Review: Alessandro Spina’s ‘Confines of the Shadow’

This review was meant to be published two years ago, but the magazine that requested it went dark. So here, to accompany our piece on the crowdfunding campaign for the next book in Spina’s epic, Colonial Tales:

When Alessandro Spina (the pen name of Libyan-born Syrian Basili Shafik Khouzam) began publishing his Confines of the Shadow novels, in the late 1960s and ’70s, Libya had been free of Italian colonial rule for nearly a quarter century. By then, Libya was of little interest to scholars north of the Mediterranean. Most authors and historians who wrote in Italian seemed to have wiped the North African nation clear out of their consciences.

Among Italian leftists at the time, there was wide interest in Algeria, but nary a revisionist word about Libya. Yet Libya’s colonial history is not so much less ugly than Algeria’s: after the Italo-Ottoman war, the Italians waged a brutal battle inside Libya, during which more than 80,000 Libyans were forced into concentration camps. Once the country was “cleansed,” Italians moved in. By 1939, colonists made up twelve percent of Libya’s population.

In spite of this, the 1930s narrative of the “good Italian colonist” has hardly been shaken. Italian historian Giorgio Rochat told The Guardian in 2001 that “There remains in Italian culture and public opinion the idea that basically we were colonialists with a human face”; historian Angelo Del Boca said those guilty of genocide in Libya were still “honored.” So: no Battle of Algiers for Libya. (There was Lion of the Desert, a 1981 Ghaddafi-funded film about resistance leader Omar Mukhtar that starred Anthony Quinn, but it was banned in Italy, and the author of the book on which the film was based was murdered in 1931, apparently by Italian intelligence officers.)

When the first volumes of the Confines epic were written, in Italian, Spina was living in Libya. His novels were published across the sea by small Italian presses, to critical acclaim but narrow readerships. Independently wealthy, Spina was seemingly unconcerned by how his books sold. Quietly but insistently, he assembled his fictional revision of early twentieth century Libyan history, creating a portrait of Libya underpinned not just by his family’s experiences but by careful research as well. In the first book of the series, The Young Maronite, Spina interleaves the chapters with quotes from colonial-era newspapers, books, and governmental directives.

Spina was attentive to how Italians read his books. He recorded in his Diario di lavoro that in the early 1980s he was introduced to the poet Vittorio Sereni, by Sereni’s wife, as “Alessandro Spina, who is trying to make Italians feel guilty about their colonial crimes, all to no avail, of course.”

But the Confines narrative is not just about colonial crimes; it’s about life in Libya. It constructs a picture of a cosmopolitan, Ottoman-influenced nation where the colonial shadow spreads and corrupts, most particularly the hearts of the colonists. It’s hard not to admire Spina’s musical, virtuosic style, which shifts effortlessly from operatic melodrama to philosophy to Arab maqama to Lampedusa-like detail, admirably echoed in the English by André Naffis-Sahely.

The Young Maronite introduces us to Semereth Effendi, a giant, physically deformed Ottoman who moved out to provincial Libya in disgrace, where Semereth becomes a man of some standing. Semereth finds himself at the center of the colony’s attentions after his girl-wife rejects him and falls in love with a boy under his protection. The grotesque Ottoman forgives the couple and tries to shield them, but they are killed by his dishonored family. After this, Semereth joins the rebels fighting in the south. His story enchants and appalls the Italians, who retell it as though it were part of the Thousand and One Nights.

The novel dances on this thread of the fantastic, but it also paints a picture of its time, getting at something essential about the colonial desperation to possess the Other. The Italian Captain Martello is obsessed with Semereth, and goes to the old Ottoman just before he’s executed. “Captain Martello thought Semereth’s body already seemed inert, as if dangling in a void. However, the captain also felt as though he was being sucked into that void himself.”

When Martello goes to Semereth’s execution, the Italian officer thinks, “I uselessly tried to detect fear in his features, or hatred, or pious resignation. He said: We return from whence we came. Or maybe: Devoted to God, to Him we return. Every translation is a restless shadow.’” A frustrated Martello continues to try to understand the locals until he disappears, apparently, into an ancient tomb. He isn’t seen again. In failing to possess Semereth, Martello loses himself.

The extent to which the Italians lost themselves in Libya—and Somalia, where they also established a colony—remains up for historians’ discussion. But Spina’s books may change how we see the influence of colonial violence on Italian social and political identities, as well as how we see contemporary Libya. His fantastical excavations connect the tissue between Ottoman and Arab rule, Italian colonialism, and the modern Ghaddafi era. Further scholarship and imagination could bring Spina’s books into a discussion of Libya’s present.