Veteran travel-writer Lewis (An Empire of the East, 1994, etc.) returns to Sicily in 1998 to see old friends, visit familiar sites, and allow his keen vision and ample imagination the opportunity to roam.
Dedicated to a Sicilian journalist killed by a Mafia bomb, the text rarely lets us forget the presence of organized crime. The word Mafia appears on the final page and many others(a dark motif in otherwise luminous music. The author’s personal fascination with the island may have begun, he comments, when he married the daughter of a Sicilian. Lewis first visited the island during WWII, when he explored the area around Mt. Etna. (He notes with typical irony that living near the volcano’s crater was a physician who specialized in nervous disorders.) He returned as a journalist in the 1950s, then again in 1990 to cover a Mafia trial. Although Mafiosi lurk everywhere, the author hastens to declare that Sicily is not an island of evil: “Sicilian human society,” he writes, “for all one’s presuppositions, displays cooperation, tolerance and good nature.” After about 40 pages, Lewis arrives in the recent past (1998) and takes us on a satisfying tour of the unusual and out-of-the-way. He has a sharp eye for oddities, recalling, for instance, a restaurateur with two thumbs on the right hand who had once served him. We learn which side streets and parks in Palermo are favored by lovers; we visit a remote inn that reminds Lewis of the Middle Ages; we stop in Corleone (made famous by The Godfather films); we hear about the spate of immigrants from Africa (the island now has its own “boat people”); and we read about the vandals who have recently damaged some of the island’s treasures.
A seminal sadness pervades this engaging travelogue: when the author departs, it’s as if he’s bidding farewell to a lover he fears he will never see again.