This colossal book has required from its creator a colossal effort expended over almost twenty years. By the same token, anybody desiring to tackle Horcynus Orca will have to be ready to make a colossal investment in terms of both time and readerly exertion. Nothing less will suffice. D’Arrigo’s book is as unwieldy, awe-inspiring, intimidating, and mysterious as the giant killer whale whose modified Latin name was adopted as the title. The reader might spend some time pondering whether the 1,257-page life’s work of a little-known Messinese author has proved to be a slow-burning success or an ambitious failure before realising that such categories are irrelevant. Whether we want it or not, Horcynus Orca has become part of our civilisation. It’s there for us, either to admire, or to hate, or to incite us to reconsider our habitual ways of approaching a work of art. Combining the local and the universal, this story, which unfolds over just four days and which is mostly limited to the region of the Strait of Messina, is at the same time a comprehensive narrative summarising the millennia of asking the eternal questions about life, death, and humanity’s place in the complicated world it happens to inhabit. For two months, I was travelling inside the belly of D’Arrigo’s Leviathan, and this review is an account of what I saw there, which some Jonahs-in-the-making might find either useful or, at least, entertaining.
Let me start, however, with a brief historical outline. The first draft of the novel was titled The Dolphin’s Head (La testa del delfino). It was written in just a year, from 1956 to 1957, in twelve quadrille-ruled notebooks. This version never got published. In 1958, D’Arrigo started working on a much larger novel based on that initial text. The novel now was called The Deeds of the Fera (I fatti della Fera) — the standard Italian word delfino was replaced with its dialect equivalent. In 1960, two chapters from the work in progress were published under the title The Days of the Fera (I giorni della fera) in the literary journal Il Menabò. Without the author’s consent, Elio Vittorini, the co-editor of the journal, added to the publication a glossary of the Italianised Sicilian words used in the text. (This glossary, with some additions, can be found in Pierino Venuto’s article La risposta europea a Moby Dick (The European Response to Moby Dick)) This interference enraged D’Arrigo. “Madness, idiotic madness” (una pazzia, una cretina pazzia), that’s how he described Vittorini’s decision in a letter to a friend. Such a strong reaction was a clear indication of what kind of task the writer was trying to accomplish. He was not writing a fashionably neorealist novel about Sicilian fishermen with a smattering of dialect thrown in for the sake of verisimilitude or to convey the local colour. D’Arrigo was creating a unique artistic method of expression in which Sicilian words were used alongside archaic lexis and the bizarre neologisms specially invented for the semi-mythical world of the novel. In order to comprehend this world, the reader was expected to inhabit it and learn its language as he or she trudged along, taking time to take in its wonders. In 1961 The Deeds of the Fera was ready. All D’Arrigo had to do was to correct the galley proofs of the 600-page novel to be published by Mondadori. During the correction process, D’Arrigo began adding new material and expanding some episodes. After several years of continuous postponements, it became obvious that the Sicilian author was transforming the novel into something new and would keep on working until his vision was realised. All in all, the publisher and the readers had to wait for fourteen years until the completion of the definitive version whose title now was Horcynus Orca and whose size had increased twofold. In 1975 D’Arrigo’s Leviathan finally saw the light, and its enormous shape has been looming over the Italian literary landscape ever since.
The book had been considered untranslatable until Moshe Kahn triumphantly disproved this belief. His German translation of Horcynus Orca, which enjoyed considerable media coverage in all German-speaking countries, reignited the general interest in D’Arrigo. It was the first tremendous step in making Horcynus Orca an international phenomenon, and the hope that there would be more translations of the novel received a new boost. Slowly but surely, D’Arrigo’s masterpiece is entering the Western Canon.
If we take a bird’s-eye view of the plot, the novel does not strike as particularly complex. After the allied troops enter the insurgency-engulfed Naples on October 1, 1943, ‘Ndrja Cambrìa, a young sailor from a disbanded naval unit, sets out on a journey back home. In order to reach his native Sicilian village of Charybdis, he has to find a way of crossing the Strait of Messina from the Calabrian coast seemingly deprived of any type of functional naval transport. All the ferries have either been sunk by bombardments or impounded and repurposed for the military use by the Anglo-American forces. ‘Ndrja is closely followed by another four returnees from the war. The shambling ragged men with the implausible names Boccadopa, Portempedocle, Petraliasottana, and Montalbanodelicoperdette believe the protagonist to be their Moses, who will open for them a sea passage. But ‘Ndrja is a solitary traveller and in need of guidance himself, which he receives from the spaggiatore, an old beachcomber eking out his existence by rummaging in the flotsam and jetsam along the coastline. The only opportunity to cross the strait mythologically dubbed here “Scylla and Charybdis”(scill’e carridi), is to seek favour with a femminota, a member of the community of brash female smugglers (femminote) who still have navigable boats in their possession. While wandering through their village, ‘Ndrja chances upon Ciccina Circé, a seductive and mysterious femminota whose name evokes, of course, the powerful sorceress from the Odyssey, and who agrees to bring the young man home in her boat. After a night journey across the strait, ‘Ndrja-Ulysses reaches the shores of his homeland. The pay for the crossing is sex with Ciccina Circé. The sailor finds the village of Charybdis in the clutches of famine: as there are practically no boats left, the fishermen cannot ply their trade anymore. Many have been reduced to eating the flesh of beached dolphins. His widowed father Caitanello Cambrìa is among those who caved in. Before making his presence known, ‘Ndrja spies on his father preparing mosciame (strips of salted dolphin meat). Just like Homer’s Laertes, Caitanello doesn’t recognise his son at first, and ‘Ndrja has to show him an old harpoon scar to prove his identity. Then Caitanello brings his son up to date on the recent events in the village, dwelling particularly on what has brought about his recent estrangement from the other fishermen.
This synopsis covers more than half of the novel (seven hundred pages approximately). Does it mean, that not much happens in a book of such forbidding proportions? Not at all. If we zoom in a bit, our heads will start spinning. The narrative is far from linear, and the main chronology of the story is often interrupted by flashbacks, sudden recollections, dreams, visions and deliria.
The part of the novel summarised above is dominated by the image of the fera. That’s what the Sicilian fishermen call the dolphin, using the Latin word for “beast”. And the common dolphin populating the body of water between Scylla and Charybdis is a veritable beast, a total opposite of its friendly bottlenose relative we are used to admiring in oceanaria and theme parks. The fera burps and farts and stinks; it destroys the fishermen’s nets and gobbles up the precious swordfish commercially harvested by the Sicilians; it is treacherous, hypocritical, derisive and dastardly; its reeking meat can be used for food only when there’s famine, and even then it has to be soaked in vinegar before being cooked.
The fera/dolphin dichotomy is explored at length in ‘Ndrja reminiscences about two confrontations with the representatives of the official authorities: the first one was with a fascist grandee on board of a ship heading for Abyssinia, and the second, years later, with a Venetian ensign on a corvette of Regia Marina. In both cases, the men in charge were dismayed at learning that there is another name for the dolphin, a dialect word which denigrates the romantic image of the beautiful and amicable marine mammal. The centre versus the periphery. The standard language versus the dialect. The fascist officials from the mainland versus the common fishermen from the island. It’s all there. It’s not that Mussolini’s henchmen genuinely believe in the ideals they seem to profess. The fascist eccelenza (excellency) appears to be shocked that a crew of Sicilian fisherman, the young ‘Ndrja among them, have decided to butcher a dolphin as an exemplary punishment to it and an intimidation measure to all the other nasty creatures that have repeatedly torn the nets during the swordfish harvesting season. At the point of a gun, he first makes the fishermen recite a weird Kyrie Eleison extolling the virtues of the dolphin and then orders them to throw the bleeding animal back into the sea, after which he “treacherously” shoots it dead. The junior officer on the corvette is not that violent, which doesn’t make him less of a despot. Leaning on his authority, he naively believes that he can re-educate his Sicilian subordinates and force them to start using the refined delfino instead of the barbaric fera.
Skull of Common Dolphin. Klaus Rassinger und Gerhard Cammerer, Museum Wiesbaden. Image Source
But, of course, there’s nothing outsiders can do to the singular culture that has developed around the fera within the fishing communities of the strait. The metaphysical dimensions of this animal are explored in dreams or dream-like encounters. ‘Ndrja indulges in a prolonged rumination while stroking the skull of a fera (the cetacean Yorick, if there was one) on the beach at the femminote’s village. He falls asleep on the bone-strewn sand and has a truly Dantesque vision of fere’s afterlife: the legendary cemetery of these mammals is, in fact, the interior of the volcano on Stromboli island; the fere ascend to the rim of the crater, get completely defleshed by white flames and align their pristine skeletons in winding rows inside the volcanic cone. These immaculate skeletons, compared to the holy host, no longer belong to the fere. The eschatological vision reveals to ‘Ndrja that only in the afterlife the sinful fera finally becomes the virtuous dolphin.
Even when the image of this sprightly bon-vivant of the Strait of Messina becomes tinged with morbid undertones, there is always an element of defiant hilarity, a touch of Rabelaisian overindulgence about it. For instance, fere most often die as a result of gorging themselves on fish. Death for them is a belated guest at a lavish banquet. ‘Ndrja’s father witnesses first-hand how mockery and morbidity harmoniously co-exist in this animal. After the onset of the famine, on a spontaneous urge, Caitanello goes wandering along the beach and in a thicket of reeds stumbles upon a tableau vivant, or rather, tableau mort. The fighters of an Anti-Aircraft Defence Militia unit were gunned down from a fighter plane while having a feast at an improvised table, and, after several weeks under the scorching sun, their corpses turned into mummified statues in an allegorical composition. In the very centre of the table, there is the grinning head of a fera, as taunting in death as it was in life, a memento mori in a cap and bells. The sneering skull surrounded by the desiccated corpses of the fascists, who appear to be worshipping it, serves as a sinister omen to Caitanello and the whole fishing community: you have disdained and disrespected me for too long, but look now, the famine has come, and I am your only hope; I have become the centrepiece of your dinner table, and you will genuflect before my beached carrion or you will die.
While more and more inhabitants of Charybdis resort to eating dolphin flesh to stave off hunger, the fere enjoy themselves, banqueting on the swordfish now inaccessible to the fishermen. A veritable feast in time of plague occurs after hordes of various dolphin and porpoise species from all the seas and oceans of the world all of a sudden throng the Strait of Messina, boggling the locals’ imagination with the diversity of their shapes and shades. It is up to the well-travelled Mr Cama, the owner of the famous “coloured book” about sea monsters, to elucidate to his fellow villagers the background, history and the behavioural patterns of the newcomers. Mr Cama is the venerable authority on marine mammals in Charybdis, and his richly illustrated encyclopedia Whales, Porpoises, and Dolphins is the inexhaustible source of theoretical knowledge on the subject for the whole community. I was surprised to learn that the prototype of this fictional book is not some massive reference work, but an article in The National Geographic. The Italian scholar Siriana Sgavicchia examines this connection at length in her essay Il “concentramento di fere forestiere sullo scill’e cariddi”: Fonti letterarie e scientifiche di “Horcynus Orca” (The “concentration of foreign fere in Scilla and Charybdis”: The Literary and Scientific Sources of Horcynus Orca). It turns out that Stefano D’Arrigo made use of the US zoologist Remington Kellogg’s dossier on cetaceans in the 1940 January issue of the magazine. Once properly informed on every species in this rag-tag congregation, the fishermen can better “appreciate” the execution of the animals’ bloody design.
A spread of The National Geographic‘s January 1940 issue with the reproductions of Else Bostelmann’s paintings from the series Whales, Porpoises, and Dolphins used to illustrate Remington Kellog’s article Whales, Giants of the Sea
Along with Homer’s Odyssey, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Joyce’s Ulysses, the Charlemagne and Roland legends are essential for a deeper understanding of Horcynus Orca. Curiously, it’s not so much the texts of The Song of Roland or Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso that are evoked on the pages of D’Arrigo’s novel but rather their theatrical adaptation in the Opera dei Pupi, the Sicilian marionette theatre whose repertoire is based upon the stories of Charlemagne and his loyal paladins. Thus, when the “international coalition” of the fere waylays a shoal of swordfish, the comparison to the Battle of Roncevaux is rather luridly comical than tragic. The fact that in the fishermen’s vernacular the male swordfish is called pulcinella (i.e. Punch) renders the whole scene even more carnivalesque. The fere, representing the treacherous Saracens, ambush and massacre the swordfish impersonating Roland’s rearguard: a cruel entertainment for the Charybdis fishermen, which is fraught with ominous symbolism.
But it’s not only Thanatos we encounter here. There’s plenty of Eros in Horcynus Orca as well. In addition to ‘Ndrja’s lovemaking with Ciccina Circé on the shore of Charybdis, there are detailed accounts of his sexual adventures as an adolescent, one of them involving an unlikely victim of kidnapping who becomes the de facto captain of a Bedouin ship and invites ‘Ndrja to roam the seas together with her. One of the femminote ‘Ndrja encounters while looking for the way of crossing the strait tells him about her experience with an anonymous lover in the engine room of a ferry on which she was travelling with the usual contraband. She could have sworn that she was having sex not with the man, but with the vessel itself. There’s even sex between non-human entities. On August 17, the last day of the Allied Invasion of Sicily, the war violently copulates with the sun. The war is personified as a squalid and dishevelled whore, young from behind and old in front, who repeatedly gets pregnant and with lightning rapidity gives birth to deaths, dismemberments, explosions, conflagrations, and other kinds of calamities.
The great assembly of the fere is the highest point of their domination, both in the Strait of Messina and in the narrative. It all changes in a moment when the killer whale arrives. The fera, with all its symbolism, all its adventures, mishaps, and escapades, which have been inextricable from the main story so far, is instantly pushed to the background. There was a reason why D’Arrigo changed the title of the novel from The Deeds of the Fera to Horcynus Orca because when the orca arrives, everything else becomes irrelevant, and we realise that this is what it’s all about, that’s what we have been waiting for all this time — the giant, the monster, Leviathan, the beast out of the sea from the Book of Revelation.
The largest killer whale known to us is 9.8 metres long. The length of the apex predator emerging before the stunned crowd of the villagers is 15 metres. If we haven’t realised this before, now it’s clear that we’re deep inside a fable of biblical proportions. The inhabitants of Charybdis readily engage in a rambling exegetic exercise, trying to pin the meaning on this enormous Rorschach blot, which has stained the calm waters of the strait. The orca is immortal. It has existed since the beginning of time and will continue terrifying the oceans until the end of the world because this creature is Death itself. The more familiar skeletal death, called here Nasomangiato (The Eaten Nose), is in charge of the land, whereas the fetid spindle-shaped monster whose cuneiform teeth tear apart with the same ease the dolphin, the seal, the shark, and even the great whale, rules supreme in the sea. Or, perhaps, on the contrary, the orca is an agent of good and has been sent to the village by divine providence to relieve its dwellers of their misery, for the soul of Ferdinando Currò, a highly-esteemed old harpooner who has perished recently, has migrated into the giant mammal’s body.
The argument for the killer whale as the incarnation of Death is supported by the unbearable stench given off by the huge gangrenous wound on its left flank. The putrefying but immortal beast has come to the strait to poison the waters and spread pestilence across the whole island. However, the opinions start to tip in favour of the orca when it drives to the surface of the coastal waters myriads of baby eels, which are perceived by the famished villagers as the divine manna. The delighted women and children rush into the water to pick up the hatchlings to fry them immediately, right there on the beach. Do they realise that this generous gift might be just a minor stratagem in the grander design of the false prophet at the end of times?
Another crucial dichotomy in Horcynus Orca that gets stressed all the time is that of pellesquadre vs riatteri. D’Arrigo’s coinage pellesquadra literally means “angelshark skin” and applies to experienced fishers and harpooners. Pellesquadre are the backbone of the community, and their skills, besides being the main source of the general sustenance, are also the subject of immense pride. Riatteri are the resellers who buy fish from the pellesquadre. While they are necessary for the community supporting itself by commercial fishing, there’s little respect for those roguish types. The riatteri are obviously more practical and cynical than the pellesquadre and less prone to metaphysical contemplation. So, when the former notice the killer whale, all they see is just a mountain of meat to make a profit from. As if in secret collusion with the fere, they bring about the downfall of the terrible orca. All it takes to make the fere aware of the gigantic animal’s vulnerability is an explosion of a hand-made bomb which lacerates the festering wound of the killer whale. The same ingenuity that helped the fere to ambush the swordfish several days before, guides their diversion and attack tactics against the wounded giant. The aftermath of the assault is shocking for all the spectators gathered on a rocky promontory: the fere literally saw off the killer whale’s tail with their sharp teeth. The huge black and white hulk of the dying animal is then pushed into a kind of watery tunnel between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas and once there, the tailless carcass begins helplessly sliding back and forth like a loose shuttle. But this miserable turn of events does not mean the defeat of the apocalyptic beast. On the contrary, this is the beginning of its triumph as well as the augury of the end of a whole civilisation. What lies ahead is the great revelation of last things and one of the most controversial literary texts ever written — the notorious “discourse on the promontory”.
It wouldn’t be enough to call this 200-page section of the novel dull and annoying. It is more than that. It is infuriating. It is scandalous. It is insufferable. I’ve yet to find a single reader who can sincerely say he or she has genuinely enjoyed this never-ending mixture of sluggish dialogue and an interior monologue so circuitous and repetitive that one might start wondering if the same text has been reproduced several times on account of a printing error. Even such an ardent admirer of D’Arrigo’s talent as Antonio Moresco was frustrated to no end. This is how he describes his feelings about the said discourse in a text called Grandezza di “Horcynus Orca” (The Greatness of Horcynus Orca), which documents his reading experience of the novel:
What happened? Why? If I had been D’Arrigo’s friend, I would have taken the train and would have gone to his home and would have implored on my knees to clear such a masterpiece from this verbal sludge, to find the courage to do that at the cost of discarding years of work.
Indeed, it took D’Arrigo several years to write this episode during the later stage of his work on the novel. “The discourse on the promontory” was absent from the much tighter version of the novel submitted to the publisher in 1961. So, what happened? Did D’Arrigo go mad? Is it a cruel joke at the reader’s expense or, maybe, an elaborate experiment gone awry? I believe that the way the episode is written and the predictable reaction of the reader are all part of the greater design. The idiosyncratic character of this text is as indispensable to D’Arrigo’s artistic vision as the use of the dialect and the neologisms throughout the novel.
A British motor barge with an AMGOT official from Messina on board approaches Charybdis to put ashore the official’s aide – a shady individual by the name of Sanciolo, who is mostly referred to as the lackey (scagnozzo) or the ball-licker (sciaquapalle). His boss, an effeminate Maltese called Maniàci (also known as Signor Mister) has sent him to persuade ‘Ndrja to take part in the regatta organised in Messina by the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories. The Messinese team is supposed to compete against the British and American rowers, but as there is a shortage of the local young men up for taking the challenge (as most of them have gone to war and haven’t returned yet) the Maltese and his lackey have been recruiting participants all over the region. The lackey approaches ‘Ndrja who is among the fishermen gazing from the rocky promontory at the agony of the orca floating in the distance. Sanciolo offers the young man 1,000 lire, which is a substantial sum that can be used as a down payment for a new palamitara, a fishing boat that could resuscitate the old ways of the war-ravaged fishing community and lead to the renewal of their stalled trade. Besides ‘Ndrja and the lackey, the key figure in this episode is the village elder Luigi Orioles. This old man is the epitome of the traditional ways. Described as “Spartan” and “marmoreal”, this effigy of a man embodies the unbreakable spirit of the pellesquadre. During the heated conversation between ‘Ndrja and the lackey, Don Luigi does something the protagonist has never seen him do before: he cunningly winks at him. And then it starts. Time grinds to a halt. The participants of the discussion find themselves in an atemporal bubble, which will only be burst by a single shocking statement uttered by ‘Ndrja some 200 pages later.
Welcome to Armageddon D’Arrigo-style. The end-of-the-world scenario is slowly revealed through hints, innuendo, circumlocution and obsessive, even delirious, introspection. The fishermen, including the lionised Luigi Orioles, do not want ‘Ndrja’s palamitara. What they crave is not resurrection but transformation. They want the orca. Seduced by the beast, they are ready to abandon their traditional vocation and embrace the ways of riatteri. They are looking forward to feasting on the meat of the giant carcass. What will be left could be sold at a good price. Then there is also the blubber and the bones. Those can be turned into profit too. In Mr Cama’s coloured book, they have seen the inhabitants of the far north manufacture all sorts of useful objects from slaughtered killer whales. The expiring foul-smelling mass of the orca can be easily towed by the British motor barge to the beach. The Maltese can arrange that with the captain of the vessel. Maniàci wants ‘Ndrja, and the fishermen see no reason why the young man shouldn’t be pimped out to the powerful official in exchange for the delivery of the orca — let their “marriage” mark the beginning of a new era.
Luigi Orioles lapses into pathetic mumbling. First, he cannot bring himself to finish the statement suggesting the towing of the orca to the shore. Then, dispelling ‘Ndrja’s hope of re-energising the community with the prospect of acquiring a new boat, the old man transforms the word barca (the Italian for a boat) into bara (coffin) and, after that, into arca (ark). Barca-bara-arca. Boat-coffin-ark. If there is a boat worth considering, it is not the one used for fishing, but the one which ferries souls to the kingdom of the dead. A pellisquadra‘s boat is destined to become his coffin, and even if it turns into an ark, it’s not the kind of ark to save its passengers from death but from the misery of humdrum existence. At his point, ‘Ndrja has his final vision, no more a dream or a half-dream, but a vivid hallucination, which not only predicts the events soon to follow but also allegorically depicts the decline of the fishing community, which has chosen the immediate profit offered by the putrefying carcass floating offshore over the remote hope of regeneration promised by ‘Ndrja’s palamitara. In this vision, the fishermen pull a net with the skeleton of the orca from the bottom of the evaporated sea. The bones of the mammal are made entirely of sea salt. As the pellesquadre pull their catch closer to the coast, the killer whale regains its flesh, becoming whole again. It comes alive and starts flapping around. Wherever it moves, the sea rises again. Its skin becomes translucent, the white skeleton clearly visible beneath, before the huge animal suddenly starts to melt and eventually becomes one with the sea. The promise of the orca is the false prophecy of the beast. Whatever gains the villagers are hoping to make by adopting the lifestyle of resellers are bound to dissolve like salt in water. The true destiny of the pellesquadre will always be connected with the sea, but, probably, it will be too late when they realise this.
Skeleton of an Orca. Museum of Veterinary Anatomy FMVZ USP. Photo credit: Wagner Souza e Silva. Image Source
The chain of thoughts, arguments, and reflections, triggered by Don Luigi’s winking, comes to an abrupt and explosive end when ‘Ndrja decides to give the fishermen what they want and unleashes the apocalyptic undoing of Charybdis by asking the Maltese to have the orca delivered to the coast as a favour for his participation in the regatta. Later, when he is departing from the Sicilian shore on the same British barge, he wistfully watches the villagers bustling around the carcass of the orcaferone. It’s worth noting that this neologism, which the pellesquadre have adopted with respect to the killer whale, reconciles its standard (orca) and dialect (ferone) names — something which never worked out with the fera and the dolphin.
The orcaferone’s carrion appeared to be bloated with tenebrosity and resembled a cliff, a mass of clouds, still intact with its tons of flesh, its skin smeared with the tar of its blackness, the blackness of night; its closed, indecipherable shape was that of a mystery animal: and below that frightening, gigantic, and tempestuous profile, the pellesquadre looked like impotent dwarfs, like the damned or like lunatics who were trying to empty the sea with the palms of their hands.
Together with the doomed Ithaca, D’Arrigo’s Ulysses is leaving behind his Penelope. ‘Ndrja’s fiancée Marosa, who was embroidering doilies with fish while he was away in the navy, now has begun to work on the representation of the orca as the girl appears to have been infected by its presence like everyone else in the village. ‘Ndrja doesn’t seem to care. What is left for him is a fleeting reunion with some of the people he met during his homecoming and a glimpse of the ruined Messina. The initial significance of the regatta somewhat fades as it becomes obvious that the team of the local kids under ‘Ndrja’s command is no match for the experienced British and American soldiers. ‘Ndrja has not come all this way to take part in a banal rowing competition but in something on a much grander scale. His last journey is about to begin. The ark, which used to be a boat, is there to take him home, to save him from the deluge of life. His legacy is the revelation about Horcynus Orca, a fabulous animal whose name is just a little different from that of the familiar toothed whale which belongs, as we all know, to the genus Orcinus and to the family Delphinidae.