bureaucrats of the regime Baffi and Senza Baffi (Whiskers and Without Whiskers); the Great Lombard, are all representative of a humanity that aspires to freedom from the shackles that have oppressed it historically from one tyrant to another.

Pioveva intanto e passavano i giorni, i mesi,

e io avevo le scarpe rotte, l’acqua che mi entrava

nelle scarpe e non vi era più altro che questo: pioggia,

massacri sui manifesti dei giornali, e

acqua nelle mie scarpe rotte, muti

amici, la vita in me come un sordo

sogno, e non speranza, quiete.

There was no longer anything but this: rain,

massacres in the posters for the newspapers,

water seeping through the holes in my shoes,

mute friends, life in me like a deaf dream,

and a hopeless calm. That was the terrible thing:

Calm in the midst of hopelessness.

Silvestro’s journey continues through the lands of Siracusa and into the world of his mother, accompanied by memories that slowly emerge from seeing again his ancient mountains, the hillsides covered with bushes of prickly pears, the smell of sulfur and of the herring that his mother once cooked for him. The landscape and the dialogues with his mother Concezione (Conception) bring him back to his childhood days.

Ma guarda, sono da mia madre”, pensai di nuovo, e lo trovavo

improvviso esserci come improvviso ci si ritrova in un punto della memoria

e altrettanto favoloso, e credevo di essere entrato a viaggiare nella

quarta dimensione. Pareva che non ci fosse stato nulla, o solo un sogno,

un intermezzo d’animo, tra l’essere a Siracusa e l’essere là, e che l’essere

là fosse effetto della mia decisione, d’un movimento della mia memoria, non del mio corpo”.

The language of Vittorini’s return is both powerful and lyrical, of almost Homeric simplicity. The rhythmic repetitions of the dialogue between Silvestro and the people he discourses with underline the author’s obsessive focus on the cry of the ‘everyman’, imprisoned in a hopeless existence. When on the ferry going to Sicily, Silvestro attempts to make contact with the small man who has nothing to eat except an orange. Silvestro watches the man eating his orange angrily without desire, not chewing but swallowing down every morsel with bitter desperation.,

“All’estero non ne vogliono”, – continuò il piccolo siciliano. –” Come

se avessero il tossico. Le nostre arance. E il padrone ci paga così.

Ci dà le arance… E noi non sappiamo che fare. Nessuno ne vuole.

Veniamo a Messina, a piedi, e nessuno ne vuole… Andiamo a

vedere se ne vogliono a Reggio, a Villa San Giovanni, e non ne

vogliono… Nessuno ne vuole.”

Squillò la trombetta del capotreno, la locomotiva fischiò.

– “Nessuno ne vuole… Andiamo avanti, indietro, paghiamo

il viaggio per noi e per loro, non mangiamo pane, nessuno

ne vuole… Nessuno ne vuole.

Il treno si mosse, saltai a uno sportello.

– Addio, addio!

– Nessuno ne vuole… Nessuno ne vuole…

Come se avessero il tossico… Maledette arance.”

“They do not want them abroad”, – continued the small Sicilian . –

“As if these oranges of ours were toxic . And this is our pay. .We are

given the oranges … And we do not know what to do with them.

No one wants them. We come to Messina , we walk , and no one

wants any… we go to Reggio, to Villa San Giovanni , and nobody

wants any… Nobody wants any. ” The conductor, blew his horn,

the locomotive whistled . – “No one wants any… We go here and

there, we pay for the journey for us and for them, we do not eat

bread, …but no one wants any [oranges]… Nobody wants any .

The train moved forward, I jumped through a door . -” Goodbye

goodbye!” –

“Nobody wants any … Nobody wants any … As if they

were toxic … Cursed oranges!”

Silvestro begins to sense a need to belong to this community; he knows it is crucial to his re-attainment of identity. He needs to connect with the Sicilians, and in particular with their poverty.

Later on, in his home town, walking with his mother, and again later with his new-found friends, the measured constant beat of their dialogue, much like that of a Greek chorus, combines with the sound of ancestral music of the shepherd pipers, descending to the villages and towns of the region to celebrate the nativity. The sound of conversations and the songs of the people seem to rise from an ancient earth that pulls Silvestro back to his roots as his reawakening begins.

During these wanderings through the town with his mother, Silvestro will meet a knife grinder, –clearly the communist revolutionary who is frustrated by the lack of blades among the population–a saddler who could be the philosopher trying to prevent the loss of an untainted world, and a cloth merchant who demonstrates the resignation and false hope of religion.

They all suffer “for the agony of the world.” It is by all accounts, a Felliniesque parade of odd characters whose distressing and ambiguous words hide heavy truths about mankind and ultimately about individual man’s own primordial longing to know himself,

Conversazione in Sicilia is a narrative of common humanity and solidarity in suffering, unbounded by time and place. It is also more than that: it is an allegory, a fable rich in symbolism and magic. The chanting and iterations lend it a lyricism that lifts the spirit, because despite the desolation and stark images of a bleak Second World War Sicily, it allows the reader, along with Silvestro, to take a voyage of return.

Sometimes, the best travel can happen within a good book!

Conversazione In Sicilia by Elio Vittorini

Conversations in Sicily, translated by Alane Salierno Mason


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