It doesn’t matter which Aeolus one believes in, that he was the founder of the Aeolian race is not in doubt. Was he, though, the son of Poseidon, the God of the Sea, or was he the son of Hippotes, a mortal king? What we do know from the writings of Homer in his epic The Odyssey is that Aeolus presented Odysseus with a bag of winds with which to speed him on his journey back to Ithaca. Unfortunately, mistaking this bag to contain gold and silver, Odysseus’ suspicious and avaricious crew opened the bag and in so doing released the winds, whereby their ship was blown back, further away from their destination.
All I am certain of is that one doesn’t find the Aeolian Islands; one is drawn to them.
Some years ago my friend Jo Salamone, who hails from the pretty village of Suteria in the province of Caltanissetta, Sicily, suggested I visit Lipari in the Aeolian Islands.
This small, volcanic archipelago of seven main islands lies just to the north of the Sicilian coast near the Straits of Messina. They are known to some as the Seven Sisters and together they comprise one of the best kept secrets of the Mediterranean. The islands are a string of radiant pearls, a necklace of iridescent gems, a handful of jewels so elegant and beguiling that one is inclined, on hearing of their beauty, to disbelieve they exist.
With Jo’s introduction I met Adriano Longo, the proprietor of the Hotel Rocce Azzurre, and his daughter, Ariana. In turn, Adriano and Ariana introduced me to the delights of the islands: the white pumice beaches of the Spiaggia della Papesca, the clear waters of the Mare Siculum, the wine of Salina, the imposing citadel of Lipari and, perhaps best of all, the people. It was only later that I found out the island possesses a darker history.
Wandering through the città bassa, the low city which is comprised of a warren of narrow vicos running below the citadel, I heard someone whisper that the island had, during the Second World War, been home to a number of political deportees, most of them men of conscience and principle who spoke out in opposition to the tyrant Benito Mussolini. Further to this rumour, I heard that three of these political deportees had planned and executed a daring escape.
Late one night, as I sat with Adriano a mile off shore fishing for totani in his little barca, I realised what a perfect setting Lipari would make for the sequel to Mazzeri and I charged myself with the task of researching the island in greater depth.
Sometime later, I came across a newspaper article from 1929 which reported George P Putnam, the titular head of the New York and London publishing house, as receiving a number of death threats if he published Francesco Fausto Nitti’s Escape. The forthcoming publication of such a personal narrative by a political prisoner who had escaped from Lipari, the Fascist Devil’s Island, so angered Il Duce that he set his spies and secret agents, The Black Hand, to see that Escape never made it to the shelves. Fortunately for us, Putnam was no shrinking violet. He ignored the danger, was damned by Mussolini and went ahead and published.
Some weeks later I procured a fourth impression copy of Nitti’s book from South Africa; there are few left in existence. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, a crucial and fundamental work exposing the brutality and ugliness which lies at the heart of Fascism. But further than this, Nitti’s book is also proof that truth is often stranger than fiction.
There are, though, more than a few works I have drawn inspiration from. The Archduke Ludwig Salvator’s volumes on Die Liparischen Inseln, provided by the Bavarian State Library, contain much useful information, though I am not aware of any translations from the original German language version. Philip Ward’s The Aeolian Islands has proved invaluable and I would not advise the traveller to visit the islands without first having read this beautifully written and very informative book. Alberto Denti di Pirajno’s A Cure for Serpents sheds much light on the attitudes of Italians working in the North African colonies of Balbo’s Grande Italia. John Julius Norwich’s illuminating tome The Middle Sea explains the history and politics of the region from the Roman Empire right up to the Risorgimento. And M. Emma Alaimo’s Proverbi Siciliani has been a most useful companion when attempting to understand how Sicilians view their part in the great scheme of things.
As always, the most fruitful research is conducted out engaging with local people. Many have given freely of their time in this respect, none more so than Ariana Longo and her father Adriano. Without their time and enthusiasm, Ontreto would never have made it past the first page. As a caveat, though, I must add that I have played fast and loose with a few details, if only to suit the narrative. Homer’s Coffin, for instance, sits just below the surface a few metres off the pontoon of the Hotel Rocce Azzurre and not near the Punta San Giuseppe, and La Casa di Sconosciuti is a work of my own imagination, as is the character Massimo Farinelli.
There are, of course, other fictionalised happenings and characters. Francesco Nitti, Edda Ciano, Leonardo Bongiorno and of course Benito Mussolini all take their place in our history books; they have left their indelible mark upon our world. However, apart from historical reference, none of the characters who take an active part in this book bear any relation to any persons either living or gone before.
I sent a final draft manuscript of Ontreto to Ariana Longo in Lipari, asking if she would mind checking my use of local dialect. She responded immediately and very enthusiastically, and within a couple of days I was returned the manuscript with her suggested alterations for which, naturally, I am very grateful. What I had not expected, though, was her mention of a character in my novel who, it turns out, actually exists. This character, a man for whom I had created a profession, a nickname and a home village, is not only flesh and blood, but also flesh and blood in exactly the manner in which I had conjured him. I was, to say the least, flabbergasted. After much thought and taking into account the risk of litigation, I decided it would be better for me to rewrite the character. Yet, having grown rather attached to him, I was sorry to let him go. Spooky, uncanny, weird, creepy, chilling, or perhaps even auspicious: call it what you will, but it proves yet again that truth is stranger than fiction.
To Ariana, I say a considerable “thank you”. If I have made mistakes, they are mine and not hers.
Be drawn to the Aeolian Islands, I urge you; though their past may have been dark, their future is so very bright. Or, as Giambattista Basile might have written it: Each dawn the man in the moon herds the stars to pastures new so that we, the people of the islands, may wake to enjoy the warmth of the sun’s smile.