"Ho trovato." (Leonardo Sciascia, Una storia semplice)
Such wilt thou be to me, who must Like th'other foot, obliquely run; Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end where I begun. (John Donne)
Leonardo Sciascia's 1963 novel Il Consiglio d'Egitto begins with a lie. Because it is a novel written by Leonardo Sciascia, it is no ordinary lie, but one that marks the beginning of a series of inverted echoes on the same theme, inverted because the lies become increasingly louder and more defined as they travel further outward. The lie begins in this way: an ambassador from Morocco, Abdallah Mohamed ben Olman, is stranded in Sicily, and the viceroy Caracciolo takes advantage of his residence there to request an expert opinion on some Arabic texts. The only person on the island who understands both Italian and Arabic, and who can therefore serve as interpreter, is a down and out chaplain, Don Giuseppe Vella. However, as we learn from the very first page of this novel, one does not understand another just because both share a language. As Ben Olman reaches for a magnifying glass to examine the text, he makes a reference that Vella does not recognize:
"Ruscello congelato" disse mostrandola. Sorrideva: che aveva citato Ibn Hamdis, poeta siciliano, per omaggio agli ospiti. Ma, tranne don Giuseppe Vella, nessuno sapeva di arabo: e don Giuseppe non era in grado di cogliere il gentile significato che sua ecceUenza aveva voluto dare alla citazione, ne di capire che si trattava di una citazione. Tradusse percio, invece che le parole, il gesto "La lente, ha bisogno della lente." (1)
Vella's lie could be understood as unintentional; that is, don Giuseppe, lacking the literary cultivation to appreciate ben Olman's allusion, translates to the best of his ability the meaning as he understands it. His next lie, however, is far from innocent; when ben Olman announces that the so-called precious text is just another ordinary biography of the prophet Mohammed, Vella triumphantly announces: "Si tratta di un prezioso codice: non ne esistono di simili nemmeno nei suoi paesi. Vi si racconta la conquista della Sicilia, i fatti della dominazione" (492). This can be no error of translation, nor a symptom of the divide between classes; the profundity of the lie deepens further still in the lines that follow. Ben Olman apologizes in Arabic, "Mi dispiace di aver dato una delusione a monsignore: ma le cose sono come sono" to which Vella thinks in response: "Eh no, le cose non sono come sono!" (492) And so begins a novel that takes up as its major themes the issues of fraud, creation, and interpretation, which will continue to echo throughout the novel and culminate in a final deadening silence.
Il Consiglio d'Egitto is composed of three parts, the first introduces all of the characters, but focuses primarily on Vella's forgery of two "histories" of Sicily and his motivations for that act, pointing out his desire to raise himself into the society that patronizes his project. Vella seems as much motivated by a desire for the comforts of this lifestyle as he is by the conviction that he has as much right to these luxuries, and the history that attaches to them, as the barons of Sicily whose fate is linked to his work. The question of class inequalities surfaces on the very first page of the novel, when Vella fails to recognize the allusion that would be known only by those of a certain status. In his efforts to make his "translation" most authentic, and therefore most persuasive, he befriends the young lawyer Francesco Paolo Di Blasi and Di Blasi's uncles in order to access their knowledge. As his knowledge accrues, his social circles widen, though it is in fact his supposed cultural ignorance that makes the aristocrats trust the veracity of his translation. The second part takes the form of a document, a letter written by Vella to the king, consigning the products of his "translation" to the crown for safekeeping once his work is complete. …