Terra matta presents the story of ‘la bella vita che ho fatto il sotto scritto Rabito Vincenzo … a sua vita fu molta maltratata e molto travagliata e molto desprezata’ [the fine life that I, Rabito Vincenzo, have lived … it was a life of great ill-use, affliction and scorn] (Rabito 2007, 3). It is a story that Rabito had begun to rehearse aloud long before he put it down on paper. In the summer of 1943, back in Sicily after working in wartime Germany, he was employed to organize the harvest on a local magnate’s estate. The arrival of American troops and the continuing presence of the German forces made the area dangerous as the battle-lines shifted unpredictably. To provide some protection for himself and fellow-workers, Rabito dug out a kind of cave where they could all take refuge at night. There he whiled away the time by recounting the story of his life: ‘il mio piacere era questo: di contare tutte li cose che mi avevino incontrato in vita mia … non pareva tempo di querra ma pareva che c’era il teatro, perché si rideva sempre’ [this was what I liked: recounting all the things that had happened to me in my life … it didn’t seem like wartime, more like a theatre because there was laughing all the time] (282). Clearly the reception by his audience was encouraging, but it took a further quarter of a century before he began to put his recreative imagination to work on a written version of his life story. Halfway through he tells us his reason for doing so: to purge himself of the resentment stored up in the intervening years of conflict with his mother-in-law and her kin and to provide his own version of the bitterly hostile relationship with the woman he described as ‘la più lurrda e la più delenquente donna che la stessa in tutta l’Italia non zi poteva trovare’ [a fouler and more delinquent woman couldn’t be found in the whole of Italy] (225, 227). He acknowledged that the result would not please his wife but felt that his commitment to truth demanded it: ‘certo che alla mia moglie questo libiro di verita non ci piaceva perche in questo libiro cera scrotto tutte li vercognose vercogne che avevino fatto li suoi parente, ma io tratantese di scrivere la vera virita la doveva scrivere per forza perche altremente la vereta deventavino tutte bucieie e quinte questo libiro non valeva niente’ [my wife certainly won’t like this book of truths because every shameful thing that her kin did is written down in it, but I had to put them all in because I want to write the whole truth and if I don’t my truth becomes lies and so this book will be worth nothing] (Rabito n.d., >1449).

His autobiography falls into two roughly equal parts, each animated by his experience of conflict and the discoveries it produced for him, each displaying an apparently exceptional recall of events from long ago. The first half covers his participation in the wars in Europe and Africa and his increasing appreciation of the huge gap between patriotic rhetoric and military reality. The public dimension of that discovery was accompanied by his realization that, prompted by the demands of war, he had within himself the capacity to turn murderous (Rabito 2007, 112). For the later part he adopted the surname ‘Arrabito’ because it would push him up the alphabetical order in which the best (but also, as he discovered, the worst) things of army life were distributed (146). The second part, characterized by the chapter title given by its editors – ‘La querra in casa’ [the war at home] – midway through the published version, opens with his disastrous wedding day (his bride’s kin did not keep their promise to attend) and unfolds thereafter against the background of the unremitting hostility towards him of his mother-in-law. Indeed, his insufficiently supportive wife comes in for severe criticism too; and her name is not even mentioned until near the end of the book (375). Here, returned to his native community as Rabito, he carries his story forward with detailed illustrations of how far his life had been made harder by the deceptions and demands of his mother-in-law and her kin, and yet how despite the domestic confrontations, general economic hardships and social claustrophobia of a small Sicilian town, he nonetheless discovered the determination and capacity to build a better life for himself and to provide his sons with opportunities he had never had. While ready to describe at length the reverses he suffered and considered unjust, he also makes no effort to exclude or excuse his own actions which he found, either at the time or on reflection, scheming, shady or absolutely reprehensible. The result is a work of extraordinary candour, the author as unsparing with himself as with others, rich in insight and irony, and by no means the story of unrelieved misery and failure that his opening sentences might suggest.

The typescript breaks off in mid-flow in August 1970 at the point when the author is waiting for his son, Giovanni, then a university student in Bologna and a published poet, to revisit Ragusa. On his departure, and with his father’s consent, Giovanni took with him the entire text. Convinced of its value, especially the historical interest of the reminiscences of war, he made several unsuccessful approaches to publishers over the next thirty years and, in the face of rejection and the sceptical comments of friends who had read extracts, endeavoured to revise the text to make it publishable. In 1981 his father died from a stroke without his work receiving any recognition beyond the enthusiasm of Giovanni who had by then settled in Australia. In July 1999 Giovanni sent the revised and shortened text, under his own title Fontanazza, to the Archivio Diaristico Nazionale (ADN) at Santo Stefano Pieve, a centre established in 1984 to collect unpublished diaries, letters and autobiographies and create a ‘history from below’ of private life and public events in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italy. The ADN’s archivists, however, would only accept the original typescript, not the reworked and shortened version. Giovanni Rabito duly consigned it and agreed that it could be entered for the Archive’s annual prize, the Premio Pieve – Banca Toscana, in 2000. To the surprise of almost everyone who had seen the vast and often incomprehensible typescript, Fontanazza was awarded the Prize ex aequo in 2000. In the jury’s judgement, it provided a portrait of life in Sicily so rich as to deserve description as a Gattopardo popolare, but it was also, in the phrase of the juror who had championed the text from the outset, ‘a masterpiece that [no one] will ever read’.

Such a paradoxically pessimistic prediction might well have come true – the work shelved among several thousand others in the library of the ADN to be consulted mainly by students in search of thesis topics – but for the conviction by the Archivio’s senior archivist that the work could be edited in such a way as to be made accessible to a wide readership. He obtained the funds to enable him to devote two years to the revision of the work and to submit his version to five publishing houses. Einaudi, which had already published two Pieve prizewinners (Rossetti 1988; Bordonaro 1991), was the only one to show interest but insisted that the text would have to be reworked with the help of a Sicilian novelist who served as one of its editorial consultants. Publication of even the substantially reduced and drastically edited text was nonetheless regarded as a serious commercial risk: the series editor, Paola Gallo, was asked by one of her colleagues whether she would make her garage available for all the copies which were sure to be returned unsold. The appearance of the Einaudi book seemed to bring the author’s story to a close since the published text ends thus: ‘The typescript breaks off here, in August 1970. During the remaining years of his life Vincenzo Rabito could no longer write anything. He died on 18 February 1981’ (Rabito 2007, 411).

That might certainly seem like a definitive ending, but the impression is deceptive. First, the publication stimulated a cultural historian with expertise in the organization of mass-media projects, based in Turin but with her own family background in Chiaramonte Gulfi, to undertake the project of converting the book into a film. The film was completed in mid-2012 and, accompanied by the production of a commercial DVD, was released for general distribution later the same year. Second, in 2008 Giovanni Rabito revealed that as soon as he had taken the text away, his father had sat down to rewrite his life from the beginning on an even grander scale, using the same continuous flow that he had adopted for the first version, this time running to 1,486 pages, almost half as long again as the original typescript (Rabito n.d.). It also continues the life-story beyond 1970 up to the days before the author’s death. The reasons for this rewriting remain unclear but, we might surmise, are likely to have been more complex than those driving the earlier version. Since the typescript of the first version bears very few marks of hesitation or correction and the author insists that at all times he endeavoured to provide an accurate and truthful account, there seems to be little internal evidence of dissatisfaction or perceived inaccuracy which might have encouraged Vincenzo Rabito to try to provide a better account. Perhaps, since his son had taken away the first typescript and was unlikely to return permanently to Sicily, he wanted to be certain that at least one account of his life would be sure to remain in his home community where his other sons continued to live. Whatever the reasons might be – I return to this issue in the final part of my own contribution – the existence of a second version recasts the earlier account as a first draft, providing an opportunity for comparison to identify choices of style and content which could not be seen from the published version alone. It thus enables us to appreciate the artistry of the author and explore the gap between his autobiography and his life.