Obituary: Gesualdo Bufalino

There are some writers who are what the flower catalogues call "late bloomers" - and all the more precious for that. The work of the Italian novelist, poet and short-story writer Gesualdo Bufalino was almost all contained in the last 15 years of his life.

He had written his first novel, La Diceria dell'untore (translated as The Plague Sower) in the 1950s. It was remarkable if only for being completely at odds with the neo-realist style of the times. He put it away, and devoted himself to school teaching and to the translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal ("Flowers of Evil") and the poems of Paul-Jean Toulet in Contrerimes ("Counter-Rhymes"). Bufalino was also writing poetry and essays about his native island.

It was the great Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia who discovered the first novel, which was eventually published in 1981, when its author was 60. It is a fantastic, dream-like tale of life in the sanatorium of Conca d'Oro in Palermo, and takes place in 1946, in full post-war confusion and irreality. It is a short but unforgettable work, full of literary erudition and composed in a dazzling baroque style. Its theme recalls Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain but also the Sardinian jurist Salvatore Sassa's La Veranda. The novel had a phenomenal success with both the public and the reviewers, and was awarded the Premio Campiello.

The book is full of death and dying, and its hero is convinced that he is not long for this world. Yet, through meditating upon death and memories of his Sicilian childhood and youth, and of the first love for a mysterious ballerina, he overcomes "the weakness of a heart that longs to learn the lesson of dying" and he gradually recovers.

The Sicilian dialect is a language in its own right, as Elio Vittorini makes clear in his Conversazioni in Sicilia (1938). It has been used to animate standard Italian by the surprisingly large numbers of modern Sicilian prose writers and poets, beginning with Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and ending with Bufalino's close contemporaries Vincenzo Consolo and Giuseppe Bonaviri. Finding English equivalents for these "non-official" expressions is one of the translator's hardest tasks, brilliantly accomplished by Bufalino's translator Patrick Creagh, who has managed to make English sound both Italian and Sicilian in several of his author's best works: L'Uomo invaso, 1984 (The Keeper of Ruins); a Decameron-like sequence of tales, Menzogne della Notte (Night Lies - Premio Strega in 1988); and Argo il cieco (Blind Argus, 1989).

The Keeper of Ruins is a collection of strange, haunting short stories, somewhat in the vein of the early E.M. Forster. There are several references to the ancient Greek mythological background of that region of Sicily's deep south where Bufalino lived nearly all his life, in the town of Comiso, on the highway from Agrigento and Port Empedocle to Syracuse. In "Eurydice's Homecoming", the legend of Eurydice's return from Hades led by the music of Orpheus has a sudden surprise ending - one we had perhaps always expected - when Orpheus, disobeying Pluto's warning that Eurydice would have to return to the underworld if he turned to look at her, does indeed turn round - but the final brief sentence says: "He had done it on purpose."

Another classic story, "Gorgias and the Sabaean Scribe", is about Empedocles who, according to Lucian, cast himself into Etna's molten lava so that it might appear he had been summoned by the gods. But Etna, in punishment of this act of hubris, threw out his sandal and destroyed a myth in the making. The style of these stories is both dense and clear: they are evocations of Greek legends in modern settings, giving body to the mythical characters and their conversations.

Others are on historical or literary themes. "Two Nights in the Life of Ferdinand I" relates how the King of Naples had his throne restored with help of Nelson and the Royal Navy. This also has a shocking ending. "A Stroll with a Stranger" takes us for a walk through Paris with Baudelaire, and "London Nightpiece" with its superb descriptions of fog on the Thames at Wapping, shows us a street girl murdered in her room, and at the end the narrator's identity is revealed as Jack the Ripper. In the thriller- parody style of Sciascia, "The Sleuth" is a pseudo-detective story about a private eye who is himself sleuthed by a sinister shadow. It contains a typical Sicilian expression, "heads without noses" - a grimly humorous reference to the skull.

Bufalino published in 1991 a full-length thriller in the Sciascia vein, Qui pro quo, with a metaphysical touch, and a satirical portrait of an anti-heroine, a plain, frustrated bluestocking who describes an assassination. The very complex motivations of this murder are difficult to unravel, and we are treated to a highly comic investigation of the nature of reality in the manner of Pirandello.

Gesualdo Bufalino's tragic death in a car crash has cut short a gift that surely had much more to offer us. He was that ever- attractive literary figure, the unclassifiable outsider, and it is to the honour of Italy that he was recognised as a great writer, albeit rather tardily. He was also credited with possessing "the evil eye" - so the Sicilians in particular regarded him with a kind of mystic awe coupled with horror. One can at times find that archaic force in some of his writings. In one of his last short stories, he writes: "While I maintain that all of us, from birth, are pregnant with our death, it is reasonable, not to say natural, to wish to deliver ourselves of it by dying. Death is a parturition; or, if you prefer, an evacuation . . ."

Gesualdo Bufalino, novelist, short-story writer, poet, translator: born Comiso, Sicily 1921; died Vittoria, Sicily 14 June 1996.

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