Mario Scalesi, the cursed poet of the Maghreb

This article is also available in: Italiano

One of the most extraordinary and least known poets of the whole world literature. Mario Scalesi was the “cursed poet” of Tunisia, able to fascinate thousands of readers thanks to his ability to instill in his verses all the pain suffered in life.

An unhappy life

Mario Scalesi was born in 1892 in Tunis to a father from Trapani and a Tunisian mother with Maltese and Genoese origins. At 5 years of age he falls from the stairs remaining forever disabled, a condition that will worsen over the years, bringing him great physical and mental pain throughout his life. After becoming an accountant to help support the family, he met Arthur Pellegrin, a Franco-Tunisian intellectual who will push him more and more into the world of literature. From that moment on he will collaborate with the local periodicals “Soleil” and “Le Tunisie Illustrèe”, where he will propose the birth of a new Maghreb literature in French.

Mario Scalesi
«Ce livre, insoucieux de gloire, / N’est pas né d’un jeu cérébral […] / s’il contient tant de vers funèbres, / ces vers sont le cri révolté /d’une existence de ténèbres / et non d’un spleen prémédité ».

The latter, unlike in the past, should not have been a mere exercise in exoticism, but that it should have felt an integral part of the French homeland. His revolutionary ideas will be worth a place of honor in North African literature, so much so that Tunisian poets will be countless to cite him openly as his teacher; unfortunately, however, this will only happen posthumously. In 1921, in fact, his health conditions worsened more and more, so much so that he was transferred to the hospital in Palermo, where he died in 1922 by marasmus, being then thrown into a mass grave.

Les poèmes d’un Maudit

In 1923, a year after his death, “Les poèmes d’un Maudit” (/ “The poems of a cursed”), his only poetic collection, would be able to give him, however, immortal fame. Reading the verses of the work, one soon realizes that one is facing a real “cursed poet”, on an equal footing with Baudelaire and Rimbaud, placed however on the other side of the sea.

Mario Scalesi
«L’instant ou j’ai cessé de vivre, / je le verrai longtemps encor, / (quand l’espoir a fermé son livre / on peu bien dire qu’on est mort) / […] Je sens fuir mes pensées malades / vers l’escalier où je suis mort».

The whole work sees in its center “refusal”, the total abandonment to an existence born badly and continued worse, where invalidity becomes a curse, transforming the poet, as a young boy, to the condition of “speaking dead”. The same choice to use French, rather than Arabic or Italian, should be read precisely in view of a very difficult relationship with one’s origins and with the world around. Born a foreigner in his motherland, Scalesi will have to juggle in the very complicated search for himself, trying to reinvent himself with the introduction of French, seen as a “neutral” culture since it is far from both the family and the country. A poet all too little known in Italy and who would undoubtedly deserve a reprint, too precious his heritage to be lost.

The fascination for such a singular figure close to the last must surely have struck Craxi, with whom there were also common Sicilian origins. In addition, the former prime minister had continuous and constant contact with the French and African world, which was unlikely to have escaped such a masterpiece, especially after his last years in Tunisia.

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