The Young Maronite
is the opening novel in Spina’s Cyrenaican saga. The novel is an existential and cultural examination of identity set against the backdrop of Italy’s colonial past, in a time when Ottomans, Arabs, Berbers, and Italians found themselves, willy-nilly, living under the same north African sky and, most often than not, under the same roofs. It almost starts like a sort of dark Oriental tale, with a disfigured ogre (a powerful merchant) and his 12-year-old new wife; it develops into the tragic story of two young lovers; and it reaches its climax by plunging itself into the midst of modern Libyan history, exposing the “forgotten” pages of Italian colonization in Northern Africa. Spina was particularly critical of the silence with which both Italian political factions—the left and the right—always carpeted the country’s colonial crimes. During the first phase of the Libyan occupation, starting from 1929 and onwards, more than 100,000 people were deported to several concentration camps in Eastern Libya to deny the rebels the support of the local population. Tens of thousands died in those camps, mainly of disease and starvation ([19
], p. 48).
In The Young Maronite
Spina is mostly interested in analyzing the moment in which Europeans crossed the Mediterranean again after the time of the crusades and the social disruption this new age of invasion caused. The Italian presence in Libya and in the Horn of Africa produced a distinct, although rather sparse, Italian colonial literature [20
] and an even more limited post-colonial literature. Although Italy’s influence in the African continent extends well beyond the brief timespan of the former Italian Empire, the “writing back” by authors from Ethiopia, Libya, Somalia, or Eritrea has been small in comparison to that coming from the English-, French-, and Spanish-speaking areas of other former European colonial empires [21
]. Within a literary context, the Italian post-colonial aftermath has certainly more to do with those writers who in the last two decades immigrated to Italy from its former colonies thus contributing to the establishment of an Italian (im)migrant literature. According to Ali Mumin Ahad, “for writers from Mussolini’s ‘place in the sun’, Italian literature is marked by the absence of any authentically post-colonial form of expression proper to itself, as it cannot rely on any interest in post-colonial studies understood as a form of artistic expression that is at one and the same time critical reappraisal and analysis of the present-day consequences of the colonial past both in Italy and in the former colonies” ([21
], p. 4). As Ursula Lindsey states, “Spina was a product of the Italian colony—he owed it his education and his inspiration, what he called his destino
]. As such, his interest as a writer lay in capturing “the twisted logic of colonialism past and present, which to justify itself first insists on a fundamental difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and then insists on annihilating that difference” [22
I will now proceed by discussing in more detail some of the fundamental transcultural elements of The Young Maronite.
5.3. A Proliferation of Points of View
Readers get often lost in Spina’s plurivocal mazes. The author is a master at aptly shifting the point of view from one character to the other. One is never certain from which visual angle the story is being seen and from which perspective is being narrated. We move on shifting sands here. Nothing is given for granted nor for certain. Each personality represents a fascinating and complex conundrum. Most of the characters in the Young Maronite
discover that their identity is not what it seems to others and is never so clear-cut as the others would like it to be. This contributes to enriching the inner complexity and contradictory nature of the narrative and to generating a destabilizing effect. It is as if the author’s plural identities and points of view were dispersed among his characters, with their multiple voices, making it impossible to distinguish a single, reliable authorial standpoint. This aspect resonates with Brian Castro’s reasoning when discussing with Karen Barker the voice assumed by his culturally hybridized characters: “Their métissage opens up a multiplicity of views and worlds which are not only new to homogenous cultures but which embody an open secret, an overt mystery which is ungraspable by those cultures, not because it is a mystery per se in the end, but because uniform cultures are so blind” ([23
], p. 246).
Hajji, for example, is perceived by the local community as a man whose words and opinions always sound “ambiguous” ([2
], p. 38) despite the fact that his life deeds will show he is, after all, a man of integrity who answers his own inner moral compass, even when this means falling and being chased from paradise ([2
], p. 64). In the eyes of the reader he may appear a real “monster”—an adjective used by the same author to describe him ([2
], p. 41)—who has no scruples in marrying a terrified 12-year-old girl, who—although repelling him—will become the youngest of his four wives. But who is the real monster in the end? Is it Hajji Semereth, who agrees to let his child bride grow into a woman before claiming his husband’s rights and who is even willing to cover up her infidelity with the young and handsome Ferdinando (an orphan whom Hajji had rescued from a destiny of misery)? Or is it Hajji’s nephew, who—going against Hajji’s wish to forgive and save the two lovers—decides to kill them and thus avenge the family’s honor? De facto—and according to the group logic of the natives—forgiving such a sacrilege “might unleash a host of terrible consequences: there would be less to fear from Ferdinando’s [and Zulfa’s] death than from his absolution. The world would become drearier and gloomier, but at least it wouldn’t be turned upside down” ([2
], p. 64).
In a similar fashion, we are exposed to Captain Martello’s ambivalent disposition and identity dualism. The Italian officer is not only portrayed as the military representative of a colonial power, the aggressive agent of an expeditionary force. He is also someone who feels uncomfortable in his role as a colonizer, someone who is fascinated by the unknown Other and naively tries to develop a connection, finding only rejection and silence among the natives. He is a man torn between his sense of duty as an imperial military officer and his desire to get to know and be embedded in another culture. The dignity and the humanity that transpire from the enemy (for example, the troubling event of the Turkish soldier who kisses the beautiful face of a dead Italian young lieutenant) nurture the captain’s respect towards his opponents and thus throw him in a state of doubt in regard to the whole colonial enterprise. According to the discerning description given by Signora Ferrara, Captain Martello is a man who, despite having a past “so similar to ours…has been to mysterious places where he’s made new acquaintances or been dramatically deprived of certainties so familiar to us” ([2
], p. 33). Later on, a fellow officer will confirm Signora Ferrara’s shrewd reflection on the captain’s unacknowledged wish to force his way into Libyan culture and his subsequent emotional derangement: “But what estranged him from us? Encountering a world governed by different laws, the legitimacy of such a society, the irredeemable sin of our attempt to destroy it? It’s as if he’d stumbled into an opera house for the first time in his life and was confronted with a reality that followed its own rules: Instead of sitting back and enjoying the show, he suffered an identity crisis and could no longer draw any comfort from being a spectator” ([2
], p. 216).
In one way or another, most of the characters in the novel are made to feel outsiders, and most of the time in more than one way. If it is true that Captain Martello and Colonel Romanino feel alienated among the native population of the Libyan colony, then, after their “long descent to that Underworld” (i.e.
, Africa seen from the Italian shores), they have also become “estranged” in their native Italy ([2
], pp. 33, 37). Again, it is Signora Ferrara who perceptively uncovers Colonel Romanino’s true emotional state: “he feels like a stranger here, as though…he too, like Captain Martello, had been subjected to unbearable apparitions that now make his sweet Lombardy as incoherent and random as a nightmare” ([2
], p. 33). One even gets to wonder, again through an outsider’s point of view, who is the colonized and who is the colonizer in this complex identity canopy—the Arab rebels who, “as nimble as acrobats”, resist the foreigner’s invasion; or the Italian soldiers, barricaded within the city walls of few, well-defended coast locations, too afraid to venture in that “vast, obscure country stretching out before [them]” ([2
], p. 36)? Hajji himself feels estranged in his Cyrenaican exile so far away from his native Istanbul and lost paradise: “A guarded man, who spent many years in a faraway place and only partially belonged to the city, seeming to dwell in another place altogether” ([2
], p. 64). Hajji’s estrangement is reiterated further on: “He was living in a different dimension to Benghazi’s other residents, and his detachment from them was thereby accentuated” ([2
], p. 46). Although in different terms, even Zulfa, Hajji’s child bride, experiences her share of estrangement the moment she is forced to leave her childhood behind and enter Hajji’s homestead: “It was as though she had got lost in an unknown country, armed with a language known only to her” ([2
], p. 40).
Only Emile, the young Maronite, seems to have found his peace and stability in an in-between and neutral cultural space of “unbelonging”, of positive or wise estrangement in which even a felt sense of exclusion can be used in one’s favor as a point of strength instead of as a weakness. This clarifies the rhetorical question Hajji asks himself while watching the confident and tranquil way in which Emile converses with his guests upon his return from a trip to Egypt: “He was a Christian, like the invaders, and yet spoke the Arabic like the Libyans. Both factions would consider him one of their own. Would he experience this duality as a mark of unassailable foreignness, or use it as a talisman, a source of strength?” ([2
], p. 61) Emile’s state of “unbelonging” opens up onto a privileged, perhaps already transcultural, intellectual and psychological dimension where one is able to feel quietly in place
, rather than constantly out of place
, and in which “numerous, and contradicting, possibilities [can] co-exist” ([2
], p. 160). This individualized, possibly transcultural state allows to reconcile in oneself even the most ingrained binary group oppositions—foreigners versus
natives, Christians versus
Muslims, colonizers versus
5.4. A Complex Mix of Linguistic Codes and Narrative Genres
The Young Maronite
is exemplary in showing to what extent Spina likes to mix and play with literary genres and stylistic registers, to the point that it is hard to define it as simply a novel
. In it, Spina breezily mixes real facts with fictions, documentary data with the works of the imagination, the personal and the fantastic with modern Libyan history. The writer finds no problem in interspersing his fictionalized narrative with excerpts from articles published in Italian and French newspapers of the time; with official documents (proclaims, ordinances, royal decrees) released by the Italian Government; with accurate recounts of the Cyreneican colonial enterprise provided by British, French, or Italian historians; with the content of posters affixed by Arab insurgents on the walls of Libyan towns; or with surahs
from the Koran. It must be noted, however, that André Naffis-Sahely, who did the English translation, omitted translating all the above-mentioned documents in order to give a smoother pace to the narrative and “keep the flow of Spina’s prose unimpeded” [22
]. This “fairly daring choice”, as Naffis-Sahely himself described it, may be questionable but undoubtedly in its English amended translation The Young Maronite
has acquired a new lightness and greater readability ([24
], p. 367). Space and content restrictions do not allow a thorough discussion of the translator’s choices, omissions and possible alterations in allowing Spina’s voice to be heard in English. Due to its complexity and the ethical issues (in particular in regard to what Rodica Dimitriu calls “ethic ambivalence”) it raises, this discussion requires further investigation [25
Spina also likes to play with different registers. Occasionally, he construes his dialogues as if the characters were on stage, reciting lines in a play. In those instances, the language is dignified, solemn, as if the reader had been magically transposed in the midst of a Greek tragedy. At other times, the narration takes almost the form of a moral fable, even expressing a rule of behavior—in cases like these, the reference to The One Thousand and One Nights
is almost formulaic. It happens for example when a wealthy merchant meets Emile to intercede on behalf of Armand, the young Maronite’s brother. At the firm, with his careless and sometimes irresponsible attitude towards work, Armand had openly challenged Emile, thus embittering their relationship. After the merchant has successfully extracted a promise that Émile will forgive his brother and treat him more kindly in the future, he takes his leave with these words: “Criticise your own faults and weaknesses with the same vigor you apply to Armand’s. One must measure oneself against perfection, not other people’s mistakes” ([2
], p. 107).
5.5. The Art of Unbelonging
Having made his home in an imaginary place at the intersection of Europe and the Middle East, Spina is hardly classifiable using traditional national or ethnic literary categories. He may thus better fit within that loose set of transcultural authors who wander across national and literary boundaries and whose identities cannot be reduced to nationalities. Let us just think, for example, of writers such as Paul Bowles, with his Moroccan acquired pedigree; of Marguerite Yourcenar, who devoted herself to spiritual and intellectual journeys across the Mediterranean; or of Jorge Luis Borges, who relished in his multifarious cultural vagrancies.
Spina was of Syrian descent but wrote and published in Italian. He was educated in Italy but spent most of his adult and professional life in Libya, speaking fluent Arabic and French while running the family textile business. While in Italy, he befriended Italian writers and poets (from Alberto Moravia to Cristina Campo), but his real writers of reference—from Proust to Joseph Conrad, from Thomas Mann to Robert Musil, from the medieval itinerant scholar Ibn Khaldun to the great Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni, from the fifth-century Greek philosopher-cum-bishop Synesius of Cyrene to Joseph Conrad—are to be found across many ages and many borders.
In his books Spina was not concerned with and did not delve into all those provincial lives and stories happening within the confines of the Italian peninsula. His scope was much wider and embraced the whole southern Mediterranean. Although writing in Italian, one senses he culturally and stylistically did not rely upon the limiting space of the Italian literary system.
All this partly explains why it was difficult for Spina to find proper recognition within the 20th century Italian literary canon. Whereas his complex sentence structure resonates with the 19th century German development of the philosophical novel, his choice of words seems to contain something of the poetic elements, elaborate forms, and layers of metaphor found in Arabic literature. Let us take, for example, the sentence “come la caccia
, la strage passa leggera” ([13
], p. 33)—in Italian it sounds beautifully lyrical (in this case, unfortunately, and in spite of Naffis-Saheli’s refined ability with words, its English translation does not seem able to fully convey its poetic resonance: “like hunting
—and massacres are taken lightly” ([2
], p. 35).
In other instances, however, and despite the fact that “his sharp, poetic images lodge instantly in one’s memory”, Spina’s way of conflating prose and poetry is not always that effective (at least in the Italian original text) [22
]. For post-war Italian writers and readers, his writing style may be perceived as overtly elegiac and polished. Moreover, the conversations among merchants, married couples, Italian officers, or other representatives of the Italian community feel unconvincingly cerebral, stylized, and excessively eloquent. Above all, Spina’s elliptical descriptions and dense, erudite sentences often prove hard to follow, “demanding to be reread” [22
]. Nonetheless, as Ursula Lindsey states, “the originality of Spina’s vision, the strength of his voice, compensates for the occasional longueur” [22
]. Although stylistically Spina’s work suffers from this fairly self-conscious, pre-meditated narrative and split literary register, its historical and cultural insightfulness makes up for it. Having a chance to explore how occupiers operated and conquered their territory, how they imposed rules or bent to local customs has much to teach us about the present day. In this regard, the 2015 English translation of the Confines of the Shadow
seems particularly timely. As the writer Hisham Matar stated when asked about Spina’s work, “What’s happening in Libya is tragic but also baffling to a lot of people, not least of all Libyans. I think that returning to these works, returning to history as it were, and understanding that the present is very much a symptom of that past is very valuable and so, notwithstanding my literary criticism of some of [its] aspects, [Spina’s work] does feel like a gift” [26
In his youth and throughout his adult life, Spina underwent several transpatriation processes which led him to outgrow the culture in which he was raised, to embrace other cultures and, ultimately to transcend all of them. This made him simultaneously an insider and an outsider of the cultures in and with which he worked. Petra Rüdiger and Konrad Gross describe this position as the one of “an intimate insider and a determined outsider” ([27
], p. xi), I prefer to describe this position as the one of the “outlier” rather than of the outsider—not of the one being (or willing to be) kept out of the group, but of the one who, having transcended various cultural, ethnic, religious, or territorial lines of demarcation ends up having a sense of “unbelonging” or of “belonging among the unbelonging”, wherever he or she is. I open here a small parenthesis to elucidate my way of using the term “unbelonging”. The writer Dubravka Ugresic has adopted the term unbelonging in her book Europe in Sepia
when talking about “the intoxication of belonging (to a home, a homeland, a country, a faith) and the trauma of unbelonging” ([28
], p. 204). In a personal email exchange, the writer Inez Baranay has provided a different nuance to the concept of unbelonging, which adheres to a transcultural viewpoint: “the transcultural is a theoretical arena, in which the company is fine with a sense of belonging among the unbelonging” [29
By reading Spina’s works, it seems impossible to fit him within a single, fixed national cartography and identify the cultural/national context he and most of his characters speak from. It is as if his novels were set in a metaphorical or mental transplace—a transcultural territory (or, perhaps, a dimension) which can still be the homeland, the adopted land, or one’s country of residence, but where one nonetheless gets to feel a sort of intellectual or imaginary detachment from that well-known reality. Even when writing within an explicit Western canon, Spina still does it from a different perspective, as if he was thriving “on the fascination of the stranger’s gaze” ([30
], p. 248). This, it may be argued, is another reflection of the author’s physical, cultural, and identity mobility, of his transient state of unbelonging—or belonging regardless.
As a result of all that has been said so far, The Young Maronite does not allow its readers to easily discern the author’s nationality. At the most, Spina’s readers may sense the author’s underlying debt to an imagined (and possibly questionable) Western literary tradition but they would not be able to actually detect his ethnicity, nationality, cultural belonging(s), or religious view(s).