‘The Italian Joseph Conrad’

Described by the literary press as the “Italian Joseph Conrad” and “a 20th century Balzac”, Alessandro Spina–the pen name of Basili Shafik Khouzam–was a Syrian Maronite who was born in Benghazi in 1927 and died in Milan in 2013. Despite winning universal critical praise, Spina’s works were mostly ignored: nobody bought them, and nobody read them. The reason was simple: most Italians barely knew where Libya was, let alone what their parents and grandparents had done to it. In his diary, Spina remembers running into the Italian poet Vittorio Sereni at a theatre in Milan, sometime in the early 1980s. Sereni introduced Spina to his wife with the following: “Darling, this is Alessandro Spina, who is trying to make Italians feel guilty about their colonial crimes, all to no avail of course.” Not that Spina hadn’t been warned: when he’d sought Alberto Moravia’s advice about his project in 1960, Moravia had counselled him against it, saying that nobody in Italy would be interested due to their sheer ignorance – and indifference – of the country’s colonial past.

The eleven novels and short story collections that constitute Spina’s The Confines of the Shadow are a multi-generational epic that chronicles one of the bloodiest chapters in modern North African history and was written over the course of fifty years. The action takes place from 1911 to 1964 and is set in Benghazi. The first novel, The Young Maronite, opens in 1911 as the Italo-Turkish war draws to a close and the Italian tricolour is hoisted over Benghazi, leaving Italian soldiers to gaze into the vast, deserted land they claimed to own but knew nothing about. The subsequent components of Spina’s cycle – Omar’s Wedding, The Nocturnal Visitor, Officers’ Tales, Colonial Tales, The Psychological Comedy, Entry into Babylon, Cairo Nights and The Shore of the Lesser Life – take the reader on a whirlwind tour through the next half-century: the twenty year Libyan resistance to the Italian occupation, when tens of thousands were interned in concentration camps, the rise and fall of Italian Fascism and its effects on its nearest colony, the heady years of Libya’s independence in the 1950s, the looming spectre of Pan-Arab nationalism, and finally concludes with the discovery of large oil deposits, which triggered the momentous changes that still reverberate through the country today. Thanks to its commanding view of history, The Confines of the Shadow is one of the greatest indictments against colonialism and jingoism, as well as a moving tribute to the Mediterranean’s golden era of cosmopolitanism, a period few know much about.

Now Darf Publishers in London have commissioned the translation of Spina’s 1300-page epic and the first of three volumes of The Confines of the Shadow – which comprises The Young Maronite, The Marriage of Omar and The Nocturnal Visitor – will be released in February 2015. However, owing to the high production costs of translating and promoting this new work, they are also seeking additional funds from interested readers and patrons.

You can support the project here.

* Further reading: A long piece I did on Spina’s life and work for The Nation this past August.

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