Over the centuries, remnants of culture have been scattered across the shores, cities and desert of North Africa by an array of conquerors and settlers. Indigenous tribes have encountered invasions by the Greek and Roman Empires, Moors, Arabs, European colonialists and the Ottoman Empire. Over time, Libya has become a cultural melting pot for all of the above. Born to Syrian parents in Benghazi and later adopting an Italian pseudonym, Alessandro Spina wrote an illustrious literary account of Libya’s tempestuous 20th century history.
I confini dell’ombra: In terra d’oltremare (The Confines of the Shadow: In Lands Overseas) was originally published by Morcelliana in 2007 and earned Spina the Premio Bagutta, Italy’s highest literary accolade. The 1,280 page cycle comprises six novels, a novella and four collections of stories, which Spina, who’d only settled on a definitive structure and title in 2003, summarized thus:
“The sequence of novels and short stories takes as its subject the Italian experience in Cyrenaica. The Young Maronite (1971) discusses the 1911 war prompted by Giolitti, Omar’s Wedding (1973) narrates the ensuing truce and the attempt by the two peoples to strike a compromise before the rise of Fascism. The Nocturnal Visitor (1979) chronicles the end of the twenty-year Libyan resistance; Officers’ Tales (1967) focuses on the triumph of colonialism—albeit this having been achieved when the end of Italian hegemony already loomed in sight and the Second World War appeared inevitable—and The Psychological Comedy (1992), which ends with Italy’s retreat from Libya and the fleeing of settlers. Entry Into Babylon (1976) concentrates on Libyan independence in 1951, Cairo Nights (1986) illustrates the early years of the Senussi Monarchy and the looming spectre of Pan-Arab nationalism, while The Shore of the Lesser Life (1997) examines the profound social and political changes that occurred when large oil and gas deposits were discovered in the mid-1960s. Each text can be read independently or as part of the sequence. Either mode of reading will produce different—but equally legitimate—impressions.”
Alessandro Spina was the nom de plume of Basili Shafik Khouzam. His father arrived in Benghazi from Aleppo, Syria, at the age of 17 with the intention to to further his textile trade shortly after Italy and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Ouchy, in which Italy annexed Libya from the Ottoman Empire. When World War II broke out in 1939, Spina’s father sent him to Italy where he settled in Milan with his mother. After the War, Libya gained independence and became officially under the guidance of King Idris in 1951. Spina returned to Benghazi to work in his father’s textile factory, where he began to write periodic fiction in the little free time he had. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s 1969 coup d’etat did not hinder his capacity to write about his home, but it did become more dangerous. Nonetheless, Spina produced the three books that make up the first volume of the The Confines of the Shadow.
Throughout the 1970s, the author’s presence in Libya was scarce. Like many businesses, his father’s factory became nationalised in 1978, and around the same time Gaddafi inflicted violent crackdowns on anti-regime movements whilst imprisoning dissidents, including many of Spina’s friends. He left Libya for Paris in 1980, smuggling his manuscripts via the French consul’s briefcase, and then retired in northern Italy’s Padergnone.
Spina has been described in the literary press as the “Italian Joseph Conrad” and “a 20th century Balzac”, but it is only now his work is being introduced to an Anglophone audience. The author passed away in 2013, just two weeks prior to the finalised contract between Darf Publishers and Naffis-Sahely.
“ Denied the privilege of meeting him – my letter of introduction remains in my drafts folder – I was faced with a conundrum: the translation of such a monumental opus in the immediate wake of the author’s death meant that any afterword I produced would have to deal with the life, of which I knew next to nothing.”
“Consequently, I realized that any clues would have to be culled from the work itself, and I therefore retreated to the books, sleuthing through The Confines of the Shadow and a 300-page Diary Spina kept while composing that epic, as well as three volumes of brilliant essays – and thanks to quasi-involuntary slips on Spina’s part, I slowly began to assemble a narrative.”
Translator André Naffis-Sahely discussed the monumental works of Alessandro Spina in New York City’s Centro Primo Levi on May 4th. Although the author and translator never crossed paths, the English version succeeds in capturing the original’s essence and remains incredibly faithful to the text. Naffis-Sahely has given The Confines of the Shadow a second lease of life, treating English readers to the only multigenerational epic about the European experience in North Africa.
If you’d like to read more on Alessandro Spina and his work, check out André Naffis-Sahely’s 2014 article on The Nation.
The Confines of the Shadow will be released by Darf Publishers on 1st June 2015.