BOOKS: A controversial voice in a culture of silence: Marianne Brace meets the noisy award-winning Sicilian novelist Dacia Maraini

'BE SILENT, Dacia Maraini]' - la Maraini taccia] - an Italian Catholic newspaper screamed recently. Throughout the Sixties right-wing groups wanted to have Maraini tried for obscenity and accused her - together with her great friend Pasolini - of being 'a left-wing pornographer'. Undaunted, the feminist writer remains outspoken, prodding at a herd of Italian sacred cows from machismo to the Mafia. Maraini took on the Pope when he told raped Bosnian Muslims to reject abortion. She embraced lesbianism. She identified corrupt Sicilian officials and landed them in gaol.

Despite her volumes of poetry, nine novels and twice as many plays, Dacia Maraini was little known here until The Silent Duchess was published last year. Chronicling the life of Maraini's aristocratic ancestor Marianna Ucria, the novel was shortlisted for this newspaper's Foreign Fiction award. A bestseller in Italy, it won five awards, including the prestigious Premio Campiello. Isolina (Tr. Sian Williams, Peter Owen, pounds 14.99), her prize-winning reconstruction of a gruesome murder, is published this week.

The daughter of a half-Irish anthropologist and an impoverished Sicilian princess, Maraini had an unorthodox upbringing. Her family went to live in Japan and were interned during the war when her parents refused to support the Japanese alliance with the Italian fascists. Their concentration camp 'was two years of hell. We were nearly dying of hunger. For a long time I couldn't speak'.

Afterwards they moved to Sicily, and when her parents separated Maraini accompanied her father to Rome. The following year the 19- year-old completed her first novel, The Holiday. But it was her second, The Age of Discontent, which made her famous by winning the 1963 Prix Formentor.

It was through this book, too, that Maraini met her great love - Alberto Moravia. He wrote a preface to the novel. 'He was wonderful, very generous, a fascinating person. Moravia was 28 years older than me but he was like a young boy, so alive.'

Having left her first husband, Maraini moved in with Moravia. And she stayed 16 years. Was he her mentor? 'Not at all,' replies Maraini briskly. 'Luckily. I think it's better. He wanted people to be what they were and never wanted to influence them.'

With Moravia, Maraini founded Teatro Porcospino to promote the work of Italian playwrights. Later she set up Teatro della Maddalena, a women's theatre. Writing novels and writing for the stage have allowed her to explore different territories. 'Theatre goes vertically, it links the sky with the earth. It has to do with the spiritual idea of man, with the future, with God. The novel is horizontal. It has to do with society, the relation of man to man. In the theatre everything is nailed to the present.

In the novel, on the contrary, everything becomes past. Every novel is obsessed by the idea of time.'

Her own novels harp on the theme of awakening, their female protagonists making journeys of self-discovery, like Vannina in the diary-style Woman At War and Armida in the disconcertingly unpunctuated novel The Train. Embracing feminism in the late Sixties, Maraini's slogan Io sono mia - 'I am mine' - was adopted by the Italian movement. But 'I have never been fanatical. I don't like any kind of dogmatism.' It does, however, come naturally 'to take the side of those treated unjustly. Women have been treated unjustly very often in history.'

Her novels are not flawless and sometimes seem rambling. Yet there's an extraordinary physicality to Maraini's writing. 'The senses are very important in writing, not only the sex but the feelings: taste, eyes, the smells.'

Letters to Marina was Maraini's book about a lesbian love affair. Maraini regards it as 'a political statement. I wasn't bisexual, but it was necessary to fight for new ideas on sex. Italian ideas were so old-fashioned and narrow'. She wanted to show that 'sexuality is much more mysterious than we used to think . . . heterosexuality and homosexuality are not so different. And there is sex in everything.'

In The Silent Duchess it's sex which disables, and later frees Marianna. A deaf-mute as the result of a childhood rape, 'Marianna becomes aware of herself after 40. She starts to make love and believe that her body is not completely dead'. Her lack of voice symbolises the passive position women had in society.

Isolina, first published eight years ago, is historical too, but takes the form of investigative journalism. In this re-examination of a grisly turn-of-the-century murder, Maraini homes in on another bastion of privilege - the military. That Isolina became pregnant by her lieutenant lover and refused to have an abortion was known through newspaper reports. Also that she was probably murdered by soldiers who, protecting their comrade's reputation, forcibly aborted the baby with a fork and then butchered the mother. But all documentation of the lieutenant's trial has vanished.

Searching Verona for evidence, Maraini found everything had been destroyed. 'So I understood how important had been the case.' The crime could easily have been solved. Instead, the military powers chose to cover it up, corrupting and even killing witnesses. 'The chief of government was a general. The state wanted to defend the image of the military.' Isolina - mutilated, cut up and dumped in the river - simply didn't matter. 'I had a lot of pity for this little girl. She had been completely cancelled. Nobody remembered her. I felt this is a moment to speak about her.'

The collusion of officialdom and criminality is central also to Bagheria, to be published here next spring. This autobiographical work has had extraordinary success in Italy, selling over 250,000 copies and sending some Sicilian mafiosi to prison.

It recalls Maraini's adolescence in Bagheria, a resort outside Palermo. With its grand 18th-century villas it boasted two large parks, the 'lungs of the town'. But despite being protected land, the parks were sold by unscrupulous local councillors as building plots.

Maraini named the names. 'I was so happy for once. Usually writers feel so powerless.' Although she would never live in Sicily, Maraini believes times are changing even there. When she was young, 'nobody would speak about the Mafia. It was a sort of linguistic taboo. Now people speak about it. Things don't exist if they are not named. In Italy the great change is this,' she says, 'we have passed from a culture of silence to a culture of words.'

(Photograph omitted)