I hate the whole idea of the food chain. Oh, I participate in it, often enthusiastically, but philosophically I loathe the necessity for all forms of life to survive by destroying other forms of life. (I'd become a vegetarian, but for one little problem I love meat.)So you'd think I'd hate this book too, which is a glorification of mattanza, the annual spring slaughter of bluefin tuna as they migrate home past the Sicilian island of Favignana. It echoes in some respects the bloody triumphalism of Ernest Hemingway's bullfight ethos (which I also hate).
Still, you'd be wrong, and no more surprised about it than I.
Maybe it's because there's no fake justification of trumped-up conflict, no more torture than necessary for strong men to kill fish up to three quarters of a ton apiece. Or perhaps it's because the fish are doomed anyway, in their last stage of spawning and dying naturally when they're caught in the amazing, labor-intensive traps of the tonnaroti. And because, for aeons, their flesh has provided sustenance for human life from Spain to Turkey. Maggio's lyrical writing reflects the powerful poignancy of her human-against-elemental-forces theme.
An ancient ceremonial that melds fish and men together in the mutual work of survival, mattanzas are dying out all around, strangled by the plummeting numbers of fish which once churned the sea. In Sicily alone, over 60 tonnaras, community tuna snares, are gone; the book follows the ongoing ordeal of trying to save the one at Favignana from modernity.
Maggio interweaves the mundane with the primordial and sensual, the esoteric beauty of death with gory reality, and accents the whole with the redemptive qualities of suffering, reproduction, and nurture. The mythical quality of the tradition, overlaid by colorful Christian ritual, dominates the story, but her fishermen are real people. So is Maggio, a science writer for the Los Alamos National Scientific Laboratory, who was introduced to the mattanza by a Sicilian fisherman lover. For better or worse, she does not hesitate to become more than an observer of this idyllic island and its inhabitants.
No one who reads Mattanza will escape sharing her enchantment with this font of primal energy, beauty, and suffering, all in a tiny square of sea. Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland.