The history of twentieth-century Italian narrative is replete with examples of so-called literary "casi" - novels which are immediately spoken of in terms of masterpieces, or of redefining the parameters of literary narrative, both in Italy and abroad. When the dust settles posterity often forgets the trumpeting these works elicited on their first appearance, often because the initial storm they created was as much a marketing exercise as anything else. This is definitely not the case of Vincenzo Consolo's magisterial IL SORRISO DELL'IGNOTO MARINAIO of 1976. Last year, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the novel, three international conferences were devoted to this multifaceted text and interest in Consolo's singular poetics is growing steadily among Anglophone readership. To read Consolo's IL SORRISO today, whether in the original or in J. Farrell's excellent translation (THE SMILE OF THE UNKNOWN MARINER, Manchester, Carcanet, 1994) is to be thrown head-first into the turbulent sea of Sicily's many languages and dialects in all their diverse manifestations - literary, legalistic, historical, popular and the uncodified, in what is a veritable intersection between the written and the spoken, the poetic and the prosaic, the historical and the mythic, the creative and the ethical.

Inspired, in part, by the social and political upheaval in Italy in 1968 and how the intellectual should respond, Consolo's novel takes as its cue the examples of the Sicilian literary tradition, especially in its treatment of the Italian Risorgimento: Giovanni Verga's LIBERTÀ, Federico De Roberto's I VICERÉ, Luigi Pirandello's I VECCHI E I GIOVANI, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's IL GATTOPARDO and Leonardo Sciascia's IL QUARANTOTTO are all uneasy foster parents in Consolo's text. The novel, like its predecessors is set in Sicily in the years leading to the formation of the Italian state. The protagonist, the Baron of Mandralisca, a keen art collector and expert of malacology (the study of snails), is first encountered on a boat edging closer to the Sicilian coastline in the year 1852. He has in his possession a recently acquired portrait by Antonello da Messina (RITRATTO D'UOMO, 1472) which he guards jealously. On the boat he encounters a mariner with a strange and ironic smile who will later be revealed to be Giovanni Interdonato a political activist and exile, and like Mandralisca a real historical character. The encounter between these two men - Mandralisca, the intellectual far removed from social and political causes; Interdonato, the archetype of political action and agitator for change - begins a process whereby Mandralisca will slowly undergo a political transformation which will lead him to question the ways and modes of speaking for and in defence of those without power, those without the means to defend themselves, those without the keys to the dominant political and linguistic systems which perpetrate social inequality and injustice. By the end of chapter one Mandralisca, unveiling the portrait by Antonello to the notables of Cefalù, is struck by the similarity between the sitter's detached and ironic smile and that of the strange, enigmatic mariner he had earlier encountered. Thus, the portrait's smile becomes the leitmotiv of the novel. Ultimately, the smile is shown to be the smile of class and privilege: the bearers of the smile within the novel are many, they interact and interchange, history is written on their level and from their perspective.

Variously described as encyclopaedic in intent, an anti-novel, anti-historical novel and anti-Gattopardo, Consolo's plurilingual-polyphonic masterpiece dispenses with referential language and linear narration, instead inserted documents fill in where narrative would normally venture and the focus of his multiple narrators is centred on those liminal zones literature and historiography usually ignore; this is a literature of the unwritten, of the written-out, of rewriting. When Mandralisca witnesses the aftermath of the bloody peasant revolt against the dignitaries in the town of Alcàra Li Fusi and its brutal suppression by Garibaldi's "liberating" forces he must take stock of his own position as intellectual. And here he contradicts his counterpart Don Fabrizio in IL GATTOPARDO: the intellectual must act, but act with the self-knowledge of privilege and the inevitable distortion and imposture that any attempt to recreate the voices and desires of the dispossessed through language would entail; he throws away his primary tools of study - his telescope (a neat criticism of Lampedusa's lofty Prince) and microscope (a metaphor for the microhistorical) - and instead transcribes the charcoal writings left on the walls of the immense snail shell-shaped Piranesian prison in which some of rebels are kept: writings in their words, in their languages. On the question of the acquisition of language Mandralisca states in his letter to Interdonato:

"Ah, tempo verrà in cui da soli conquisteranno que' valori, ed essi allora li chiameranno con parole nuove, vere per loro, e giocoforza anche per noi, vere perché i nomi saranno intieramente riempiti dalle cose" (Milan, Mondadori, 1997, p. 120)

"The time will come when they will by their own efforts conquer such values, and then they will call them by new words, true for them and of necessity true for us too, true because the names will perfectly match the reality" (Transl. J. Farrell, p. 86).

In an afterword written by Consolo twenty years after the publication of IL SORRISO he asks: "what is the meaning of this novel of mine? And the answer I can give myself now is that the novel can still find a meaning in its metaphor: a metaphor which, when it radiates from a book of imagined and emotional truth, always casts a shadow that grows larger with the passage of time". The language and structure of the novel indicate a deeply held ethical stance and aesthetic overhauling - through mimesis, parody, fragmentation, wilful gaps and creative ruptures - of novels dominated by an authoritative voice in an enlightened language. In an age of political, cultural and linguistic homologization, Consolo's IL SORRISO today seems even more urgent, relevant and necessary to combat uniformity and safeguard memory.

[Daragh O'Connell]