From The Nation:
n the opening of Alessandro Spina’s novel The Nocturnal Visitor (1979), night is falling on Sheikh Hassan’s home in a valley in eastern Libya so small that it fits “in the hollow of a hand.” The sheikh is ready to embark upon his reading, a nightly voyage he takes with his books as “enigmatic traveling companions.” But his reveries are troubled: A crime has been committed in his home. What follows is a series of doubles and double-crosses, in which guilt shifts with each new revelation—a plot that could have sprung from one of Sheikh Hassan’s treasured books. A boy in his household, accused of trying to sleep with his sister, is exiled from the valley. In town, he finds another boy who bears a striking resemblance to him and lures him back home to be punished in his place. In doing so, he unearths their secret, shared parentage, and commits an even worse crime. Most of the characters in The Nocturnal Visitor discover that their identity—as son, sibling, father—is not what it seemed. Just as the narrative reaches its tragic climax, it abandons the personal and fantastic and enters modern Libyan history. It’s 1927, the beloved valley is occupied by advancing Italian forces, and the sheikh must slip away in the night, an exile joining the resistance.
The Nocturnal Visitor has many characteristics of Spina’s fiction: the inspiration drawn from Arabic culture (in this case partly from the great medieval itinerant scholar Ibn Khaldun, repeatedly quoted by the sheikh); the view of literature as a voyage of discovery, and of historical change as irredeemably violent; the possibility of parallel identities. With this last characteristic especially, Spina was borrowing from his own life, for he had several identities of his own. He was born Basili Shafik Khouzam in Benghazi in 1927, the son of a Syrian Maronite who relocated to Libya to find his fortune just as the Italians wrestled the province from the Ottoman Empire. At age 12, he was sent from the Italian colony in Libya to Milan for his education, where he conceived a passion for theater, opera, and literature. He returned to Benghazi to run the family textile business in 1953. He lived independently (he married once, but it didn’t work out), and his job provided him with a good livelihood and ample opportunity to observe Libyan society. In 1954, he penned his first story, set in Libya’s eastern province of Cyrenaica. He would write of nothing else but Libya for the next 40 years, even after he had to leave the country in 1979 and retire to a villa in Lombardy. It would be an understatement to say that Spina, who died in 2013, took his time with his fiction.
Spina belonged to a set of privileged, wandering, mercantile minorities whose identities could not be reduced to nationalities, and who have been all but swept out of the Middle East by xenophobia, conflict, and ethnic cleansing. Spina aspired to cosmopolitanism but inverted its usual polarities: He liked to shock his Italian friends by telling them that he had “un-provincialized” himself by moving from Milan to Benghazi. His influences and references range from Proust to The Thousand and One Nights to the fifth-century Greek philosopher and bishop Synesius of Cyrene. But for all his cosmopolitanism, Spina was not interested in universalism. What he valued, above all, was being unique. He was a Catholic moved by the daily presence of the divine in traditional Muslim society; a successful industrialist who viewed modernization with skepticism and melancholy; a critic of colonialism who was also dismissive of superficial tiers-mondisme; and a scathing critic of the silence of all Italian political factions regarding the country’s colonial crimes. The nom de plume he adopted—spina means “thorn”—suited him perfectly: The Italian he wrote in is exquisite but prickly. His sentences are thickets, dense and erudite, demanding to be reread. But his sharp, poetic images lodge instantly in one’s memory. “The cold hand of that old man an unbreakable dam” is how he describes the severe and orthodox teacher who curbs the young Sheikh Hassan’s flowing curiosity in The Nocturnal Visitor. Spina abhorred shortcuts and banality—journalists, whom he viewed as purveyors of the commonplace, were his bêtes noires. And he didn’t think of difference as something to be dismissed or overcome. “Nothing is more fruitful and more vital than the irreconcilable,” he wrote.