An Affair to Remember


I've been reading Leonardo Sciascia's The Moro Affair, for the second time, and finding it just as disturbing as the first time, though perhaps for new reasons.


I first read Sciascia's work when I heard about The Day of the Owl, a crime novel. A police-procedural, in fact, that knocked the usual police-procedural into a cocked hat. When published in 1961, I gather, it had some impact in Italy because it dramatised the connection between the Mafia and the Christian-Democrat (DC) government. Sciascia, a Sicilian who became one of Italy's major public intellectuals, wrote several other superb crime novels with a philosophical and political edge, a range of other books, plays, and a lot of political journalism. In the 1970s he was elected to the Italian parliament on the Communist (PCI) ticket, but left the party in disgust when its leaders proposed their 'historic compromise' with the corrupt Christian Democrat regime.


Which brings me to The Moro Affair. The main broker of the DC/PCI alliance in 1978 was Aldo Moro, recently Prime Minister, a long-term power broker in the DC machine and at this point the party's President. On the day the new government was to be confirmed by a parliamentary vote, Moro was kidnapped by the guerrilla group Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), who killed his five-man police guard with sub-machine-gun fire and took Moro to a hideout. For fifty-five days a spectacular police search failed to find him; the Red Brigades offered a prisoner swap to get some of their militants out of gaol; and Moro wrote many letters to political figures asking for the deal to be done. The DC government, backed by the Communists, refused to negotiate with terrorists. Finally on 9th May, after a message from the guerrillas, Moro's dead body was found in the back of a car in Rome.


So The Moro Affair isn't a crime novel, it's about a real crime. But it's not in the watching-through-the-keyhole 'true crime' genre, either. It offers a close reading, almost a literary analysis, of the messages sent between the main actors - the DC government, the Brigate Rosse, various other public figures including the Pope, and Moro himself - most of which were published in the newspapers. So it's about the politics of language, like Orwell's famous essay on that topic. Sciascia is just as angry as Orwell, but much more subtle. He quickly passes over the jargon-ridden, triumphalist messages from the terrorists, to concentrate on the platitudes, evasions and obscurities of the establishment figures, and Moro's desperate attempts to save himself, and his eventual realization that he is being left to die.


Through this murk, Sciascia makes out the shape of an unspoken, unspeakable complicity between the terrorists and the government. The almost incredible incompetence of the official search (for one of the most famous men in the country, held captive by a small group most of whom were known to the security police) strongly suggests that the authorities did not want to find Moro, or at least that their purposes would be suited if the BR would kindly murder him, which eventually was done.


In the short term the ministers certainly benefited: all the parliamentary parties backed their no-negotiations stand, the minority DC government was confirmed in power, and the 'historic compromise' with the Communists was abandoned. The Red Brigades disintegrated and the whole extra-parliamentary opposition was crushed (Antonio Negri was one of those taken in this dragnet). In the longer term, the whole postwar Italian party system collapsed and several forms of right-wing populism surged in the 1990s. By then, however, Sciascia had died. I can imagine what he would have written about Berlusconi.


So The Moro Affair was about more than the politics of language, it was at the same time about the corruption of political morality and the devious uses of power and violence - things that a Sicilian in a period of Mafia power would know something about. But so do we in the 2020s. I think that's why I'm so moved by Sciascia's sombre morality play. The paralysis, corruption and complicity of mainstream politics around the world in the face of climate change, organized violence and grotesque inequality is our condition now.

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