For decades, articles about Sicily were invariably accompanied by grim, black and white images of bloodied streets and exploded cars. The island was synonymous with Cosa Nostra, whose violent rule eclipsed all else. Organised crime is still a problem, yet thankfully some progress has been made. Today, democratically minded Sicilians are gaining influence against considerable odds. Culture and tourism are key to their vision of the future. Ever since Unesco recognised Palermo’s Arab-Norman buildings as sites of Outstanding Universal Value in 2015, institutions have been scrambling to valorise other lesser-known heritage. The baroque villas of Ragusa and Noto, which had long been left in decline, are now being restored to their former glory. Publishing houses are commissioning anthologies of forgotten medieval and Renaissance writers, art galleries are organising exhibitions about underrated modernist artists, while chefs and restaurateurs are rebranding the island’s vegetable-rich cuisine to appeal to a growing vegan customer base.
My book The Invention of Sicily offers one itinerary through this rich culture. But it is by no means definitive. As the novelist Gesualdo Bufalino once put it, Sicily is not “a homogeneous blob of race and customs”, but a place where “everything is mixed, changing, contradictory, just as one finds in the most diverse, pluralistic of continents”. With that in mind, I’ve chosen 10 books that show the island’s miscellaneous character, leaving the mafia in the margins where it belongs:
1. Terroni: All That Has Been Done to Ensure That the Italians of the South Became ‘Southerners’ by Pino Aprile
Terroni is a term, analogous to “redneck” in the US, that north Italians invented in the postwar years to distance themselves from their poorer, southern compatriots. Living in Tuscany, I’m frequently shocked by how casually people here use the slur. Here, Aprile traces anti-southern discrimination further back, to 1861 and the founding of the Italian nation-state. Italy, he argues, is not actually a unified country but a colonial project that the Savoy monarchy in Turin devised to pay off their war debts from fighting Austria. Polemics aside, this is a marvellous piece of research and a valuable catalogue of uncomfortable truths about the origins of southern Italy’s economic woes.
2. The Council of Egypt by Leonardo Sciascia
Sciascia is best known for his books on the mafia. This slim volume translated by Adrienne Foulke, though, is one of the secret gems of Sicilian literature. It is, in essence, an 18th-century detective story, populated by an intriguing cast of Spanish noblemen, Jacobin revolutionaries, forgers, smugglers and libertines. Yet it’s also a philosophical allegory about the fine lines that separate fact from fiction in Sicily, and the blurring of boundaries between history and legend. Fans of Andrea Camilleri will surely enjoy the affectionate yet cynical humour.
3. Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti
Sicilian cuisine is sharper and zestier than its regional counterparts on the Italian mainland; prioritising extreme contrasts of flavour over unctuous umami sauces. Simeti’s 1989 book remains the most comprehensive English-language overview. This isn’t just a collection of recipes (though there are 100 of them), it’s an impressive work of scholarship that meticulously outlines the gifts that centuries of mass migration have bestowed upon the island.
4. Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati
Sicilian literature is filled with satirical novels that poke fun at the island’s patriarchal customs. This one, translated by Tim Parks, is perhaps the best of them. The plot follows the escapades of the eponymous young playboy who it transpires, for all his peacockery, is unable to consummate his various affairs. Brancati’s observations about male insecurity are profound, but the book is equally powerful as a political comment on the toxic impact machismo has had on Sicilian society.
5. Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories by Giovanni Verga
Born in 1840 in Vizzini, a small village near Catania, Verga is the best-known of the Italian realists. This 1999 anthology, translated by GH McWilliam, gathers together stories from Life in the Country and Little Novels of Sicily, which together give an intimate insight into 19th-century rural life. Whether describing the daily routine of labour in the fields, superstitious rituals, or revolts against greedy landowners, Verga speaks on an equal level with his subjects like few others of his generation.
6. Idylls by Theocritus
In the fourth century BC, Sicily was part of Magna Graecia, the ancient Greek empire. Syracuse, then the island’s most important city, was one of the world’s greatest naval powers, and a rival to Athens in terms of its wealth and influence. Sadly, little literature survives from that era. Theocritus’s Idylls are a notable exception. These compositions, which reflect on man’s relationship to nature, the destructive power of technology and deforestation, among other subjects, provide a fascinating precedent to contemporary discussions about the environment.
7. The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa by David Gilmour
Lampedusa’s historical novel The Leopard fully deserves its reputation as a classic of Italian literature. Gilmour’s biography of its author, though, is equally vital reading. He uses unprecedented access to private notebooks to shine a light on the psychological struggles of this introverted man who never succeeded in exorcising the ghosts of his aristocratic ancestors. This book wisely places Lampedusa’s life back in its sociopolitical context, but in a way that is always respectful to the memory of its subject.
8. Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini
This novel, set during the rise of fascism, follows a man who sets out on a journey to Sicily to escape the “abstract furies” of modern life. There isn’t much in the way of plot. The narrator drinks wine with a few acquaintances, and makes small talk with some artisans. His real concerns, though, are existential and spiritual in nature. The result, translated by Alane Salierno, is a powerful meditation on how to find meaning, and live well, when the world seems to be falling apart.
9. The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194: The Normans in Sicily Volume II by John Julius Norwich
For a few short decades, between 1130 and 1194, Sicily was home to one of history’s greatest cosmopolitan experiments. The Norman De Hauteville dynasty arrived on the island as Crusaders. Once established, however, they presided over a tolerant, multicultural society that defied the violent sectarianism of the era. Their highly centralised state had three official languages and a constitution that forbade discrimination on religious grounds, while the kings themselves commissioned extraordinary works of Islamic and Byzantine art. Norwich’s book remains the definitive English summary of Sicily’s golden age, and it’s a fascinating account of how, amid bigotry and fundamentalism, the island’s inhabitants learned to value one another’s differences.
10. Ciao Ousmane: The Hidden Exploitation of Italy’s Migrant Workers by Hsiao-Hung Pai
The title of this harrowing book refers to a Senegalese man who, in 2013, died in a gas explosion while undertaking seasonal work harvesting olives in western Sicily. Following the tragedy, the journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai spent months getting to know some of the fruit pickers. Her reportage spells out with brutal clarity how migrant workers are exploited on a daily basis while the authorities turn a blind eye. Local activists, NGOs and charities have been calling for better conditions for decades. This is an important and informative account of why, so far, their efforts have proved unsuccessful.
The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History by Jamie Mackay is published by Verso. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.