Some chapters on in The Leopard (I know, I know, I’m a slow reader but it’s been a crazy summer), a paragraph brought me up short. Not for its quality of writing (which goes without saying) but because the aspect of 19th century Sicily it describes chimes uncannily with what will strike any traveler there today:
the contrast between the wild, extraordinary beauty of the landscape and the heaps of refuse spread along roads, fields, streets, lapping the foundations of baroque churches and palaces and spilling over into mediaeval squares.
Litter is of course a problem all over the world but Sicily takes it to a whole new level, appalling not just the tourists who flock there for its wealth of classical architecture, but visitors from other parts of Italy too.
Now, according to Lampedusa, this is nothing new. When he wrote The Leopard in 1957, plastics, aluminium and other non-biodegradable items made up a much smaller proportion of rubbish than they do today; yet the attitude that would allow them to become such a problem in Sicily in particular goes back hundreds of years. Set against the backdrop of Italian Unification in 1861, the novel depicts officials arriving from the northern province of Piedmont being aghast by what they see:
In front of every house the refuse of squalid meals accumulated along leprous walls, trembling dogs were rooting about…
In Lampedusa’s view, filth and beauty existing cheek by jowl is rooted deep in the Sicilian mindset, itself created by the sheer difficulty of survival in such a harsh landscape and climate. The hero, Don Fabrizio, recalls the reaction of some visiting foreign naval officers (British, as it happens):
They were ecstatic about the view, the vehemence of the light; they confessed, though, that they had been horrified at the squalor, decay, filth of the streets around. I didn’t explain to them that one thing was derived from the other.
Reading this brought me straight back to a holiday my husband and I took in Sicily with some friends a couple of years ago. What we didn’t realise was that these friends were great Montalbano fans (as in the TV series). For them, Sicily was a paradise of home-made pasta served in simple trattorie; of streets winding through honey-coloured villages to empty, squeaky-clean squares; of enchanting fishermen’s cottages looking out on to wide stretches of golden and spotless beaches. Their distress at the Day-Glo plastic, empty cans and rotting food disfiguring every beautiful scene was acute.
The mess bothered me too but not as much because I didn’t have that perfect television picture in my head of what it should be like. It’s not that the cameras had lied, exactly; more that they’d been positioned to cut out all the ugly bits. And each location had clearly been given a good clean-up before every shot.
The funny thing is, our friends knew deep down that filming creates its own reality. Part of the joy of watching a series like Montalbano is the beautiful setting; why would a film director want to spoil it?
Yet we buy the dream all the same without realising it, which means that visiting the location of a favourite film or TV programme sets us up for disappointment. I rarely watch the hugely popular Inspector Morse series but when I do am amused to find, for instance, the detective knocking on the door of a house in Jericho with the Sheldonian Theatre in view just behind it, making an aesthetically pleasing but geographically impossible picture.
Not quite the same as trails of litter everywhere (though we have our fair share of that in Oxford too); but something that could still disconcert an ardent Morse fan trying, literally, to follow in their hero’s footsteps.
None of which solves Sicily’s rubbish problems. If Lampedusa was right, only a massive shift in the Sicilians’ own outlook will do that.
(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)