Sicilian fishermen still sing for their tuna

Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily By Theresa Maggio Perseus Press 288 pp., $25

By the end of Theresa Maggio's "Mattanza," part travelogue, part memoir, part natural history, and all riveting, you will cease to wonder how a book about killing tuna could be so moving.

Maggio, an American granddaughter of Sicilian immigrants, has succeeded in eloquently recounting her love affair with Favignana, a small island off the coast of Sicily. Rumored to be the site where Calypso rescued the shipwrecked Odysseus, Favignana also lies along the route of giant bluefin tuna, which return through the Strait of Gibraltar each spring to spawn.

Since the Stone Age, Mediterranean people have trapped the bluefins and harvested them during a "mattanza," a traditional ritual of culling and killing the fish by hand. Maggio's book is partly an elegy for a custom endangered by large commercial fishing and modern technology. The "fatal efficiency of long lines and purse seine nets" used on factory ships are largely responsible for greatly reducing bluefin stocks.

"Marine biologists marvel at the bluefin," writes Maggio, "built for speed and stamina." The great bluefins, up to 1,500 pounds and 12-feet long, cross the Atlantic at a hundred miles in a day. Their upright lunate tails can propel them from 0 to 60 miles an hour in 10 seconds.

Maggio describes her first mattanza as an "eruption, a paroxysm. A font of primal energy, beauty, and suffering, all in a tiny square of sea. It was shocking, and most beautiful."

In the weeks leading up to a mattanza, the bluefins enter a huge underwater series of net chambers leading to the "Camera della Morte," the Chamber of Death. During a mattanza the tonnaroti (tuna fishermen) raise the nets of the Chamber of Death and use barbed rods to heft thrashing bluefins into their boats.

Since 1986, Maggio has witnessed 15 mattanzas. Like the bluefins, she began returning to Favignana every spring. Maggio describes the mattanza in concise and vivid prose, but the most moving aspect of the book is her evolving, personal relationship with Favignana and its inhabitants. She does not merely observe the island's doings as an objective outsider; she dives into her observation and glides like a graceful bluefin.

By 1998, Maggio "knew more people there by name than I did in my own hometown." It is her personal relationships with the islanders, from listening to the incantations of her landlady Signora Neri, a practitioner of white magic, to nibbling on boiled octopus with singing octogenarians in the local tavern, that give the book its color.

The tonnaroti adopt Maggio as their "mascot," bringing her on their boats as they set their traps and considering her the "chronicler of their dying trade."

For Maggio, witnessing the mattanza is not just a bloody spectacle to gawk at with the perennial tourists. This ancient custom, replete with religious chanting and specific rituals, provides Maggio a glimpse into a time before today's fatal efficiency. She taps into a mythical history of hunter and hunted that is real and bloody but still infused with reverence for life.

With her book, Maggio offers us a chance to join her in reflecting on this space of reverence before it vanishes.

r Scott Knickerbocker is a graduate student at the University of Oregon.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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