The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 4, 2011

Italian Noir I

Andrea Camilleri Unlike the Scandinavians, that other major force in criminal fiction, who follow the Anglo-American tradition of the genre, murder, puzzle, psychology, the Italians write books that much more relevant to the world they live in. No-nonsense, no-frills, and based in a society where almost nobody can be trusted, they take particular delight in mysteries that can scarcely be resolved to anybody’s satisfaction. They write more noir than thrillers because they are more pessimistic about the world than the British or the Americans. They live in a noir world with no happy endings.

The detective novels of Andrea Camilleri are set in contemporary Sicily. They deal with the casebook of the worldly Inspector Montalbano of the local police force. He is a stereotypical Italian man, a staunch Sicilian, passionate. In the television series based on the novels, a long lunch is par for the course. He sits at a favoured location in his favoured restaurant, where the staff are in no doubt about his passion for food. A waiter brings out a dish for him. He makes appreciative noises as he is served. The waiter asks him if he’d like the fish at the table. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘Keep it warm for me.’

Montalbano is as enthusiastic when investigating the intricacies of a menu as he is searching for clues to a crime. “It is absolutely deliberate,” says Andrea Camilleri. “Highlighting how he loves to eat, to participate, how he loves life. There is a beautiful saying: ‘Primum vivere deinde filosofari.’ First you live, then you philosophise. For Montalbano it could be ‘First you live then you investigate.’”

Camilleri has imbued Montalbano with a dry wit.

‘My dear friends!’ said the lawyer upon entering the room. ‘Please don’t get up! Can I get you anything? I have whatever you want.’

‘No, thank you,’ said Minutolo.

‘Yes please, I’d like a daiquiri,’ said Montalbano.

The lawyer gave him a befuddled look.

Like all Sicilian policemen, Montalbano has to deal with the Mafia. Camilleri handles this confrontation in a surprising way. “In most of the Montalbano novels there is always a page or two where he meets a member of the Mafia,” says Camilleri. “But it is marginal. I would say this marginality is deliberate on my part. Not that I am trivialising the problem. Not mentioning it would be hypocritical. The problem exists and it is important.”

In a community where nobody can be relied on, Camilleri’s stories are a web of intrigue where nothing is ever as it seems. Montalbano often realises that underneath what appears to be a simple crime there are layers of meanings. In his dealings with the Mafia, he talks to them as though they are a bureaucratic organisation. Camilleri rejects the Hollywood treatment of the Mafia, refusing to put them centre-stage in his stories. “Fiction somehow gives them a noble character,” he avers. “Take for example The Godfather. Marlon Brando’s incredible performance makes us forget that he is someone ordering killings by the dozen. This is the risk that you run that in some way the Mafia is glamorised, and I won’t do that.” Instead, Camilleri chooses to focus on Montalbano’s commitment to the law. He  makes no judgments, he listens sympathetically, he is cool and rational in his investigation, and he is implacable in his hunt.

But faced with a corrupt society, Montalbano is rarely able actually to solve a crime. This sets him apart from the traditional detective of crime fiction. “In truth,” says Camilleri, “There are few cases that are resolved with definite certainty. In Italy there is no longer even the certitude of a punishment. So at this point the poor crime fiction writer begins to ask himself some questions. He says ‘do I really have to be the one to sew the torn fabric of society?’ Why do I have to do it? Why is this up to me? Is it fair for me to declare this person is guilty beyond reasonable doubt? Let us leave him with an alternative so it is difficult to reach an absolute truth. One could even question whether an absolute truth exists.”

[From BBC Four’s Italian Noir – The Story of Italian Crime Fiction]


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