History imitates art in Lampedusa

Call it a story that’s truer than fiction. The arrival of nearly 5,000 Tunisian refugees to the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily, speaks to the economic hardships that persist in Tunisia despite the fall of Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali  — but also contains a parallel to one of the 20th century’s seminal ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Call it a story that's truer than fiction. The arrival of nearly 5,000 Tunisian refugees to the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily, speaks to the economic hardships that persist in Tunisia despite the fall of Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali  -- but also contains a parallel to one of the 20th century's seminal works of literature on the politics of revolution.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a descendant of the Italian nobility that used to govern the island, was the author of "The Leopard," an account of the 19th century unification of Italy, known as the Risorgimento. The story is told from the perspective of a fictional Sicilian prince who, over the course of the novel, watches his authority slowly crumbles.

It is a story that the modern-day revolutionaries in North Africa, not far from Lampedusa, would do well to read. The prince offers an often bitter account of the deterioration of the old order's legitimacy, which opened the door to the current unrest. 

Call it a story that’s truer than fiction. The arrival of nearly 5,000 Tunisian refugees to the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily, speaks to the economic hardships that persist in Tunisia despite the fall of Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali  — but also contains a parallel to one of the 20th century’s seminal works of literature on the politics of revolution.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a descendant of the Italian nobility that used to govern the island, was the author of "The Leopard," an account of the 19th century unification of Italy, known as the Risorgimento. The story is told from the perspective of a fictional Sicilian prince who, over the course of the novel, watches his authority slowly crumbles.

It is a story that the modern-day revolutionaries in North Africa, not far from Lampedusa, would do well to read. The prince offers an often bitter account of the deterioration of the old order’s legitimacy, which opened the door to the current unrest. 

"He knew the King well, or rather the one who had just died; the present one was only a seminarian dressed up as a General," the prince ruminated. "And the old King had really not been worth much."

But "The Leopard" should also serve as a warning to the protesters. The prince’s nephew, Tancredi, emerges as a figure more closely tied to the prince than the incipient revolution. "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change," he tells his uncle, when justifying his decision to join the rebels. He reasons that only by joining the revolutionaries will his class be able to maintain its position in the new order.

And in the end, the Risorgimento sweeps through Sicily, but the island remains fundamentally unchanged. The prince, near the end of the novel, tries to explain this mentality to a representative of the new Italy. "This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and these monuments, even, of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing around like lovely mute ghosts," he says. "[A]ll these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of the mind."

As the press rushes off to cover the bloodshed in Bahrain and Libya, it’s worth keeping in mind that the prime minister in Tunis was still appointed by Ben Ali and that, this July, the Egyptian military will likely celebrate its 59th year holding the reins of the Egyptian state. This isn’t a revolution just yet.

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