Behind the Mask

When Luigi Pirandello said he was a child of chaos, he meant it both literally and metaphorically.  The suburb of Caos, Càvusu in the local dialect, stands between the southern Sicilian town of Agrigento and the coast.

His birthplace, now a museum and literary park, overlooks that “African Sea” and, according to the author and playwright’s wishes, also guards his ashes.  Despite sojourns in Bonn and Rome, Pirandello is inexplicably linked to this stretch of Sicilian coastline; it embodies the profound sense of Sicilitude at the core of his life’s work.

I turn from Caos Street into the gravel strewn drive of Pirandello’s Casa Natale.  At first glance, there is little to resemble the prophetic name; everything appears to be ordered, in its place.  A little wooden Café heralds the entrance; the house itself is nearer to the cliff edge, surrounded by a well-kept garden.  It sits alone, proudly isolated, but far from grand.  It is the middle-class rural retreat par-excellence, a suitable setting to foment the fin-de-siècle malaise pervading Pirandello’s concept of class and the bourgeoisie.

I discover that the building really was a retreat, but from a far-less existential threat.  The author’s family moved to the property in response to a cholera outbreak in nearby Agrigento.

The house has an extensive collection of documents, letters, manuscripts, theatre bills and first editions.As I wander from room to room I have a sense of being watched, Luigi’s piercing, intense eyes burrowing into my psyche, anticipating my reaction. His appearance, halfway between magus and stage magician, has always disconcerted me, in particular the famous picture with his left hand resting on his forehead, his image mirroring his art, a man on the edge of a precipice.  The titles of his works add to my discomfort: One, No One and One Hundred Thousand, With Other Eyes, A Character’s Tragedy, Loveless Love.  Here I feel close to the man rather than his work, to his tortured private life, and the wife who really did experience a descent into madness.

Ironically, it’s his death that brings me to the open spaces of Girgenti’s countryside – relieving my growing feeling of claustrophobia.  In his will, Pirandello asked for his urn to be walled up in the “rough country stone” of his birth place and a walk along the cliff top will take you to that very spot.  It feels like a short funerary procession, but one that takes in views over the sea towards Porto Empedocle amidst olive groves and oaks.  The path breaks into a clearing and the stone, solitary in the middle, reminds me of Mattia Pascal, so fractured by his own reality he will end up seeing his own gravestone.

Not far from Chaos is Paradise.  The Garden of Kolymbetra forms part of the Valle dei Templi, the Greco-Roman temple complex and UNESCO world heritage site.  In reality, it’s less of a garden and more of a valley leading down from the Temple of Hephaistos, a fertile basin whose waters have given birth to lush vegetation.  The ancient pool, a classical fishpond to Pirandello, has long since vanished, but I can still pick the Arab legacy of almonds and orange blossom.  It was home to Don Ippolito Laurentano in the author’s tale of political misconception and failure, The Old and The Young.

The valley has undergone something of a renaissance in recent times, moving so far from the “piteous ruins of its primeval existence” that temples have actually resurrected themselves.

Looking closely, I find it easy to spot the fragments of contemporary rock inserted into ancient structures.  It’s difficult to be churlish, though, as the whole presents a vision that rises above the over-zealous attentions of 20th Century restorers.  More troubling is the onward march of latter-day Agrigento.

No longer the Girgenti of Luigi’s youth with the twisted limbs of a medieval town, it bestrides the burnt earth, devouring terrain before it, getting ever closer to the Saracen olives and almond groves of antiquity.  No wonder Inspector Montalbano, that creation of Andrea Camilleri, another local writer with worldwide appeal, went into such a rage when the developers destroyed his favorite olive tree.  Agrigentinos really do need a place to sit and think; the playwright’s solitary pine is ample testament to this tendency.

The agricultural estates on the hillsides provide the triumvirate of Mediterranean cultivation: the olive, the grape and the fig.  I am fortunate enough to see the spring flowers under the olives.  I long to dive headlong amongst the blooms, to roll over and let the Poppy heads tickle my nose; the activity of a frivolous tourist.  Olive cultivation, however, is a serious business, never more so than for Don Lillò, the litigious protagonist of the short story, The Oil Jar.Set on the Primosole estate in the days when oil was stored in man-sized terracotta jars, Don Lillò employs a local tinker to fix his broken jar, insisting on rivets, only to find the man has riveted himself inside the container.  His dilemma – how to get the man out and charge him for the privilege.

Having finally broken the jar in a fit of rage, the landowner will have to return to Santo Stefano di Camastra for a replacement.  Santo Stefano, still famed for its pottery, lies on the north coast of the island, not an insignificant distance for a turn of the century landowner.  At times, both comic and bitter, the tale has the duality of all his stories, the complexity of his life.

Inland from the temples is the town of Aragona, home to the family sulphur mines and a key location in Pirandello’s story.  When the mines flooded, it brought ruin and thoughts of suicide.

Self-styled, la terra delle maccalube, Aragona, today, is proud of its noxious heritage.  The maccalube, 4 kilometers from town, are wondrous little volcanoes of mud, a chocolate sauce of earth and clay.  Watching them, I’m mesmerized, anticipating the next bubble, the next area to build up pressure and spring to life.  Every so often, a larger explosion will fling molten marl and clay high into the sky, maybe if I were to wait long enough…

Luigi’s 1886 visit to the sulphur mines left a deep impression on his work.  Smoke and Ciaula Discovers the Moon both have vivid imagery taken from these earlier experiences.  Ciaula’s discovery is a real epiphany, his knowledge limited to his troglodytic world.  A full Sicilian moon is a sight to behold: mine settles over the almond groves, depositing a silvery green monochrome as I drive back down to Porto Empedocle, the transit point for all that sulphur.  So much of what we now see as picturesque has its roots in hardship, toil and exploitation.  Unless you belonged to the landed classes, earning a living from the Sicilian soil was never easy.

Via Roma, the main thoroughfare, sees Pirandello on his plinth, hand in pocket, gaze far off into the distance.  The plaque mentions his Nobel Prize, his origins, his profession, but I find the pose most striking; it’s a strolling almost dapper Pirandello.  It’s the face that gives him away.  I stare at it for some time, attracting the attention of one or two passersby.  It’s gaunt, pensive, the muscles taut, like someone secretly grinding his teeth, clenching his jaw against the world.

Empedocle started life as Agrigento’s “marina”, but Luigi saw it grow into an independent port.  In The Old and the Young he describes how it “had thrown out the two broad reefs of the new harbor” as the sulphur trade had increased, leaving behind the “loading stage of flimsy beams”.  I walk passed the streamlined yachts and pleasure palaces of the wealthy, following the dock walls out to the right hand “reef”.  Looking back up to the town I can see how the cliffs formed a block on expansion, squeezing development along the beachfront, just as Pirandello states.  Modern construction has endeavored to carve links to the upper districts with rivers of asphalt weaving down the hillside, but the two areas maintain a separate identity: two identities, one town, pushing and pulling in opposing directions.

The author dabbled with Fascism, possibly from a desire to see order emerge from the chaos.  It was an ideology he ended up refuting, by tearing his membership card to pieces, one more wound inflicted on his soul, one more foreign idea crashing against the rocks of his African Sea.  Pirandello knew the Teutonic centre of Europe, the sophistication of Rome, but his works are rooted in the duality of his home soil.

Andrew Edwards is a translator, currently working on the English translations of the books “Journey to Sicily with a Blind Guide” and “The Sicilian Defence” by Alejandro Luque and has made contributions to The Linguist magazine.  The Sicilian Defence, a short story compilation, draws on the likes of Pirandello and Sciascia for inspiration.  He has also had academic translations published in historical journals. Two of his travel articles, co-authored with Suzanne Edwards, have been published on Montalbano’s Siciliy:- Travel Mag and The Florentine newspaper. Twitter: @edscriptor


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