I want to escape.
I am torn between being part of the solution and wanting to run, not for office, but from reality, ideally far away, with an ocean-side view. We tend to forget that for many of us the essential component of reading is escape. I want to flee somewhere the air is salty and bracing, the meal recently plucked from the sea, the wine sweet.
If you feel the same tug, allow me to introduce you to Andrea Camilleri. His Inspector Montalbano series offers the perfect solution.
Set in Vigàta, an imaginary city on the Sicilian coast, Camilleri’s novels show a contemporary Sicily filled with his protagonist’s memories of the past (a certain dish, a particular olive tree) and the realities of the present: immigrants, refugees, trafficking. Like Etruscan shards, Sicily’s history is embedded in the story lines: Berlusconi’s influence, the transition to the European market, as well as the silent yet omnipresent pressure of the Mafia.
In the first novel of the 20-books-long-and-counting series, The Shape of Water, before we meet our inspector, Camilleri sets the scene with his distinctive authorial voice:
To prevent the crowds of black and not-so-black Senegalese, Algerians, Tunisians, and Libyans wandering about the city from nesting in that factory, a high wall had been built all around it, above which the old structure still soared, corroded by weather, neglect, and sea salt, looking more and more like architectures designed by Gaudi under the influence of hallucinogens.
These musings are joltingly familiar and contemporary, yet reassuringly geographically distant.
When we actually meet Inspector Salvo Montalbano, we find that he’s a bundle of contradictions. Clear-sighted and focused in his investigations, slightly ridiculous and completely self-conscious when tasked with speaking to the press, “Montalbano felt simultaneously hot and cold: he had sweat on his forehead and chills down his spine. The prospect terrorized him.” And yet — compassionate, generous, and intractable at uncovering the true story line behind a missing necklace, a sickly child, a man of high prestige found dead with his pants down. Montalbano investigates while those in power push to brush it all aside as swiftly as possible.
Once fully in Camilleri’s world we become confused and intrigued by the multiple warring factions: there’s the carabinieri, which is the national police force and branch of the military, perennially at odds with Montalbano’s crowd, the local police force in Vigàta. There are special prosecutors warring against judges, each group with their particular allies of journalists and crime lords. There are a range of political groups, some powerful, some defunct, in a country where Fascists and post-Fascists are not terms of opprobrium but actual parties, along with Communists and Christian Democrats, to name a couple; and there are deadly gang turf wars perpetually in the background. The commissioner, Montalbano’s superior and respected friend, quips after an autopsy, “It’s wonderful, that is, that someone in this fine province of ours should decide to die a natural death and thereby set a good example.”
Born in 1925, Andrea Camilleri has an extensive background in television and theater, and his attention to his supporting characters in this series embodies a generous esprit de corps. One of the delights of this series is revisiting the recurring cast of characters. Livia, Montalbano’s inamorata, lives, conveniently for the both of them, a flight away. She brings with her a Genoese wariness of Sicily. Their interactions and episodes of bad timing veer from tender to sensual to explosive. There’s the second-in-command Mimi Augello, whom Montalbano loves and humiliates, praises and mocks. Catarella, the officer who mans the switchboard, consistently mangles and misunderstands standard Italian, to comic effect.
While Montalbano himself may be incapable of addressing the world’s huge injustices that the author touches upon — the corrupt government, the trafficking on the fields of a closed and aging factory — he is able to finesse small injustices. After hearing how rudely his men are treated, held, interrogated, and kept without food or bedding overnight by the caribineri, the threat of a simple phone call of Camilleri’s puts the fear of the commissioner in a power-abusing caribinieri chief. The inspector himself is willful, short tempered, at other times oddly sentimental and insecure, yet masterfully skillful, particularly when taking down an exploitative judge or a vainglorious politician. In his skewering of the grasping, the vile, and the vindictive, Salvo Montalbano proffers us sweet vicarious thrills.
The series covers all levels of disaster, the global and national as well as the local: the changing face of Montalbano’s Vigàta, his hometown, and Sicily itself. The second novel, The Terra-cotta Dog, is a story of excavations, both literal and figurative into the history of World War II Sicily under American attacks. In the third novel, The Snack Thief, we get an international incident involving the murder of a Tunisian, with emotional repercussions for our inspector. The plots are personal and compelling. Throughout the series, we marvel at the erudite education of Montalbano and his friends, who casually discuss Faulkner and Borges alongside Sciascia and Pirandello. As we read we feel the cool night air on a Sicilian beach, we devour the rustic delicacies and share Montalbano’s meal time reverential silence. We laugh at his missteps and perceived slights. We feel his profound comfort as he climbs an aging olive tree to ruminate on a particularly challenging police puzzle; and admire Camilleri’s neat threading of story lines.
Full disclosure: Although I began reading this series in the order it was published, I was disenchanted by the myopic sexual politics of the first installment. There’s a reference to a crime that is clearly a murder/suicide in which Montalbano surmises that the murderer allowed his wife to pray before she “agreed” to being killed. There is also a victim of sexual abuse who is portrayed as a consensual partner. Happily, this does not recur in the following novels I’ve read so far; I’d recommend starting with The Terra-cotta Dog. Sometimes even the best authors can’t wriggle free from the blinders of their times.
In the style of great crime writers the socio-political reality of injustices is a stone’s throw away; how soothing that these are Italy’s realities, and not our own. Silvio Berlusconi, a media-controlling billionaire, ruled as prime minister in Italy for nearly a decade; he fired judges, changed laws to avoid prosecution, used his position to build further strongholds for his wealth and personal brand. During his reign, he refused to divest his businesses to avoid any conflicts of interest. Whoops, perhaps this is all a bit too close to home. But reading this series comforts and reminds me that Berlusconi’s rule eventually ended, and Italy endured.
In the meantime, back in the States, I’m rationing the rest of these Camilleri novels. They’ve got to last me three-and-a-half years.