The place of confinement is an island fortress, “It is known as an island but ought to be called a rock. For it is nothing more than a stack of volcanic tufa heaped up into the form of an enormous snout, wearisomely steep in some places, but for the most part bare, sheer crag. The strip of sea between it and the mainland is no wider than a keen eye can traverse. None the less to cross it, be it through the malice of the winds or of the currents, is a hazardous business for vessels, and totally beyond the power of any swimmer. No one is ever known to have escaped but their remains have been recovered, glaired with seaweed and mauled by fish on the rocks of the Black Foreland”.
The Governor is Consalvo De Ritis, (nicknamed ‘Sparafucile’ after the great bass opera role for his fondness for gunfire), who rages against the weakness brought on by his illness, depicted as a rat which has crawled in through the Governor’s ear and taken up residence in his brain.
The four condemned prisoners are Ingafu, a baron, “hardened malefactor and assassin”; Saglimbeni, self-styled poet, “an imposing adventurer if ever there was one”; Agesilaos, soldier,“of a circuitous cast of mind, delighting in every kind of cavilling argument” and Narcissus, student, seething “with mutinous feelings towards any authority whatever.” These are the Four Evangelists to the Cabal, members of the Republican Directory or ‘the Holy Office’, which acts as an intermediary between their obscure leader known as ‘God the Father’ and his more lowly disciples. Apprehended after exploding a bomb in an attempt to kill the King, the four are lodged together with another doomed criminal, Brother Cirillo, “A God-fearing, sanguinary brigand…of vast intelligence…and by no means ignoble birth”. The five are sentenced to die at dawn by guillotine. However, the revolutionaries are offered a chance to save their lives – will they betray God the Father? Brother Cirillo suggests that the four spend the hours before dawn, while they are deciding, by telling instructive moral stories from their lives, in the time-honoured fashion.
In his story, “Narcissus saved from the waves”, the student recalls cross-dressers and disguises; the second-guessing baron takes on the identity of his dead brother; the soldier/priest corrupts his fellow orphans and kills his creator, while the poet sees the reflection of a bearded cannibal bandit next to his own in a pond. Each is a tale of deception, double-dealing and masks.
The literary and philosophical allusions are all apposite – the Decameron, Byron, Pascal, George Sand, are called upon. The tales themselves are reminiscent of Calvino’s “The Cloven Viscount” and “The Baron in the Trees”, but even more so of the illusory and ghastly and remarkable “Moravagaine.”
At the conclusion, Cirillo expresses his disgust – rather than a confession or philosophical truth, each man has paraded his weaknesses in a petty, self-serving story, false and facile…”you have all revealed yourselves in my eyes as either evil, or weak, or foolish – tiny souls a-shiver in a tinsel splendour”. And that is Bufalino’s point. Cirillo rants against the existential ‘injustice’ “of neither you nor I nor any one of us having a solid, imperturbably responsible ‘I’ of his own. For my own life, no less than yours, my brethren and antagonists, has been naught but a steady flow of multiple perceptions within a multiple self…My fate has been the selfsame fate as yours, for I have been listening to you, some more some less, falling in the same shiftings and shadow-play, and exchanges of personality and blindman’s-bluff, which has been the warp and the weft of my own life. We resemble, all of us together, the rotting shreds of dismembered cartulary. Small-part actors, you and I are, in an endless sham, Mummers in a weird and an odious misunderstanding.”
Given these themes, the twist is not a totally unexpected surprise, but the intriguing after-twist makes the reader think again about ambiguous details here and there, which seemed out of place on a first reading.
Bufalino is not well-known now, although ‘Night’s Lies’ won the Strega Prize in 1988 (other winners include Pavese, Moravia, Morante, di Lampedusa, Landolfi, Levi and Eco) and a library is named for him in his home town of Cosimo, Sicily. Bufalino’s prose, via Patrick Creagh’s excellent translation, is picaresque, rollicking, rich and amusing, although the stories do lag at times. Read this while working-up to Moravagaine. But a warning. Neither is a work for the prudish or faint of heart.