How human! Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Pictureleopard8Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s singular classic The Leopard is the latest book for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. Three other readers have already posted their thoughts, and having read their interesting remarks I find myself wondering what I have to add! They’ve all mentioned aspects of the book that I was also interested in. Alex, for instance, stresses the sensuality of the language: “It is by far the most insistently, sensuously, even seductively, oppressive book I’ve ever read. It made me want to applaud, underline and shudder in equal measure and often with just one very clever, deviously evocative phrase.” As both she and litlove point, out, the book’s beauties always coexist with horrors, so the garden scene Alex quotes, for instance, brings on gloomy thoughts for the eponymous protagonist, Don Fabrizio, because walking among his flowers he is reminded of the corpse they found among them not long ago:

They had found him lying face downwards in the thick clover, his face covered in blood and vomit, crawling with ants, his nails dug into the soil; a pile of purplish intestines had formed a puddle under his bandoleer.

And yet for all of its grim accents, The Leopard is also, as Stefanie and litlove observe, very funny — even, glancingly, in this lush but haunted garden, mostly because of my favorite character, the dog Bendicò:

every now and again the dog would turn innocent eyes towards him as if asking for praise at labour done: fourteen carnations broken off, half a hedge torn apart, an irrigation channel blocked. How human! “Good, Bendicò, come here.” And the animal hurried up and put its earthy nostrils into his hand, anxious to show it had forgiven this silly interruption of a fine job of work.

How human, indeed! I think for me that was one of the keynotes of this odd novel, which takes such a sideways approach to history. Don Fabrizio, born and bred to power, is moving sometimes deftly, sometimes awkwardly, but always inevitably through a period of transition to a future he neither understands nor endorses. “I belong to an unlucky generation,” he explains in one of the novel’s (bizarrely long) monologues, “swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” The novel is about the human experience of that unease — the sense of change beyond one’s control. The Prince is mostly a man of good faith and good intentions, and so although he does not like the new world order emerging, he does not fight it either. Not only does he not resist Garibaldi’s move on Sicily, to incorporate it in the newly unified Italy — and what, after all, could one man, however formerly powerful, really do to resist this sweeping movement? — but in his own family he also makes concessions, approving the match between his beloved nephew Tancredi and the daughter of his upstart neighbor. An old name, a lot of new wealth: this is how families adapt and survive.

Earthly things ebb and flow; one of Don Fabrizio’s virtues is that he recognizes this and feels melancholic, rather than vengeful, as his own influence wanes. A dedicated amateur astronomer, he takes comfort from the serene continuity of the stars:

At the cross-roads he glimpsed the sky to the west, above the sea. There was Venus, wrapped in her turban of autumn mist. She was always faithful, always waiting for Don Fabrizio on his early morning outings, at Donnafugata before a shoot, now after a ball.

Don Fabrizio sighed. When would she decide to give him an appointment less ephemeral, far from stumps and blood, in her own region of perennial certitude?

 When that time does come, he reflects on his heirs and realizes that they will not, cannot, carry on the family in any more but name:

the last of the Salina was really himself, this gaunt giant now dying on a hotel balcony. For the significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions, that is in its vital memories; and he was the last to have any unusual memories, anything different from those of other families. . . .

 He had thought that perhaps, by changing, he could keep things the same, but of course that hope is as paradoxical as its logic.

Don Fabrizio is not literally the last of his family, and the book carries on after his death with his daughters in their old age. They are at once pathetic and comical in their attempts to maintain their family’s dignity. Now the family traditions are reduced to “mummified memories” — among them, with delightfully morbid literalness, is Bendicò,”dead for forty-five years, embalmed for forty-five years, nest now of spiders’ webs and moth, detested by the servants who had been imploring Concetta for dozens of years to have it thrown on the rubbish heap.” At the novel’s end Concetta has lost altogether her sense of place and certainty in the world: “she seemed to be living in a world known to her yet strange, which had already ceded all the impulses it could give her and now consisted only of pure forms.” I wondered at first why the novel hadn’t ended with the death of the Prince, but on reflection it seems appropriate to show us the incompleteness of any change, the endless pressure of time’s forward movement and the incremental but relentless concessions people have to make to history. Eventually Bendicò, symbol of the eager spirit of the Leopard’s vigorous past, makes his own symbolic exit:

As the carcass ws dragged off, the glass eyes stared at her with the humble reproach of things that are thrown away, got rid of. A few minutes later what remained of Bendicò was flung into a corner of the courtyard visited every day by the dustman. During the flight down from the window its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust.

How human!

Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building

yacoubianI didn’t realize until I finished The Yacoubian Building how its characters and stories had caught me up emotionally. The consistently flat narration–I’m not sure if this is a function of the translation or a genuine reflection of Al Aswany’s style–and the dispersal of our attention across multiple plots conspired against any strong feelings except curiosity for much of the novel. But by the end I found that curiosity had turned into concern, even care, about how each person’s story would end, and each ending was, in its own way, deeply moving. Some stories (Souad, Taha, Hatim especially) are heartrending; others (Abaskharon and Malak) wryly comic; others (Busayna and Zaki) are surprisingly beautiful and hopeful.

The Yacoubian Building (and the Yacoubian Building) is a microcosm of a world that comes across as chaotic, risky, bleak, yet shot through with a kind of wistful longing for dignity and love, the two things all of the characters are ultimately in search of. Even as you watch their mistakes, their compromises, their sacrifices, their sins, it’s hard to sit in judgment, because the medium they move in is so relentlessly corrupt. The conviction that there’s no winning against this system may account for the matter-of-fact tone and the absence of authorial commentary about even the novel’s most depressing sequences, such as Taha’s descent into extremism–inaugurated not by religious fanaticism or political commitment but by the injustice and prejudice of a bureaucracy that blocks him from his honorable dream–or the disastrous conclusion of Hatim’s affair with Abd Rabbuh, for whose shame, guilt and resentment Hatim’s sad love proves an unequal match. “I’m sure that Our Lord will forgive us because we don’t do anyone any harm,” Hatim reassures his lover; “We just love one another.” If only that belief were reflected in the world around them.

Al Aswany’s storytelling is so inexorable it feels fatalistic. But against the backdrop of cynicism and despair, Al Aswany sets the unlikely, unforeseeable–the “strange and unexpected”– love story of Busayna and Zaki: “little by little, raising his arms aloft amid the joyful laughter and cries of the others, he joined her in the dance.”

The Yacoubian Building is this month’s reading for The Slaves of Golconda: check out the group’s website for other posts, and feel free to join in the discussion on the Forum.