Monday, October 22, 2012

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

(Translated from the Italian Orioginal by Archibald Colquhoun)

The narrative starts in 1861 when great changes are underway. For the first time after the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy is to be unified into a single regime.  Garibaldi has sailed his ships for the southern coasts, the Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies looks nervously on and the landed aristocracy of the south watches as power slips decisively out of its hands.

The protagonist Prince Don Fabrizio of Salina is of the old order, a splendid man presiding over a handsome family and magnificent estates in Sicily. He has the patrician spirit and bearing of his ancestors and a clear-sighted intelligence tempered however, by a passion for astronomy and a tendency to intellectualise his troubles. He navigates political upheaval with pragmatism and dignity but it is hard. It is always hard. The book is a meditation on the prince’s inner life as he reconciles himself to the decline of his class and his family, and the fact that he has joined the misunderstood and apathetic majority of a land he profoundly loves and knows.   

The story takes place between the villas and palazzos of Palermo, the urban seats of the prince, and his palace deep in the Sicilian countryside at "Donnafugata." It covers a swathe of fifty years- although the action takes place mostly in the first two years, and the account of the remaining years serves as a sort of denouement to the action. The narrative is in the style of a deeply intelligent rumination interspersed with sumptuous descriptions of the decaying grandeur of an old aristocracy. The sense of contained foreboding in the beginning leads to muted resignation matched by a similarly controlled grief at the end of the narrative. Even Tancredi the favoured nephew of the prince, the nimblest and most successful of their lot is unable to avoid the bittersweet memory of a partiality and the consciousness that it was not explored and taken to its logical end. Even the fiercely idealistic and uncompromising Concetta, the Prince’s daughter has to come to terms with her misjudgements. Concetta is an interesting counterpoint to Tancredi. Together they are the Prince’s legacy. And this is what they contend with at the end of their lives.

Shatranj Ke Khiladi, the Chess-Players
Aasman Mahal
The Leopard  evoked for me, “Shatranj Ke Khilari,” a Satyajit Ray film, based on a short story by Munshi Premchand. It describes two Lucknowi Nawabs who play chess amidst political mayhem. The movie is satirical, mocking the incredible detachment of our lordly chess players, as India comes under British dominion. SKK informed my view of the nineteenth century ruling class of India. The Leopard shows me the flip side of that coin, telling me a story from the Nawab’s perspective. Another old movie- Aasman Mahal- comes to mind too. In it Prithviraj Kapoor plays the part of the old patriarch, a less successful version of Don Fabrizio who clings to the glory of bygone days.

The Leopard also evokes the tormented empathy of the privileged for the poor unfortunate of their land, a helpless fellow-feeling that cannot hope for moral approval but may get a nod in literary fiction. Like perhaps Tolstoy who feels for his people through Levin’s tortured heart, devoting pages and pages of Anna Karenina to the Russian muzhik, so too is Don Fabrizio one with his people when he describes the Sicilian voter as “either stunned with overwork or starved by unemployment.” His rant to the Piedmontese official who visits him is wonderful to read and will be understood by any self-styled “have” from a land of “have nots”. The insights offered by Father Pironne speak to me too- “they all (nobles) despise one another, except the peasants who despise themselves.” Brilliant!

The book transcends geographical boundaries and becomes relevant to me, even in its descriptions of the countryside, where “(sometimes) the sun is not so strong as to leach (the sky) of colour”. I like the Prince best when he is in his element, in Donnafugata. I like his flawed self-pride in adhering to traditions that elevate him, his self-absorption and his refinement. I cannot condone his emotional distance from his wife and children despite his ready understanding of what is in their minds and hearts, and this I feel is his downfall.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The prose is exquisite, loaded with the result of many hours of thought, and improves with rereading. Apparently the character of Don Fabrizio was based on the author’s grandfather, indeed Giuseppe di Lampedusa could refer to diaries from the period; this and the fact that he was in his fifties when he wrote the book imbues it with a certain maturity and authenticity. By way of criticism, there is an interrupted, staccato nature to the work, as if Lampedusa worked on different bits that took his fancy and then tried to splice them all into a coherent narrative. All the parts of the book are beautiful, and so is the book, but the joints are not smooth. 

Still from the Visconti Classic - Il Gattopardo
A movie would probably edit out many parts of the novel, focusing instead on the handsome prince, the lovely Angelica, the delicious Tancredi and the heartbreakingly solemn Concetta in an opulent Sicilian setting. Or maybe not. It would still be a visual treat and one of these days I will catch the Burt Lancaster starrer, a classic I believe. It is incredible that every actor in the movie with the exception of Claudia Cardinale (who plays Angelica Sedara) looks exactly like I would have imagined them.

No comments: