Although he was most famous for the “giallo metafisico (metaphysical mystery novel),” Leonardo Sciascia (b. 1921, Racalmuto; d. 1989, Palermo) was also a master at writing short stories about social and political topics pertinent to his native Sicily. My favorite of his stories is without a doubt “Il lungo viaggio (The Long Journey),” the tragicomic tale of Sicilian immigrants who are tricked by one of their own into thinking that they have crossed the ocean to America when in fact they have merely sailed to another part of Sicily.
This story, from the 1973 collection entitled Il mare colore del vino (The Wine Dark Sea) originally published by Einaudi, impressed me for the ways in which Sciascia used varieties and forms of Italian and English to set the satirical tone of the piece and depict the immigrant experience. Sciascia was well aware of the importance of language and often called attention to it in his writing. In “Il lungo viaggio,” he refers to the “parlantina (facility with words)” of signor Melfa, the con man who cheats desperate peasants out of their life savings with the false promise of passage to America. Sciascia also incorporates the proverb “chi ha lingua passa il mare (he who has language crosses the sea)” not only to reference to the addresses scrawled by these barely literate men on envelopes destined for relatives in America but also to underscore the role of language in ensuring their financial success in the new world.
The incorporation of this proverb is also important because it is one of two Sicilian regionalisms used to add local color to the piece. In Sicily, “chi ha lingua passa il mare,” or “cu avi lingua passa lu mari” in Sicilian, literally refers to the importance of language for immigration purposes but figuratively implies that “he who has the gift of gab will go far.” The other instance of regional Italian usage is the term “trazzere (Sic. trazzeri; It. tratturi; Eng. cattle-tracks),” which is employed by the author to describe the thoughts of a fearful immigrant who was worried about the lack of these Sicilian herding trails to guide them through the mysterious waters of the dark sea.
Sciascia also uses lexical borrowings from English to reflect the aspiring immigrants’ awe of the fabled riches of America:
stori (Ital. magazzini; Eng. department stores)
farme (Ital. fattorie; Eng. farms)
To emphasize the ignorance of these would-be immigrants (one refers to New Jersey as a city), Sciascia utilizes Italian approximations of American city and state names:
Nugioirsi (Eng. New Jersey)
Nuovaiorche (Eng. New York)
Filadelfìa (Eng. Philadelphia)
Brucchilin (Eng. Brooklyn)
The above-listed regionalisms, lexical borrowings and approximations represent the complete list of non-standard elements in “Il lungo viaggio.” Although these terms are few in number, it’s interesting to think about how different (i.e., how impoverished) this story would be if Sciascia had simply used their standard Italian and English equivalents.
In Translation: Il mare colore del vino was translated into English by Avril Bardoni in 1985 and published by Carcanet under the title The Wine-Dark Sea. Bardoni’s translation was republished by The New York Review of Books in 2000.
On Facebook: Leonardo Sciascia has a Facebook page in English that contains information about the author and his work. Oddly enough, Leonardo Sciascia also has a Facebook page in Italian on which he posts (from the grave) statements and writings he made when he was still alive. Sciascia’s ghost also posts links of interest about himself and his literature.