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Vincenzo Consolo: Il sorriso dell’ignoto marinaio (The Smile of the Unknown Mariner)

The book starts out with the Baron Mandralisca and his interest in painting, particularly the eponymous Smile of the Unknown Mariner, painted by Antonello da Messina, which has come into his hands. The opening scene sees him having the painting shipped from Lipari to Cefalu, obtained from the local apothecary. He talks to a young sailor on the ship. A few years later a young man brings a Kore (a statue of a young woman) to the Baron from the apothecary. The young man is the same sailor. The Baron thinks he looks like the portrait and calls him the unknown sailor.

From there, we move to weightier matters, specifically snails and Italian liberation. The Baron is particularly interested in snails and is co-authoring a book on snails. While maintaining his interest in art, particularly Sicilian art, it is snails, particularly Sicilian snails that interest him. However, the world is changing, particularly in Sicily, as it is the middle of the 19th century and Italians are seeking their liberation. The Baron is a good man and accepts and helps friends who are fighting for Sicily. Even if he is not always directly involved, he is sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden.

Much of the action takes place around Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily in 1860, specifically at a place called Alcàra Li Fusi , where we follow the events leading up to an uprising, which is brutally repressed. The Baron is sympathetic to the rebels and their plight.

Consolo does not simply tell a story of the Baron and his gradual awareness of the political realities of his country. He uses different techniques – narrative, officials reports, letters – to paint a portrait of a changing world which, by implication is just as important for Italy of the 1970s as it was for Sicily of the 1850-1860s. And all the while the unknown mariner – both the portrait and the sailor who looks like him and who appears throughout the book as the lawyer Giovanni Interdonato – look down on these events to make a strangely appealing novel.

Publishing history

First published 1976 by Einaudi
First published in English 1994 by Carcanet Press
Translated by Joseph Farrell