Book Review

The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History by Jamie Mackay

in the middle of another canadian winter, i depressingly read about a warm, interesting, place

Nine years ago, when I was thin and floppy-haired and barely had a care in the world, I visited Palermo during my summer of med-hopping.

I would love to say that the trip was wild, and though I did smoke some doobies, flirt a bit and bounce around to Moroccan sound systems screaming brand new hot pop hits like Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’, Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ & Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’, by the time I made it out of North Africa and arrived in Palermo (by boat), I’d had almost all of my luggage lost by TunisAir on a short Casablanca-Tunis flight.

My time in Palermo was therefore mostly spent trying to find cheap clothes, a new bag and a couple more English-language books to read. I also bought the best underwear I’ve ever had, some Intimissimi “boxer briefs”, which were tight, flattering, and subsequently discontinued before I ever again had enough disposable income to purchase designer underwear (not from TK Maxx (or Winners, as it is called here in Canada where I unfortunately remain stuck, now for three full years!). Those pants (I haven’t been in North America (or Lancashire) long enough to stop calling a trouser a trouser) might not have been my sole experience in Palermo, but they were the souvenir I got there that lasted the longest.

I enjoyed the city’s gorgeous and varied architecture, of course, and I ate lots of caponata and arancini (don’t get me started on arancini ahahaha #hotballs), and I even paid a visit to look at all the embalmed human bodies in the Catacombe dei Cappuccini. But I didn’t, I suppose, learn much about the city or about the island.

It was very much “floating through a city as flaneur”, something incredibly pleasant to do in a gorgeous Mediterranean metropolis, but has proven to lead to some of the dullest days of my life when I’ve tried to replicate the same experience in grid-shaped anglophone Canadian cities (Toronto, Calgary, Halifax, Kingston – all of you are terrible for flaneuring!).

You don’t learn much from a place being in it for a handful of days (the same with people (probably, I’m too repressed to have ever done a fling properly, though I’m sure if I ever do, you readers will be the first to know!)), so I was in no denial about the smallness of my Palermo-knowledge, and knew that said knowledge didn’t extend to any knowledge of the island as a whole.

I mean, I know where Sicily is. I regularly buy a particular brand of fancy imported olives that come from Sicily and I’ve been known to really enjoy Etna Bianco and Gagliano on the occasions it’s been poured for me.

In terms of my knowledge of Sicilian literature, I don’t believe I’ve read any, and my first book-connected thought regarding the island is one of E.M. Forster’s posthumous homoerotic stories which is set there, I think, though maybe I’ve misremembered this completely as Google is giving me NOTHING.

I also didn’t know, until reading Mackay’s book, that The Godfather is set in Sicily. I’d always presumed it was set in America, as Americans are obsessed with it and Americans only seem to really acknowledge American things. I’ve never seen The Godfather, is what I’m saying. Maybe I’ll watch it. We’re in another lockdown here in Ontario so I probably – technically – have the time, but there’s definitely a part of me that feels like if I’ve made it to 33 (so fucking old, Christ, kill me!) without seeing The Godfather, I can probably live without it. I’ve seen Apocalypse Now and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so I don’t necessarily feel like I have any personal cultural need to watch any more Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola makes wine and puts his name on the label, which is so uncool even Sting – who really isn’t cool – knows to not do that

Anyway. I read a recent book from Verso that offers a great overview of Sicilian social history.

The Invention of Sicily is surprisingly “old school” in tone for a progressive publisher, in that it’s very omniscient narrator, there are often assertions about motivations for historic acts that don’t have any justification other than vibes, but it has a huge bibliography and is clearly deeply researched. It goes from prehistory and the various groups who lived on Sicily way back when, through its part of numerous empires including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Spanish, then through Italian unification and the rise of the Mafia.

It’s super interesting and I really enjoyed it, and certainly would be a great thing to reread (or read) if planning a more culturally explorative trip to Sicily, which is a far more complex and compelling place than I had realised, though I probably should have guessed. It’s a gorgeous, fertile island in the middle of a large body of water that has had numerous competing cultures living around its edges for thousands of years. 

A great book, recommended if you’re interested in broad strokes history of an interesting and eventful part of the world. Sorry I had nothing insightful to say about it. Lockdowns are tough.

Order The Invention of Sicily direct from Verso NOW.


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