Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Granta, Italy, Leonardo Sciascia, Publisher, Setting

‘The Day of the Owl’ by Leonardo Sciascia

Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 122 pages; 2014. Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver.

Short. Sharp. Powerful. That’s the best way to describe Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl.

First published in 1961 and set in the early 1940s, this novella looks at the difficulty one policeman faces when he tries to investigate a crime. The setting is Sicily, where the mafia has infiltrated almost every aspect of society. Even the average citizen on the street closes ranks when the Carabinieri start asking questions.

Dramatic opening

The book opens in rather dramatic fashion. A man in a dark suit is running for a bus when he is gunned down in broad daylight. He is only metres away from a fritter-seller and there are dozens of passengers on the bus, yet no one sees a thing.

What follows is a complicated narrative tracing the investigation into the man’s murder led by Captain Bellodi, an outsider and “mainlander” who heads up the Carabinieri. His quiet pursuit of the truth is intertwined with the voices of those who want to obfuscate his work, and yet he never gives up or takes short cuts to reach his desired outcome.

Captain Bellodi […] was by family tradition and personal conviction a republican, a soldier who followed what used to be called ‘the career of arms’ in a police force, with the dedication of a man who has played his part in a revolution and seen law created by it. This law, the law of the Republic, which safeguarded liberty and justice, he served and enforced.

But while this book might have the look and feel of a crime novel, it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. There’s no neat ending, no redemption. What it offers is an honest and authentic look at a society that has been subjugated by a small band of powerful and immoral men, who have rewritten the rules of engagement and live by their own code of honour. It is particularly good at showing what happens  when bystanders turn a blind eye to crime, violence and corruption.

Tautly written

This tautly written story, which has been pared back to its most basic elements, is an incredibly nuanced piece of work (the dialogue is exceptionally good) and is a wonderful portrait of Sicilian society at a particular moment in time. But it’s also difficult to follow. We are introduced to an endless cast of characters — informers, criminals, politicians, shopkeepers et al — and there’s a disturbing lack of place names (everything is referred to by initial), which makes for a sometimes confusing and frustrating read.

Furthermore, for anyone new to Italian history, it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on politically without doing some research first. (It was thanks to this Wikipedia entry on the Sicilian Mafia that I discovered that the mafia was suppressed under Fascism, which helps put the whole of The Day of the Owl into context.)

Yet for all the difficulties I had with this book, I’d like to return to it at a later date. It’s short, yes, but it’s so dense with ideas and ethical issues that it would take multiple readings to come to grips with them all.

Finally, the author’s afterword — or “tailpiece” as it is called here — adds a fascinating insight into his fear of being charged with libel and slander for skating too close to the truth. He shortened the story — he calls it “pruning” — to protect himself from the reactions of “any who might consider themselves more or less directly attacked in it”, adding: “I was unable to write it with that complete freedom to which every writer is entitled.”

I can only imagine how explosive the book might have been had it included everything he really wanted to write!

27 thoughts on “‘The Day of the Owl’ by Leonardo Sciascia”

  1. Fascinating! I’ve read one title by Sciascia (a short work rather sarcastically titled “A Simple Story”) and it’s clear that the politics and shenanigans in his part of the world certainly make it hard for anyone to bring a criminal to justice!


    1. It sounds like Sciascia made a career out of writing about the injustice and corruption he saw around him. I’d be keen to read more by him, but I now know not to assume a slim book will be an easy read!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a friend whose family emigrated from Sicily, and she took a long time to tell me that, as if she were embarrassed about it. It’s sad, I think, that she feels tainted by the place she comes from.


  3. Being a policeman in Sicily sounds like a job from hell. I remember reading while we were driving through that island that Sicilians consider rules of the road to be mere suggestions…. so they feel no compunction to obey one way signs, no parking here signs…..


  4. I really enjoyed your review of this novella, Kim. I’ve read three or four by Sciascia and this is my favourite so far. He’s very insightful when it comes to shining a light on the corruption that can exist among the authorities and those in positions of power.


    1. Thanks Jacque… what others would you recommend? I’m intrigued by The Moro Affair but wonder if my lack of knowledge about Italian political history might hamper my enjoyment.


      1. I would recommend Equal Danger as the style is similar to Owl. His short stories are worth considering too, especially for their diversity – The Wine Dark Sea is an excellent collection. I’ve reviewed both of these over at mine if you need any more info.


        1. Thanks, Jacqui, I will look those up. Not sure I’m in a rush to read another one straight away but he’s definitely an author I’d like to return to at a later date


  5. Sounds fascinating as well as confusing. I don’t mind being a little confused when reading a novel but a little bit of research can alleviate the problem.

    I’ve just read ‘The Leopard’ along with Lisa & Dagny and it would be an interesting contrast to that book.


  6. I’ve only read the short stories of Wine Dark Sea but have always intended to go on to read one of his novels. Apollo recently published a historical novel of his, The Council of Egypt, which could be interesting!


  7. I came to this five years late; it is funny how the internet works.

    I read the Godfather years ago, and then more recently read a book called Hoods, a true crime novel about organised crime in my home city.

    What struck me is that the fictional tactics used in the godfather were precisely the same as those used in real life. Providing protection for the criminals from the crowd.

    I imagine this shows a similar scenario. Thank you for the review; I will look at the book.


    1. This is worth hunting out; I read it for my book group and we had a brilliant discussion about it because it’s a book filled with moral / ethical / legal complexities and poses many questions, not just about organised crime, but about human nature, integrity and community.


  8. I just finished reading this incredible novella packed with more unanswered questions about ethics, values, Sicilian culture, politics, the law versus justice, criminal organizations, police work and crime detection than an entire college semester in criminology. It was very satisfying eventhough the ending, like Sicily is an unanswered riddle. To know that multiple Italian, Spanish, and other European crime novelists hold Leonardo Sciascia and this book in particular to the highest esteem tells you something. Worth reading every 5 years.


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