The title is ancient Italian for ‘serval’, a fierce feline living in northern Africa, not far from the island of Sicily. This beast appeared as part of the Tomasi family coat of arms and is of course a personal reference, but in the text it is mentioned in a key passage explaining that «we were the servals, the lions; those who’ll come after us will be little jackals, hyenas; and all together the servals, the jackals and the sheeps, we’ll keep believing we are the essence of this land».
This decadent outlook permeates the whole book, inspired both by the fall of the author’s house and by the widespread destruction caused by the bombardment of Sicily during WWII. Il Gattopardo however is not an actual historical novel, but more a parable using the background of the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) as a metaphor for the unstoppable and all-consuming power of time. The book is composed of a series of connected novelettes set from 1860 through 1920. The focal character is Don Fabrizio Corbera, prince of Salina, struggling to stay in power – or at least relevant – as the former peasants keep acquiring wealth and agency around him. His development is best described by two famous quotes. The first sees him scheming to retain control of the local politics: «everything needs to change in order for everything to stay the same»; the other is uttered when he is offered a token seat in the newfangled Senate of Italy. He refuses, explaining: «Sicily and its people are unable to forget one sin: the mere act of doing something. No matter how damaging our inactivity can be, vanity is stronger than misery».
While the complex interplay of the large cast of characters and the numerous rumination on decay and death are entrancing, the perfect descriptions of the locations and the people are what makes Il Gattopardo relevant to this day. The novel captures the sometimes intangible reasons behind the continuing refusal of southern Italy to culturally integrate with the rest of the country, the apparent indolence, the rise of organized crime and more. Among this, another constant subtheme is the sensuality of Sicily, not only in its people, but in everything from the weather to the cuisine. To foreigners an Italians alike, Il Gattopardo remains a great medium through which to understand a certain part of Italy and of its people. And reading it is a wonderful way to be able to see what’s under the layers of dust that, just like in the final scene of the book, have now covered the wonders and the nobility of a land forever changed.