Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2003-2004

A First Spring in Sicily, by Salvatore Santagati

reviewed by Jim Herrick

Santagati’s writing is sensuous, imaginative, delicate. This collection of stories, poems and a film script therefore provide a sensitive insight into the people and landscape of Sicily – and a contrasting glance at the vileness of city life.

This collection has been hovering in the shadows of the figure of Santagati’s lover, who died of AIDS ten years ago. Santagati was the editor of The European Gay Review (1986-1992) and is an Italian who writes in English. The prose poem for his lover, “My Religion”, was read at a memorial service in St James’s Church, Piccadilly. It is a powerful lamentation concluding, “I realised that I had come to worship him. / I realised that he had become my religion.”

If religion were nothing but this pure love, then we would not quarrel with it. Santagati expresses deeply the depths of love and the overwhelming sense of loss that a gay relationship can lead to. The other poems, somewhat slighter, are full of love and loss.

The themes of this volume are gay love, death, the warmth and landscape of Italy, and the unpleasantness of cities. The gay feelings are seen as central to the range of life, rather than as a programme to demonstrate an idea. In the film script, which is an expansion of the story “Maria’s Chrysanthemums”, the protagonist’s teenage son and a friend swim naked and lie in the sun and kiss. The narrator in “A First Spring in Italy” stumbles into a cinema where men are kissing and fondling, wandering round naked, making love on the floor. Among these people were men who were part of the Sicilian establishment. An incident in the same story shows a naked priest in a hayloft inviting a youth to join him, which brings them to a close embrace. Encounters between the older and the younger are not necessarily harmful. A young man comes to know a married man, meets him “under the patchy shadow of an almond tree”, where “they know the sweetest of love”.

Death comes unexpectedly, sharply, violently. Meat on display in the market is “an orgy of slaughter and blood”, but this is soon to be joined by three young men perforated by gunshot. A man – an “orderly man” – whose daughter is a terminal-cancer patient, brings her to a sudden death by dropping her from a window to the street below, thus sparing her the agony of her final bitter hours.

Maria’s husband is killed in an accident on his scooter – and the loss, not surprisingly, unhinges her to the extent that she climbs on an altar and shouts out that all the village are against her. The film script that Santagati has written for this story brings it vividly to our eyes: the beauty, the suddenness, the picture of an almond tree, the resistance to pointing a moral, all remind me of the great filmmaker Pasolini.

It is the rhythm of rural life that Santagati particularly catches: the landscape, the warmth, the light. In contrast the pull to cities is seen as unhealthy, the escape from London a release from “a sick city with a vile sky”. England is characterised by its “coolness”. This is a climate of feeling, not just a temperature. It is Sicily with its flowers, petals, scents, peasants, priests, lava, olive groves, chrysanthemums that Santagati evokes so well.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-02-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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