“Marble Arch Built by Italians to Commemorate then victory in Libya”. Photo by Joe Willis. Source: joewillis.co.uk
Seth Messigner reviews The Confines of the Shadow by Alessandro Spina, translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely, a 2015 title by Darf Publishers, London
Confines of the Shadow is the first of three volumes written by Alessandro Spina and translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely. The London-based Darf Publishers has produced nonfiction works in English about Libya, the Arab World and the Middle East. Recently it started publishing translations of world literature as well. Confines of the Shadow links these two concentrations in one multi-volume project. Spina is at once a Libyan, an Arab, and an Italian. He spent much of his career writing his family’s history, through which he explored a uniquely tangled web of relations with the Mediterranean world.
Born Basili Shafik Khouzam, he was the son of a Maronite Lebanese merchant who immigrated to Benghazi at the time of the Italian occupation. And he had a life-long fascination with Libya and Italy’s entwined histories since the end of the nineteenth century. Like many insider-outsider families of the post-Ottoman world (Bares in Egypt, Memmi in North Africa, among countless – anonymous – others), Spina’s family did not fare well in the purgative atmosphere of Arab nationalism, and one imagines their descendants would struggle mightily in the even more astringent world proposed by radical Islamicists. Spina spent the years of World War II in Italy but otherwise lived in Libya until he saw the writing on the wall by the Qaddafi regime and moved to Italy permanently in 1980. His work is an extended meditation on the inter-connectedness of his two homes.
Confines of the Shadow contains three novels: The Young Maronite, The Marriage of Omar, and Nocturnal Visitor. It is distinct from other multi-volume novels/romans a clef in that they are part of a mammoth omnibus in the tradition of accounts of fading empires. His work calls to mind Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, and Canneti. What distinguishes it from these authors’ is his multivocality, his experimentalism, and the shifting perspectives between characters and narrators.
Confines of the Shadow is a house of many mansions. It has sections that are fable-like, others that are more suggestive of a bildungsroman. It is a novel of manners, a drawing room or domestic comedy. It is tragic, and it is polemical.