Review: Alessandro Spina’s ‘Confines of the Shadow’

Further scholarship and imagination could bring Spina’s books into a discussion of Libya’s present. Once the country was “cleansed,” Italians moved in. His novels were published across the sea by small Italian presses, to critical acclaim but narrow readerships. He isn’t seen again. Quietly but insistently, he assembled his fictional revision of early twentieth century Libyan history, creating a portrait of Libya underpinned not just by his family’s experiences but by careful research as well. But Spina’s books may change how we see the influence of colonial violence on Italian social and political identities, as well as how we see contemporary Libya. Most authors and historians who wrote in Italian seemed to have wiped the North African nation clear out of their consciences. In failing to possess Semereth, Martello loses himself. He recorded in his Diario di lavoro that in the early 1980s he was introduced to the poet Vittorio Sereni, by Sereni’s wife, as “Alessandro Spina, who is trying to make Italians feel guilty about their colonial crimes, all to no avail, of course.”
But the Confines narrative is not just about colonial crimes; it’s about life in Libya. His story enchants and appalls the Italians, who retell it as though it were part of the Thousand and One Nights. So here, to accompany our piece on the crowdfunding campaign for the next book in Spina’s epic, Colonial Tales:
When Alessandro Spina (the pen name of Libyan-born Syrian Basili Shafik Khouzam) began publishing his Confines of the Shadow novels, in the late 1960s and ’70s, Libya had been free of Italian colonial rule for nearly a quarter century. His fantastical excavations connect the tissue between Ottoman and Arab rule, Italian colonialism, and the modern Ghaddafi era. Semereth finds himself at the center of the colony’s attentions after his girl-wife rejects him and falls in love with a boy under his protection. The Young Maronite introduces us to Semereth Effendi, a giant, physically deformed Ottoman who moved out to provincial Libya in disgrace, where Semereth becomes a man of some standing. The Italian Captain Martello is obsessed with Semereth, and goes to the old Ottoman just before he’s executed. By then, Libya was of little interest to scholars north of the Mediterranean. The grotesque Ottoman forgives the couple and tries to shield them, but they are killed by his dishonored family. (There was Lion of the Desert, a 1981 Ghaddafi-funded film about resistance leader Omar Mukhtar that starred Anthony Quinn, but it was banned in Italy, and the author of the book on which the film was based was murdered in 1931, apparently by Italian intelligence officers.)
When the first volumes of the Confines epic were written, in Italian, Spina was living in Libya. In spite of this, the 1930s narrative of the “good Italian colonist” has hardly been shaken. Yet Libya’s colonial history is not so much less ugly than Algeria’s: after the Italo-Ottoman war, the Italians waged a brutal battle inside Libya, during which more than 80,000 Libyans were forced into concentration camps. It constructs a picture of a cosmopolitan, Ottoman-influenced nation where the colonial shadow spreads and corrupts, most particularly the hearts of the colonists. Italian historian Giorgio Rochat told The Guardian in 2001 that “There remains in Italian culture and public opinion the idea that basically we were colonialists with a human face”; historian Angelo Del Boca said those guilty of genocide in Libya were still “honored.” So: no Battle of Algiers for Libya. “Captain Martello thought Semereth’s body already seemed inert, as if dangling in a void. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrWhatsAppPinterestTelegramPocketSkypeLike this:Like Loading…‹ Friday Finds: ‘Black Rain’, ‘Black Snow’Will Crowdfunding Become an Important Tool for Supporting Translations? He said: We return from whence we came. By 1939, colonists made up twelve percent of Libya’s population. It’s hard not to admire Spina’s musical, virtuosic style, which shifts effortlessly from operatic melodrama to philosophy to Arab maqama to Lampedusa-like detail, admirably echoed in the English by André Naffis-Sahely. The extent to which the Italians lost themselves in Libya—and Somalia, where they also established a colony—remains up for historians’ discussion. Independently wealthy, Spina was seemingly unconcerned by how his books sold. In the first book of the series, The Young Maronite, Spina interleaves the chapters with quotes from colonial-era newspapers, books, and governmental directives. Spina was attentive to how Italians read his books. After this, Semereth joins the rebels fighting in the south. The novel dances on this thread of the fantastic, but it also paints a picture of its time, getting at something essential about the colonial desperation to possess the Other. Among Italian leftists at the time, there was wide interest in Algeria, but nary a revisionist word about Libya. However, the captain also felt as though he was being sucked into that void himself.”
When Martello goes to Semereth’s execution, the Italian officer thinks, “I uselessly tried to detect fear in his features, or hatred, or pious resignation. Every translation is a restless shadow.’” A frustrated Martello continues to try to understand the locals until he disappears, apparently, into an ancient tomb. This review was meant to be published two years ago, but the magazine that requested it went dark. Or maybe: Devoted to God, to Him we return. A Look at Darf’s Spina Kickstarter ›Categories: Libya