The Day of the Owl – Leonardo Sciascia

Sposito had a baby face, but the brothers Colasberna and their associates were in holy terror of his presence, the terror of a merciless inquisition, of the black seed of the written word. ‘White soil, black seed. Beware the man who sows it. he never forgets,’ says the proverb.

All right, then, no flights of fancy. But Sicily is all a realm of fantasy and what can anyone do there without imaginations?

Salvatore Colasberna is unusual, but his end is not. He is an honest contractor in Sicily and on the opening page of The Day of the Owl he is gunned down while boarding the morning bus. The same day, a local man named Nicolosi disappears. Tips begin to pour into the police station about both crimes, most of which suggest that one or both were crimes of passion, with almost no indication that the two might be connected. The detective on the case, Captain Bellodi, is an outsider from Parma and newly appointed to Sicily and suspects that there is something more sinister at work. Bellodi is particularly suspicious of the mafia, much to the chagrin of his local subordinates and influential Sicilians in Rome, all of whom insist that the criminal organization doesn’t exist—-that it is conspiracy dreamt up by the malicious outsiders.

The Day of the Owl is, at its heart, a police procedural that follows Bellodi’s meticulous investigation into the two murders. He rejects the premise that either crime is the result of passion, and begins tracking down leads that might reveal that the two murders are connected by the mafia. He manages to track down the two killers and connect the murders and finds enough evidence to arrest a head of the mafia, but the suspects reject his accusation that this shadowy organization is strangling Sicily. The island runs on family relationships and friendships and nothing more sinister, they say.

For all that civilians stonewall and higher-ups put pressure on Bellodi, the actual investigation is straightforward and goes off without a hitch. The plot builds up to a cordial, climactic exchange between the captain and the arrested mafia boss Don Mariano Areno, who plays innocent and mocks Bellodi for seeing an all-powerful organization running Sicily. Areno respects Bellodi, and their tet a tete develops into a debate about how Sicily ought to operate. Despite himself, Bellodi finds himself in love with the insular, intransigent, and backward-looking island that resists assimilation into the modern world.

This particular climax further indicates what sort of story The Day of the Owl is. Although saddled with the trappings of a detective novel and bearing some of the same pacing, Sciascia’s book is more of a portrait of an unnamed Sicilian town and the operation of the mafia, as seen through the eyes of an outsider. Sciascia himself was a native Sicilian and vocal critic of the mafia throughout his life, and the character of Bellodi seems to take on his role as someone who loves he island and the people, but hates the corruption that pervades its society.

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I am going to read another of Sciascia’s novels in the near future, but next up I am probably going to read Dan Simmon’s The Fall of Hyperion.

Athenian Allies

In the funeral oration venerating the Athenian dead as reported by Thucydides, one of the themes is the inherent differences between Athenians and Spartans. Perikles strikes on government differences, educational differences, personality, et cetera, while praising Athens and downplaying the virtues of their opponents. One of the striking contrasts (according to the Perikles of Thucydides) is between bravery, as Perikles mentions that:

When the Spartans invade our land, they do not come by themselves, but bring all their allies with them; whereas we, when we launch an attack abroad, do the job by ourselves… (2.39)

He then goes to to describe that Athens never sends out its entire strength, so their enemies should fear that day, since they are already defeated by mere detachments.

In such a speech it stands to reason that he would praise the exploits of Athenians, exhorting and calling upon-as Admiral Nelson would later put it-‘Every man to do his duty’. To say, though, that Athens stood alone where Sparta required contributions from their empire to invade Attike is nothing more than hyperbole, as it overlooks the nature of the Athenian ‘Empire’. Even further, during the first year of the war and increasingly thereafter, Athenian allies did contribute to military expeditions.

The Delian League was set up in such a way that the allies were required to submit either a certain number of troops or a certain amount of tribute. Lesbos, Chios, Zakynthos, Kerkyra and a small handful of other states repeatedly appear providing triremes for the Athenian fleet. Those that did not contribute instead provided Athens with money to build, equip, and man up to 250 triremes on active duty at any given time. These two aspects together make it so that Athens was hardly fighting alone, even on those occasions when it was a purely Athenian fleet raiding the Peloponnesian Shores. Sparta alone could summon an imposing army, but her league did not pay tribute to Sparta, but was geared instead to march at the call of Sparta. Thus the Peloponnesian War truly was between Sparta and her Allies and the Delian League, whether or not the financial contributions, if anything encouraged, were recognized.

Second, even before the Periklean strategy of limited operations was abandoned, Athenian allies contributed forces to the allied efforts, even if they were just tokens. After his death, Athens began to campaign more widely and instead of using their own forces, would often contribute a token force, supplemented with Messenian, Elian, Mantineian, or other allied forces. In particular these were hoplites, and wherever an Athenian fleet would go, they would enlist allies to make up the bulk of the force. Exceptions to this include Demosthenes’ Boiotia strategy where his force enlisted allies, while the main Athenian army bumbled into the Thebans at Delion and lost.

In some ways the vast over-extension of Athenian resources was enabled by the allies they could call upon, whether in Akarnania, Thrace, Sicily or the Peloponnese. In the infamous Sicilian Expedition, less than a third of the hoplites sent were Athenian; while the Athenian loss of life was staggering because of the fleet losses and reinforcements sent, a mitigating factor in it all was that a relatively small porportion were actually Athenians. Not that this helped much, but it should still be noted.

True, the speech is exhorting bravery of Athenians and the courage to abandon land and homes for the city, seeking to belittle the Spartans and simultaneously paying homage to that the vast majority of the fleet was Athenian; this is even without recognizing that the power of the Athenian fleet was magnified by skill to the point that they routinely were willing to engage Peloponnesian forces twice their size. It just manages to omit one of the key factors that enabled Athens to reach and then overreach.

Democracy, republicanism and war

Are democracies inherently flawed when it comes to running a war? Does a strong executive (to use the modern terminology) make the running of a war more efficient, if not always more successful?

Thucydides would say so, and indeed he lays the blame for Athenian defeat mostly at the hands on the demagogues, who were non-aristocrats who became leaders. Lincoln and Roosevelt would also say so, and both took extraordinary steps to suspend basic liberties in light of wars, intending to relinquish their hold once the crisis passed. Romans would agree, having two consuls run the war efforts, but when times became most critical they nominated a dictator to take over all power for six months and completely direct the war effort. Napoleon would agree, Han Solo would agree, and every president since Vietnam would agree, the list goes on.

The virtue of having a sole, or very small group of leaders does not guarantee success in a war, and in some instances the virtue of having one person in command of the overall strategy could guarantee defeat, but there is not the fickle aspect of democracy and there is a time when one person needs to step to the fore and expedite the process.