Bookinista review: ‘Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History,’ by John Julius Norwich
August 31, 2015
"Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History" is overwhelming. Spanning thousands of years, the ambitious story is an account of one marauding band after another sweeping across an island notorious for Mafiaso. Mycenaeans, Greeks, Romans, Barbarians, Byzantines and Arabs — you name them and they plundered and terrorized the island.
"Sicily" is uphill reading, detailed and full of facts and names, a record of conquest and loss. Author John Julius Norwich (aka Lord Norwich) has written about Sicily for more than half a century and accurately refers to Old Testament (Neolithic) tribes and people groups as the foundation for his account. But Sicily really begins with the ancient Greeks, whose mythological stories reference it. Norwich romps through their history as if he knows the people and places intimately.
It's hard to cover this much territory without becoming dry. Norwich's academic writing style is surprisingly enjoyable, and he wisely includes humorous accounts of events to break the flow of conquest and defeat. His humor, in phrases such as "the flatulently named Parthenopean Republic," shines through often enough to keep the reader reading. And it evokes a sympathetic response because it humanizes so many characters. Not only is this history; it's personalities.
The second half of "Sicily" is more relatable than the first, primarily because names are more familiar and warriors don't dominate the story. When Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton arrive on the scene, the book moves into familiar territory. Interestingly enough, because of the French, English and Spanish diplomats moving through Sicily, Norwich offers glimpses of other European courts while telling the story of the island off the coast of Italy, close to Northern Africa.
The history and extreme blending of cultures that eventually become Sicily explain the distance Sicilians feel from their motherland. They have a reputation as viewing themselves as Sicilians first and Italians second, and Norwich's book provides backstory for this mindset.
This isn't the type of book that a reader puts down and remembers in detail. It is too overlapping and convoluted for that. But minutiae necessarily paint the portrait of the place. Sicily's violent past is a reminder that terrorism is nothing new, while its underworld connection is proof that it can be homegrown.
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Norwich's coverage of the Mafia, in the context of the unification — Resorgimento — of Sicily to the mainland of Italy, is enlightening. Benito Mussolini saw the Mafia as a challenge to his authority. But before he and they could annihilate each other, World War II intervened. The conflict introduced the complex characters of Dwight D. Eisenhower, General George S. Patton and Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery to the Sicilian scene. Of particular interest is how the Mafia benefited from American intelligence by infiltrating the ranks of translators.
Norwich retired from the diplomatic corps to become a writer. An octogenarian with more than 20 books to his name, his "Absolute Monarchs" was a New York Times best-seller in 2011. "Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History" is published by Random House and available at The Bookworm of Edwards and other booksellers.
Vail Valley local NLB Horton (nlbhorton.com) is the author of two successful works of international suspense, "When Camels Fly" and "The Brothers' Keepers." Both are available at The Bookworm of Edwards and at other booksellers, and her third book will be released in 2016.