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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Council of Egypt

Leonardo Sciascia

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To purchase The Council of Egypt

Title: The Council of Egypt
Author: Leonardo Sciascia
Genre: Novel
Written: 1963 (Eng. 1966)
Length: 212 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Council of Egypt - US
The Council of Egypt - UK
The Council of Egypt - Canada
The Council of Egypt - India
Le Conseil d'Égypte - France
Das ägyptische Konzil - Deutschland
Il Consiglio d'Egitto - Italia
El Consejo de Egipto - España
  • Italian title: Il Consiglio d'Egitto
  • Translated by Adrienne Foulke

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Our Assessment:

B+ : sharp and quite nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 12/6/1988 Alexander Stille
TLS . 6/10/1966 .
TLS . 15//5/1999 Adrian Tahourdin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sciascia shares Lampedusa's fascination with Sicily's ability to resist change. Di Blasi's hopelessly quixotic revolution mirrors Sciascia's own attempts to change Sicily: Twice the writer entered politics as a member of parliament only to quit each time in disgust. Like a mix of Vella and Di Blasi, Sciascia is torn between impulses to try to change Sicily and that of simply chronicling its tragic history." - Alexander Stille, The Los Angeles Times

  • "This witty, high-spirited and intensely gloomy novel, which starts with the techniques of comedy and ends, without noticeable change of manner, with appalling and unforgettable accounts of torture, does more to show up the soul of Sicily than a hundred tracts, however heartfelt." - Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)his is not Sciascia's best novel; for all its subtle dissection of Vella's behaviour and vivid sketches of eighteenth-century Palermo, it lacks narrative drive." - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Council of Egypt begins with lowly Don Giuseppe Vella being called to duty when the Moroccan ambassador to Naples is shipwrecked in Sicily on his way back home, in 1782. As the only person they can find who speaks some Arabic -- rather less than he lets on, but he's a born dissimulator -- Vella acts as translator and guide -- and grabs opportunity when the ambassador is consulted about an Arabic text in a local monastery. The ambassador shrugs it off as: "Merely a life of the Prophet. One of many", but Vella doesn't let on, claiming the ambassador identifies it as a "precious codex" -- about "the Arab conquest of Sicily".
       After the ambassador's departure, Vella secures himself a nice new post -- and comfortable house to go with it --, assigned to translated the valuable work. Doubts about the authenticity of what he produces are quite easily set aside: after all, Vella is an uncultured ignoramus. As one expert explains:

     Well, then, how can such a man fabricate out of nothing a whole historical period that I am competent, in some measure, to verify ? [...] Believe me. Vella knows Arabic. And I will tell you one more thing: he knows only Arabic; in our own language he cannot so much as compose a letter.
       But even if Vella isn't well-read or familiar with much history, he has enough smarts and is willing to put in the work to create a convincing 'translation' -- an entirely novel work, in fact (with nothing of the underlying Prophet- biography showing through ...): "with great skill and art, the Arabic Codex of San Martino had been entirely corrupted". And his audience -- mostly corrupted in their own ways, too -- is more than willing to let themselves be convinced by the fraud.
       Enjoying his success, Vella has grander ambitions: to make a: 'The Council of Egypt' out of yet another Arabic manuscript, to follow this 'The Council of Sicily'.
       Vella can convince himself -- and a collaborator he needs to make things look more authentic -- that what he's doing isn't wrong at all:
Don Giuseppe would explain to him at length how the work of the historian is all deception, all fraud; how there was more merit in inventing history than in transcribing it from old maps and tablets and ancient tombs; how, therefore, in all honesty, their efforts deserved an immensely larger compensation than the work of a real historian
       And, indeed, Vella finds compensation is forthcoming -- if he tweaks history, or simply makes it up, that benefits, in one way or another, the present-day powers that be. And, of course, some of the other powers aren't entirely pleased, complaining:
     What hasn't he handed over to the Crown through the Council of Egypt ? Coastal holdings, farms, rivers, tuna concessions -- things we've owned for centuries, things no king or viceroy has even challenged our right to
       Doubts remain and resurface. Vella does well when confronting one of those called to inspect his work, but long term there's no covering the fact that he, and his translations, are frauds.
       Vella is the comic anti-hero of the novel, but another figure also plays a prominent role, the lawyer Di Blasi, a contrast to the political (and other corruption) all around who eventually comes to suffer -- horrifically -- for his beliefs. It is Di Blasi who also best sums up not only Vella's stunt but the Sicilian condition -- of the day (as the French Revolution swirls nearby) but also, Sciascia obviously implies, far beyond as well:
(E)very society produces the particular kind of imposture that suits it best, so to speak. Our society is a fraud, a joke, a judicial, literary, human fraud -- yes, I would say human too, for it is fraudulent in its very essence. So our societ has produced, quite simply and naturally, a reverse fraud
       The Council of Egypt moves from the sly and then occasionally broadly comic -- Vella's antics are very good fun -- to the rather darker fate Di Blasi ultimately faces. Sciascia seems hesitant as to just how serious he wants the book to be, and so he pokes near the surface, for the most part (in part necessarily, as the novel quickly covers quite a time span). Still, it's an effective, mordant critique -- and while the story occasionally moves fitfully and can feel crowded with a confusion of names (which hardly matter: among Sciascia's amusing twists is that Vella never even bothers to really learn the name of the visiting ambassador, and simply ascribes one to him, after the fact) it is an enjoyable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 June 2016

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The Council of Egypt: Reviews: Other books by Leonardo Sciascia under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Leonardo Sciascia lived 1921 to 1989.

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© 2016 the complete review

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