On the flight to Sicily, I read in several British newspapers about a mini riot in Palermo. The story seemed to be that the inhabitants of the Papireto district had taken to the streets to protest over a plague of fat mice. The creatures had been tumbling onto their heads from the tops of buildings. This sounded like a Biblical affliction, probably more distressing than anything suffered by the ancient Egyptians.
Mice in Palermo had traditionally displayed an uncanny nimbleness in leaping from one rooftop to another but, for reasons the journalists did not explain, the new generation was obese, and so incapable of the old-style leap. Missing their target, as often as not they landed instead on the heads of passers-by. The inertia of the city council in the face of this nuisance was irksome, so the enraged populace put up barricades. The Post-Modern revolution – ‘why doesn’t somebody do something?’ – seemed to be underway in Sicily.
The Italian papers gave a different version. According to them, an elderly lady had a passion for mice, which she kept as pets. Having reached the age of 83 and being sans everything, she was no longer able to tend or feed them. The mice spilled out onto the roof and plummeted down from it. La Repubblica carried a cartoon showing Palermitans using umbrellas to protect themselves from the plunging mice, which looked more like Disney creations than rodents.
The Giornale di Sicilia carried a third version, signed by a conscientious sleuth who had traced the unfortunate lady, Benedetta di Salvo, to a mental hospital. She was sufficiently lucid to deny that she was any kind of pied piper, or ‘mouse queen’. In fact she loathed mice and had been kept prisoner in her own home by packs of the creatures scurrying around. Sleep was out of the question: as soon as she shut her eyes, the mice would crawl over her. Far from feeding them, she spent her time chasing as many as she could out of her house onto the roof . . . And so on.
There was something satisfyingly Pirandellian about these conflicting versions. The tale reminded me of the structure of his play Right You Are! (If You Think So), in which signora Frola and her son-in-law, signor Ponza, trail onstage in succession to refute the explanations the other has provided regarding the puzzling behaviour of Ponza towards his wife. Each politely claims that although the other is mad and his/her testimony to be disregarded, he/ she is to be treated with the maximum of compassion and respect. What, asks Pirandello, is all this nonsense about Truth? Put up with appearances, he says, even if they are contradictory, because there is no alternative. The opposite of one truth is not a lie but another person’s truth. In any case, what can you really know about other people?
At the end of his Travels in Italy, Goethe wrote enigmatically that ‘Sicily is the key to everything in Italy.’ It could equally be said that Pirandello – more than Giovanni Verga, the verista novelist admired and translated by D.H. Lawrence (and discussed here by James Wood on 10 August) – is the key to Sicily, where people like to explain, over the most concentrated espresso drunk anywhere in Europe, exactly why everyone else’s version of an incident or situation is flawed, self-interested, corrupt or downright insane. If there is any consensus, it is that Sicily is changing. The island has begun to resume the status it once enjoyed as a centre of Mediterranean civilisation. Immigrants, illegal or otherwise, flood onto the mainland from North Africa via Sicily, and it is possible that Sicily will become a meeting point again, a place where Christian and Muslim cultures cross. But first, it needs to sort itself out, and the problems begin here.