Storytelling and rewriting history - Petra Caruana Dingli

Storytelling and rewriting history - Petra Caruana Dingli

There is always a mid-summer moment when I reach for a book to take by the sea or on the terrace, and end up with some old favourite for the day. A perennial of mine is the great Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia. The similarities between Sicily and Malta are always captivating. They are alike, but yet different.

In many of his novels and stories, Sciascia was concerned with the moral and political corruption which he sensed at the core of the society in which he lived. His Sicily was a world of crime, mafia and institutionalized corruption.

Sciascia’s novel The Council of Egypt, written in the 1960s, is one of the great classics of Sicilian writing of our time. His main character in this book is Maltese. The priest Giuseppe Vella is similar to his Sicilian neighbours in Palermo, but yet an outsider. Regrettably, he is also deceitful, manipulative and materialistic, a peddler of half-truths and lies.

The story begins in 1782 with an attempt to read an old Arabic manuscript in a monastery near Palermo, which nobody can decipher. The Maltese Vella senses an opportunity and pretends that he can understand it. Its contents are quite ordinary, but he invents that he has discovered an important history of Sicily, the notes of the so-called ‘council of Egypt’. Vella is then requested to carry out a translation of this important work, and so begins a career of fraud.

He starts to present false documents on the feudal privileges and claims to land of the Sicilian nobility, whose positions were being threatened. He gradually gains power and wealth as these nobles and landowners gather around him to influence and bribe him, hoping that he will present documents in their favour (which he gladly does). He gradually rewrites Sicilian history to benefit the established powers of the day, and to exploit them for his own gain. The story is both humorous and, finally, tragic.

The Council is a historical novel set in Palermo in the late 18th century, but it is also a political fable relevant to Sciascia’s own time. In the book, he is especially interested in society’s reaction to the lies. People respond to them in complex ways, always ready to believe what they want to hear, and especially to absorb anything which provides material or political advantage. Today we have ‘fake news’, with its effects on the way that people view reality.

In Sciascia’s works, truth is relative, not absolute; it is constantly reshaped to fit whatever people want to believe

In Sciascia’s works, truth is relative, not absolute; it is constantly reshaped to fit whatever people want to believe. Truth is a fiction which is rewritten, over and over again. As one of his characters says, “every society produces the particular kind of imposture that suits it best, so to speak. Our society is a fraud, a joke, a judicial, literary, human fraud”.

The same lesson is taught by the study of history. People often think about the past in ways which are untrue, or at least partially fictitious – so long as the story fits in with what they want to believe. Scholars discover and reshape facts (and fictions) that change the accepted storyline of history. Yet historical studies themselves require a dose of scepticism – they may be wrong, perhaps genuinely, or carelessly, but sometimes also deliberately. The best storyteller creates the truth.

Sciascia wrote The Council when he was still grappling to understand the new Italy emerging from its fascist past. He used the past to reflect upon the present political situation.

Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s new book Fascism: A Warning similarly draws upon the lessons of history, showing how negative trends in politics do not disappear and it is crucial to always be vigilant. Trends resurface, as the pendulum of political life swings back and forth.

More outdoor tables

Another perennial subject, particularly in summer, is the explosion of chairs and tables outside cafés, bars and restaurants, for outdoor dining.

As I have already said elsewhere, I quite like outdoor chairs and tables, and I definitely much prefer them to looking at cars. Replacing a few parking slots for this is fine. But creating obstacles for pedestrians is not fine at all, and many of these areas do just that.

Taking over the pavement has become so rampant that it seems abusive. After all, the pavements and streets are public property and do not belong to the owners of bars and restaurants. Even if they are permitted to use these public spaces, they should not be allowed to inconvenience the public.

They should also pay a fair, adequate price for the use of this land and the funds should be used to improve the area, even if only to make up for the inconvenience. The money should be directed back to the local councils and spent specifically on the locality – in a transparent manner.

And it would, of course, not be a bad idea to consult residents about the facilities and public amenities which they would like to have in exchange. How about some public green spaces and trees for a change?

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