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The Whole Shadow of Man – Alessandro Spina’s Libyan Epic
Three months after Alessandro Spina’s death in July 2013, Ilario Bertoletti, his Italian editor, published a memoir where he described his first near-encounter with the notoriously reclusive writer: “It was June, 1993. The bell rang in the late afternoon; moments later, a colleague entered my office: ‘A gentleman dropped by. He looked like an Arab prince, tall and handsome. He left a history of the Maronites for you.’ ”
After that visit in 1993, the editor made some enquiries and discovered that Spina had been quietly publishing a number of novels and short stories since the early 1960s which charted the history of Libya from 1911, when Italy had invaded the sleepy Ottoman province, up to 1966, when petrodollars sparked an economic boom, exacerbating the corruption and nepotism that eventually paved the way for Muammar Gaddafi’s coup d’état in 1969. It took Bertoletti – who runs Morcelliana, an independent publisher in Brescia – fifteen years to persuade Spina to let him reissue his books, or rather to assemble them into a 1,250-page omnibus edition entitled I confini dell’ombra: in terra d’oltremare (The Confines of the Shadow: In Lands Overseas), which he eventually published in 2006. The work comprises six novels, a novella and four collections of stories, which Spina – who had only settled on a definitive structure and title in 2003 – summarized thus:
The sequence of novels and short stories takes as its subject the Italian experience in Cyrenaica. The Young Maronite (1971) discusses the 1911 war prompted by Giolitti, Omar’s Wedding (1973) narrates the ensuing truce and the attempt by the two peoples to strike a compromise before the rise of Fascism. The Nocturnal Visitor (1979) chronicles the end of the twenty-year Libyan resistance; Officers’ Tales (1967) focuses on the triumph of colonialism – albeit this having been achieved when the end of Italian hegemony already loomed in sight and the Second World War appeared inevitable – and The Psychological Comedy (1992), which ends with Italy’s retreat from Libya and the fleeing of settlers. Entry into Babylon (1976) concentrates on Libyan independence in 1951, Cairo Nights (1986) illustrates the early years of the Senussi monarchy and the looming spectre of Pan-Arab nationalism, while The Shore of the Lesser Life (1997) examines the profound social and political changes that occurred when large oil and gas deposits were discovered in the mid 1960s. Each text can be read independently or as part of the sequence. Either mode of reading will produce different – but equally legitimate – impressions.
A year later, The Confines of the Shadow was unanimously awarded the Premio Bagutta, Italy’s highest literary accolade. It was an impressive achievement, especially for an author who had insisted on publishing his books in limited editions with tiny outfits, all of which had fallen out of print by the early 1990s. However, the Bagutta award only caused a faint ripple: a single radio interview, a handful of glowing reviews and a conference in his honour, which he didn’t attend.
Lacking a persona to latch onto – the back flap doesn’t even feature a photograph – the book receded into obscurity, and although Spina remains little known even in Italy, where he spent the last thirty years of his life, his life's work, The Confines of the Shadow, belongs alongside such panoptic masterpieces as Buddenbrooks, The Man Without Qualities and The Cairo Trilogy.
Spina died two weeks before I concluded an agreement with a London publisher to translate the entirety of The Confines of the Shadow. Denied the privilege of meeting him – my letter of introduction remains in my drafts folder – I was faced with a conundrum: the translation of such a monumental opus in the immediate wake of the author’s death meant that any afterword I produced would have to deal with the life, of which I knew next to nothing, save that ‘Alessandro Spina’ was a nom de plume adopted in 1955 when Alberto Moravia published his first story, ‘L’ufficiale’ (The Officer) in the literary magazine Moravia co-founded, Nuovi Argomenti (New Short Story Collection).
Sporting an English reticence and safely ensconced behind his pseudonym, Spina had spent half a century eluding the limelight, refusing invitations to make public appearances or to concede interviews. Consequently, I realized that any clues would have to be culled from the work itself, and I therefore retreated to the books, sleuthing through The Confines of the Shadow and a 300-page Diary Spina kept while composing that epic, as well as three volumes of brilliant essays – and thanks to quasi-involuntary slips on Spina’s part, I slowly began to assemble a narrative.
Italy’s possession of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica
Alessandro Spina, né Basili Shafik Khouzam, was born in Benghazi on October 8, 1927, into a family of Maronites from Aleppo. His father, a wealthy textile magnate, had left his native Syria aged 17 to make his fortune and arrived in Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica – then a quiet city of twenty thousand Turks and Arabs ringed by Bedouin encampments – a few weeks after Italy and the Ottoman Empire had signed the Treaty of Ouchy in October 1912, bringing 360 years of Turkish rule and 13 months of war to a close, and formalizing Italy’s possession of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. A late-comer to the scramble for Africa, acquiring Eritrea and Somalia in the late 1880s, barely a couple of decades after it had been cobbled together out of squabbling fiefdoms, Italy had long sought to lay her hands on the quarta sponda, or ‘fourth shore’. After all, the Libyan coast – the last remaining African territory of the Ottoman Empire, which as Baron Eversley put it, had grown used to having “provinces torn from it periodically, like leaves from an artichoke” – lay only 300 miles to the south of Sicily. With trouble brewing in the Balkans and sensing the sick man of Europe was on his knees, the Italians seized their chance. Knowing they would only have to contend with a crippled navy and a handful of ill-equipped battalions, they delivered an ultimatum in September 1911, their soldiers disembarked in October, and by November, the Italian tricolour could be seen flying from every major city on the Libyan littoral.
Nevertheless, what was expected to be a pushover instead turned into a 20-year insurgency that was only quelled when the fascists took power in Rome and Mussolini, in a quest to solve Italy’s emigration problem – whereby thousands of southern Italians were leaving their blighted vineyards for new lives in North and South America – dispatched one of his most ruthless generals, the hated Rodolfo Graziani (1882–1955), to bring the quarta sponda to heel and ‘make room’ for colonists. Genocide ensued: a third of Libya’s population was killed, tens of thousands interned in concentration camps, a 300-kilometre barbed-wire fence was erected on the Egyptian border to block rebels receiving supplies and reinforcements, and the leader of the resistance, a venerable Qur’anic teacher named Omar Mukhtar (1858–1931), was hunted down and unceremoniously hanged: a chilling story elegantly depicted in the film "Lion of the Desert" (1981), where Oliver Reed and Anthony Quinn respectively portrayed Graziani and Mukhtar, which was banned from Italian screens for several years.
Outbreak of World War Two and 12-year-old Spina is despatched to Italy
In 1939, when Spina was 12 years old, Italy officially annexed Libya, by which time Italian settlers constituted 13% of the population and over a third of the inhabitants of Tripoli and Benghazi, the epicentres of Italian power. At the outbreak of World War Two, Spina’s father dispatched his son to Italy, where he would remain until 1954. Initially leading a peripatetic existence that saw him alternate between Busto Arsizio and the spa town of Salsomaggiore, Spina and his mother eventually settled in Milan, where he became a devotee of opera – as luck would have it, the hotel where they lodged, the Marino on Piazza della Scala, was directly opposite the Teatro. While in Milan, Spina, by then fluent in Arabic, English, French and Italian, studied under Mario Marcazzan, wrote a thesis on Alberto Moravia and began drafting his first stories: lush tapestries of history, fiction and autobiography featuring a cosmopolitan array of characters: Italian officers, Senussi rebels, Ottoman bureaucrats, chirpy grand dames, Maltese fishermen, aristocrats, servants and slaves. Spina nonetheless described each caste with the same finesse, empathy and intimacy – partly thanks to his immaculate fusion of Eastern narrative quaintness and the passion for encapsulating an entire way of life that informs much 19th-century European fiction, thereby distinguishing sentiment from sentimentality.
There is perhaps no better example of this balancing act than ‘Il forte di Régima’ ('The Fort at Régima'), one of the early stories set in the mid-1930s, where a Captain Valentini is ordered south of Benghazi to take command of a garrison stationed in an old Ottoman fortress that “recalled the castles built in Greece by knights who had joined the Fourth Crusade". Valentini is glad to leave the city and its tiresome peace-time parades behind, but as he is driven to his new posting, Valentini’s mind is suddenly flooded with the names of famous Crusaders who had:
". . . conquered Constantinople, made and unmade Emperors, carved the vast Empire into fiefs, and run to and fro vainly fighting to ensure the survival of a system, which owing to its lack of roots in the country, was never destined to survive."
Employing only 500 words, Spina slices across 700 years, showing the inanity of the concept of conquest, as well as the existential vacuum it inevitably leaves in its wake: “As he weltered about in his armoured vehicle, it seemed cruel to the Captain to be forced to undergo the same rigmarole after so many centuries had passed.” Our technological genius may be growing, Spina implies, but so is our historical ignorance. It is no coincidence that Spina collected these sketches under the title of Officers’ Tales. His men-at-arms perfectly typify his concept of the ‘shadow’: their minds are haunted by the maddening darkness of the colonial enterprise, which still adumbrates our supposedly post-colonial times. More than a metaphor intertwining his novels, Spina’s shadow can be interpreted as an allegory of how the Italian presence in Libya was both visible – by dint of its brutality – and yet incorporeal because it sought only to rule, never to integrate. Ultimately, the shadow is also life itself: amorphous and mysterious – mysterious because history has seen us repeatedly fail to envision what lies beyond what we can see, past the horizon of our ephemeral lives and experiences.
Back to Benghazi in August 1953
At the end of World War Two, Italy relinquished her claim to Libya, which was then administered by the British until 1951, when the country became independent under King Idris I. Aged 26 and with the ink still fresh on his degree, Spina returned to Benghazi in August 1953 to help run his ageing father’s factory. Although typically working twelve-hour days, he would somehow find the time to write and would lock himself in his father’s office – whose windows looked out onto the 14th-century fondouk – firmly believing he had acquired his discipline, not despite being an industrialist but because of it, in the same way that Tolstoy refused to leave Yasnaya Polyana so as to stay among his people, his chief source of inspiration. In his spare time, Spina would pick up the copy of Le Temps retrouvé he always kept by his side, or send letters to friends, which often featured pearls encapsulating the transformations his country was traversing:
A young scion of the royal family – “of the highest pedigree” as Hofmannsthal might have said – the grandson of the old king who had been deposed by the current monarch, has died in a car accident. Having come to convey his condolences, one of the King’s cousins also suffered a crash on his way home to his desert encampment, an accident that took the lives of his mother, wife and son (he remains in intensive care at the hospital). I went to convey my own condolences. The Prince is very handsome, around sixty years old. He’s extremely tall, his skin’s a milky white and he sports a little aristocratic goatee. Eventually, the talk turned to the accident. The old man (his medieval view of the world still unmarred) remarked: “Are automobiles meant as vehicles for this world or the next?” (From a letter dated July 26, 1963)
During the first decade of Libyan independence, Spina completed his first collection of stories, published a novel based on his days in Milan Tempo e Corruzione (Time and Decay), published by Garzanti in 1962, and worked on a translation of the Storia della citta di Rame (The City of Brass), published by Scheiwiller, 1963, a tale excerpted from the One Thousand and One Nights. However, it was only in 1964 that Spina truly hit his stride and began writing the first volumes that make up The Confines of the Shadow. From 1964 to 1975, arguably his most productive decade, Spina produced Il giovane maronita (The Young Maronite), 1964–69, Le nozze di Omar (Omar’s Wedding), 1970–72, Il visitatore notturno (The Nocturnal Visitor), 1972, and Ingresso a Babele (Entry into Babylon), 1973–75, which while occasionally featuring such diverse locales as Milan, Paris or Cairo, are chiefly set in Benghazi, the kilometre zero of The Confines of the Shadow.
The Young Maronite, the first act of the Cyrenaican saga, opens in November 1912. The new Italian Conquistadors have barricaded themselves inside Benghazi and nervously look on as the Libyans muster their strength in the desert and begin their gallant guerilla war against the usurpers. Meanwhile, Émile Chébas, a savvy young merchant from Cairo – who is based on Spina’s father – arrives in town with a meagre cargo. Émile nonetheless lands on his feet thanks to a chance encounter with Hajji Semereth Effendi, one of the city’s wealthiest men and a former Ottoman grandee, who takes Émile under his wing and helps set him up, even loaning him one of his servants, Abdelkarim. Although technically the chief protagonist, it isn’t until later in the book that Émile fully emerges from Semereth’s, shadow. Spina’s portrait of Semereth is immediately enthralling:
"In Istanbul, [Semereth] had occupied several public positions that prophesied a stellar career, but after a plot had been uncovered, the shadow of conspiracy had settled on him and prompted his fall. He had then withdrawn to that obscure provincial backwater and been quickly forgotten. [ . . . ] He was very tall and his face was frightening. A gunpowder charge had exploded close to him during a military campaign and he had been left forever disfigured. His hair had been reduced to a few tow-coloured clumps of locks. The wrinkles on his skull emanated a bad smell. He had an inbred seriousness and exuded an authority that made anyone who talked to him bashful and hesitant. It was like a spell that separated him from everyone else, but he was a victim of it, rather than its conscious master, as others instead assumed."
The first section deals with Semereth’s unrequited love for Zulfa, the youngest of his four wives, who later betrays him with Ferdinando, an orphan raised in his household. Although Semereth tries his utmost to shield the lovers from blood-baying relatives, tradition ultimately makes an honour killing inevitable: the old politician is forced to watch while Ferdinando is stabbed and Zulfa is drowned. Unbeknown to Semereth, his family tragedy is being quietly observed by two Italian officers who adrift in a violently hostile land – having arrived assuming they would be welcomed as liberators (how often this farce has been replayed throughout history) – grasp onto what they can to try and make sense of their new surroundings. Of all the cast members, it’s once again the officers who attempt a systemic understanding of the alien world around them, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the results are never positive.
Here is Captain Romanino’s take on Italy’s African venture during a soirée in Milan (where he is on leave):
"Just how a language is only useful in the area in which it is spoken and is pointless outside of it, so it goes with Europe’s liberal moral values, which don’t extend anywhere south of the Mediterranean. As soon as one reaches the other coast, one is ordered to do the exact opposite prescribed by God’s commandments: kill, steal, blaspheme . . . Once the Turkish garrison was defeated and a few key locations on the coast were occupied, we found a vast, obscure country stretching out before us, into which we’re afraid to venture. Therefore we cloistered ourselves in the cities awaiting daylight. Instead, the night is getting deeper, darker, deadlier, and teeming with demons."
Although Spina’s initial instalments of The Confines of the Shadow attracted some notice in the mid-1970s, with several of them, including The Young Maronite, making the short-lists for the Strega and Campiello prizes, his presence in Libya began to grow increasingly tenuous, especially once his father’s factory was nationalized in 1978. The years following Gaddafi’s coup had seen the despot de-foreignize Libya, a process he began in 1970 with the expulsion of thousands of Jewish and Italian colonists. Thus, at the age of 50, Spina witnessed the Italo-Arab-Ottoman universe he’d been born into flit away into nothingness. While this did not impair his work, it certainly impacted its publication. Case in point: although Spina had penned The Nocturnal Visitor over the course of a few months in early 1972, he delayed its publication until 1979 to avoid scrutiny during the turbulent early years of Gaddafi’s rule when dissidents – including a number of Spina’s friends – were routinely rounded up and imprisoned. In between his novels, Spina had also composed The Fall of the Monarchy, a history in the style of de Tocqueville that analyses the events leading to Gaddafi’s coup, which, as per Spina’s wishes, will only appear posthumously. Circulated in samizdat among a select group of acquaintances, the book attracted the attentions of the security services, and when Spina left Libya for good in 1980, he was forced to smuggle the manuscript out in the French consul’s briefcase. Safely removed from the reach of Gaddafi’s men, Spina sojourned in Paris, and finally retired to a 17th-century villa in Padergnone, in the heart of Lombard wine country, where he consecrated his buen retiro to completing The Confines of the Shadow, his privacy as jealously guarded as ever.
Spina resurrects his lost world on paper
Like Joseph Roth, another inveterate chronicler of a crumbled empire, Spina had, from a young age, set himself to resurrecting his lost world on paper, thus ensuring its survival in our collective consciousness. While historical novels habitually focus on the rise and fall of specific castes, very few of them – Roth’s The Radetzky March being a good example – ever capture the confused excitement that makes the very earth those characters tread tremble with unregulated passions. As Chateaubriand once put it: “In a society which is dissolving and reforming, the struggle of two geniuses, the clash between past and future, and the mixture of old customs and new, form a transitory amalgam which does not leave a moment for boredom.”
It is exactly these fleeting junctures in time that infuse Spina’s sophisticated prose with such an unbridled sense of adventure. Besides being the ‘right’ person for such a job, Spina also found himself in the right place at the right time: a Christian Arab born during the apogee of colonial power, who then consolidated his Western education with his intimate knowledge of Libyans and Middle Eastern customs and history to produce the only multi-generational epic about the European experience in North Africa.
“. . . a people which no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul”
Yet despite winning such diverse admirers as Claudio Magris, his closest confrère, Giorgio Bassani and Roberto Calasso, Spina occasionally professed surprise at the utter indifference prompted by his work, or rather his subject. Towards the end of his Diary, he recalls a run-in with the poet Vittorio Sereni at the premiere of a play in the early 1980s and being introduced to Sereni’s wife: “Darling, this is Alessandro Spina, who is trying to make Italians feel guilty about their colonial crimes, all to no avail of course.” Not that he hadn’t been warned. When Spina had sought Alberto Moravia’s advice about his project in 1960, Moravia had counselled him against it, saying no one in Italy would be interested due to their sheer nescience of the country’s colonial past.
21st-century readers – in Italy and elsewhere – might do well to heed Solzhenitsyn’s warning that “a people which no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul”. Still, one must chuckle when one can: during the Libyan civil war in 2011, Spina was often approached by journalists on the hunt for sound bites, requests that Spina invariably declined; nevertheless, I’ve little doubt the coincidence of the civil war being declared officially over 100 years to the day after the Italians conquered his beloved Benghazi would have made him smile.
• The English translation of Alessandro Spina’s The Confines of the Shadow: In Lands Overseas will be published by Darf Books in three volumes, the first of which – comprising The Young Maronite, Omar’s Wedding and The Nocturnal Visitor – will be issued in early 2015. Darf Books have also commissioned an Arabic translation of the epic.
• Spina’s works are available in the original Italian from Morcelliana, as well as in French: Juin 1940 (Cahiers de L’Herne, 2009), translated by Michel Balzamo and Triptyque lybien (L’Âge d’Homme, 2013) translated by Gérard Genot.
• André Naffis-Sahely’s poetry was featured in the Oxford Poets Anthology (Carcanet, 2013). Forthcoming translations from French include Émile Zola’s Money (Penguin Classics, 2014) and Honoré de Balzac’s Physiology of the Employee (Wakefield Press, 2014). His translation of a chapter from Rashid Boudjedra's latest novel Printemps (Spring) is published in Banipal 50 – Prison Writing. To go to his contributor's page on this website click here.