MATTANZA by Theresa Maggio


Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily
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A handful of seasons among the Sicilian tonnaroti (tuna fishermen) are drawn with an appealing, lyric equanimity by newcomer Maggio.

On a chance visit to Sicily with her father, Maggio fell in love with a man and with an ancient ritual, the harvest of giant bluefin tuna as they make their way to springtime spawning grounds in the Mediterranean. The human relationship went the way of all flesh, but her fascination with the harvest of tuna grew stronger, to the point where she spent the whole season among the fishermen. She worked hard to draw the men out, to have them convey to her some reason for pursuing the doomed fishery (as over-fishing has pretty much reduced the catch to a piddling remnant). The men come to light as an engaging bunch of prideful artisans, elements in a near-mythic enterprise with the sea. The fishery was active at least 4000 years ago when local cave artists depicted bluefins on their walls: The prayers to Jesus offered by the fisherman feel alarmingly contemporary in so ageless a practice. More easily captured, and done so with Maggio's flair for description, are the physical aspects of he hunt—the setting and pulling of the nets and the architecture of the fish traps, the way to gaff a half-ton eight-foot bluefin and the way not to—the role of the fleet master, the biology of the prey, the atmosphere in the closed cannery with its ranks of copper cauldrons once fired by a hard bitter coal to cook the great fish. Added like chinks to a wall are details of her personal life on the island, the small dramas that come with friendships and a love affair.

A finely drawn portrait of a fishery, once so revered its prey was stamped on Carthaginian and Phoenician coins, now hanging by a thread. (30 b&w photographs)

Pub Date: May 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-7382-0269-X
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Perseus
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2000