Seth Messinger on Alessandro Spina: Bordello Continent, Missione Civilizzatrice

“Marble Arch Built by Italians to Commemorate then victory in Libya”. Photo by Joe Willis. Source: joewillis.co.uk

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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.

The book begins with an encounter between two exiles: Émile, the Maronite merchant newly arrived in Benghazi; and Hajj Semereth, who we will learn is from Istanbul but has been exiled to this distant Ottoman city for some kind of “political” crime. Almost immediately this line of narrative is disrupted by the introduction of Italian military officers, one of whom is searching for a villa to buy. This leads to an extended discussion, seemingly out of place in the terms of a real estate transaction, about whether Italy has embarked upon her belated “missione civilizzatrice,” or whether going to “war in Africa is like turning an entire continent into a bordello and offering her up to our young men, so they may vent the entire spectrum of their human, heroic, sadistic and aesthetic emotions.”

The rest of the volume follows a similar trajectory. New characters are introduced, dramas about life under occupation unfold. Encounters between occupiers and Libyans filled with misunderstanding and failed understanding are described.

Spina adopts a wide range of narrative styles as he seeks to present the various voices and viewpoints in his tale. The book is replete with long sections that are lyrical and poetic as well as passages of dialogue that are stilted and speechifying. Other experiments include establishing a theatrical atmosphere complete with stage direction and clearly marked dialogue. At times the novel reverts into flights of fancy that seem to wander along some of the heavily treaded pathways of Orientalism regarding eastern exoticism, the vicissitudes of honor and shame.

The novel is filled with paired encounters that continually repeat through the various episodes. First is Hajj Semereth’s thwarted love for his youngest wife Zulfa. Pining away for Zulfa, Semereth is betrayed when a harem intrigue leads to her seduction by his protégé, the European orphan Fernandino. The lovers are dispatched in an honor killing while Semereth, who had hoped to remain above the politics of the Italian occupation, is thrust into the wilderness first as a fugitive and then as a rebel leader against the Italians.

This pairing repeats itself in the story of Omar, Sobeida, Alonzo and Rosina several episodes later. Omar, who has repudiated his wife Sobeida nevertheless pines for her. Count Alonzo, the Italian Governor of Benghazi, remains ever hopeful and ever unrequited in his efforts to understand and domesticate Libya. Rosina, Alonzo’s wife feels alienated from Libya and besieged by the Arab servants in her home. She also misses her husband’s love and tries to replace it by mothering their nephew. The nephew dies in an accident (perhaps he’s murdered), Count Alonzo’s efforts to seduce Benghazi meet with failure, Rosina is left in mourning, and Omar and Sobeida – both of whom remain ciphers – are reunited, but forced to leave the Governor’s service.

These various melodramas occur frequently in the linked stories of the novel and they serve an important purpose: to remind readers of the immense, perhaps insurmountable challenges in creating real and durable relationships between occupier and occupied. Whenever Italians and Libyans come together in the novel as antagonists or as friends, disaster ensues. Any attempts at accommodation are thwarted by misunderstanding, intrigue, or sabotage.

Of the three, sabotage seem to hold the greatest drama: the death of Count Alonzo’s nephew Antonino, or the loss of Captain Martello. Both of these men seem to ignore the palpable distrust and even hatred of the Libyans, both seek to penetrate what they perceive to be the mysteries of the country and in different ways they are lost, violently. But I would argue that it is in the quieter failures that the real tragedy of occupation does its work. In those moments, between Count Alonzo and Omar, between Emile and Hajj Semereth’s former servant Abdelkarim, the gulf or chasm between those who dominate and the dominated emerges in its saddest form, that is: the impossibility of connection on a more modest, human and humane scale.

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One difficulty of reviewing translated literature is the challenge of accurately critiquing the translation. In the introduction Naffis-Sahely wrote that Spina died only a year or two before the project of bringing his work into English commenced. This robbed Naffis-Sahely of the opportunity to engage with Spina over difficulties in the text. Nonetheless it seems to me that much praise should flow to Naffis-Sahely, a noted translator into English of Arabic and French as well as Italian. If my sense that the stilted sections of Spina’s work are the product of his experiments in writing the translator may have been sorely tempted to smooth them out. No doubt that temptation was raised again in those long speeches about colonialism that occur during a breakup between Émile’s brother Armand and Olghina, the wife of an Italian doctor. Here she is complaining about Armand’s weakness of character and his inability to achieve his dream.

“In the initial fire of our rapport, being certain we belonged to a different world, we kicked this little colonial town aside. We imitated a Parisian couple, or repeated the encounter between the White Lady and the Oriental Prince: we dabbled in provincial pastimes. We disdained bourgeois values.”

This takes place in one of the sections of the book that Spina sets up like a play. The importance, to me, of these scenes of dialogue, which are more prevalent in the early part of the book, is the role they play in transforming the ideological challenges posed by conquest and resistance, and the ontological gaps that supposedly separate us from them and vice versa. As a representation of a lover’s quarrel, however, they are more challenging to absorb. Nonetheless Naffis-Sahely does not surrender his faith in Spina’s narrative and presents these stiff passages as fluidly as he does the most lyrical prose.

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Publicity for the book has not been immune to the antinomies between the “west” and Islam or the Arab world. All of this belongs in the kinds of parenthetical quotes that imply that the world is far more complex than these kinds of dichotomies suggest. Nonetheless the simple shorthands for mammoth and conceptual processes such as colonialism, empire, resistance, and Islam, among others, find their way into discussions of the book that anticipated its publication.

Despite the small critiques I have leveled above, I would argue that this is a very important publishing project and it is disheartening to see its limited reception. Much of the pre-publication writing about the book can be traced to Andre Naffis-Sahely, who has revised the book’s introduction in a number of print and online publications to draw attention to the work. It is from Naffis-Sahely’s writings that the outlines of Spina’s life have been introduced to English speaking and reading audiences. Nonetheless “our” politics cannot help but be introduced into Naffis-Sahely’s reading of Spina’s life and Libya’s recent history.

Here is a good example drawn from his essay in Banipal (UK) Magazine of Modern Arabic Literature. In discussing the increasing challenges to free expression in Qaddafi’s Libya Naffis-Sahely writes this: “The years following Gaddafi’s coup had seen the despot de-foreignize Libya, a process he began in 1970 with the expulsion of thousands of Jewish and Italian colonists.” Of course there were no “Italian colonists” in the Libya of 1970s, only expatriates. The linkages of Jews to colonists only reinforces the mistaken and pernicious view that North African Jewish communities were not indigenous to the region and were instead a foreign element to be scraped away by the secular Arab nationalist dictators of the mid-twentieth century. Finally the Christian community is elided completely by lumping it in with the Italians ignoring Spina’s own liminality in the Libya of his time.

Spina’s book comes with many of the apparatuses of a publishing phenomena: he is a prize-winning novelist with a compelling back story and a Ferrante-like aversion to publicity. The book has also benefited from the promotional efforts of its translator who has written essays about Spina in the American weekly magazine The Nation and on the website “Africa is a Country”. There is also the compelling story of the funding of the translation, realized in part through a Kickstarter campaign. In effect Confines of the Shadow is being positioned as a book for our times, both part of the sharing economy and part of the larger, more serious and deadly conversation about the way the “west” or the “north”, since stumbling into Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, has been thrashing around.

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In my “day job” I research the recovery of physically injured military servicemembers who have been hurt in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. I used to ask them what their impressions were of the countries they were deployed to. It shouldn’t surprise people to know that often these countries left poor impressions in the minds of these young servicemembers, but what I have been struck by is that many of them believe that the societies in which they served either had no history or existed in a suspended past. Books, such as the ones that Spina has written, offer a valuable contribution to correcting that misimpression. Confines of the Shadow does not present all of Benghazi’s history, but pushes the timeline back one hundred years, and shows readers that many of the conflicts that we imagine are new today have roots in earlier ones. Beyond this these works help us in places like the United States to understand that the choices we allow our governments to make in our names and on our behalves have consequences that we can foresee, and perhaps forestall, if only we have the wisdom to trust our memories and our narratives.

Seth Messinger is a Seattle-based anthropologist whose research focuses on how individuals recover from traumatic events and how they experience the return to their communities.

2 responses to Seth Messinger on Alessandro Spina: Bordello Continent, Missione Civilizzatrice

  1. Richard Johnson

    Nice job,Seth. A subject about which I knew nothing and now I have learned a lot. Good work! Richard

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