Nourishment from Good Stories: On Gianrico Carofiglio’s “The Measure of Time”

June 28, 2021   •   By Glenn Harper

The Measure of Time

Gianrico Carofiglio

GIANRICO CAROFIGLIO IS one of the most distinctive voices in the wave of Italian crime fiction of recent years, which has brought novels from and about at least every province, if not every town, from Sicily and Calabria in the South to Venice and Alto Adige in the North. Carofiglio is a former prosecutor, judge, and senator whose most famous series of novels features defense attorney Guido Guerrieri, who practices law in the author’s hometown, Bari, in the province of Puglia (the heel of the Italian boot). In addition, Carofiglio has another series set in Bari in the recent past, centered on Marshal Pietro Fenoglio of the Carabinieri, as well as a number of stand-alone novels.


The sixth Guerrieri novel, The Measure of Time, begins with the attorney’s arrival in his office, asking his assistant, Pasquale, about what is on the agenda for the day. Guido pauses his first-person narration to sketch a quick portrait of Pasquale using a literary device, a totemic object associated with a character: in Pasquale’s case a spiral notebook he always carries. But the attorney characteristically turns the momentary glimpse of his assistant into an observation about ordinary life: “Each one of us has something that identifies us and with which, assuming we’re aware of it, we identify.” The lawyer’s musings about the structure and meaning of everyday life punctuate the narrative throughout the novel, and, indeed, the series: Guido’s interior persona, the stream of thought that is his narrative, is frequently meditative, philosophical, and digressive (not coincidentally, he is currently reading Tristram Shandy, that most digressive of novels).


Pasquale informs the lawyer that a new client has made an appointment, a woman who only gave her last name: Delle Foglie, a name that triggers the memory of a brief love affair in Guido’s youth, 27 years earlier, with a woman he had almost forgotten, Lorenza Delle Foglie. This glimpse into the past triggers a sense of ennui or even dread regarding his current way of life: “[F]or some years now legal papers had been filling me with a sense of nausea, and the syndrome was getting slowly but inexorably worse.” The feeling plunges Guido into a meditation about two kinds of death, one metaphorical (a death in “the sense of stopping what we’re doing when we realize we’ve exhausted our desire to do it”) and the other literal (with the memory of a recent encounter with a colleague whose mother has recently died). The encounter with the bereaved colleague leads to a long digression about life, death, and what his own now-deceased parents had given him, including a “notion of honesty,” “respect for others,” and “a love of ideas.” Those attributes (not necessarily virtues in the Italian legal system as Carofiglio portrays it), along with the narrator’s self-deprecating wit, provide a concise description of Guido’s character and of the stories that Carofiglio tells about him in this series.


As he waits for the arrival of Signora Delle Foglie, we begin to be introduced to other members of the circle of Guido’s associates, including his partner Consuelo, his investigators (Carmelo, a former policeman, and Annapaola, a former crime reporter and Guido’s current girlfriend), and the irrepressible Mr. Punchbag, a constant presence in the series. Mr. Punchbag is a much-used, somewhat tattered punching bag that Guido employs not only for exercise but also as a silent partner in frequent one-sided conversations. When his new client arrives, it is indeed the former lover, Lorenza, and their awkward reunion sets into motion the two main strands of the story: the legacy of their brief affair and the arrest and conviction of her son, Iacopo Cardace, for the murder of a drug dealer. Iacopo’s original attorney has died, and Lorenza approaches Guido hoping to persuade him to take over the case, despite the fact that the court date for the appeal is only two weeks away.


The novel, translated by Howard Curtis, takes full advantage of one of the tropes of crime fiction: the constant repetition of the same story, from various points of view and in varied contexts. In The Measure of Time, we hear about Iacopo’s alleged crime again and again: in the research and planning by Guido and his team as they prepare to take over his appeal, in excerpts from trial transcripts, in the questioning of various witnesses, in the progress of the appeal through the courts, and in a final brief retelling that brings the story to a conclusion.


The trial transcripts are partly in a Q-and-A format, a device Carofiglio has used before to particularly interesting effect in The Cold Summer. In The Measure of Time, Lorenza’s testimony is a key factor in the case, and showing this dialogue in a Q-and-A format presents her testimony in her own voice, full of the contradictions and truths of her own life. The reader follows the intricacies of the case along with Guido as he reads Lorenza’s testimony and other texts from the trial and ponders the not-very-promising prospects of a successful appeal. Any hope of overturning the verdict seems to turn on a vague suggestion that the murdered dealer had once gotten into a bar fight with someone connected to a crime family.


The investigation of the case by Guido and the eye-opening view of what it means to be caught up in the Italian legal system are fascinating in the skepticism of Guido’s expectations of both the case and himself. His reminiscences of his long-ago affair with Lorenza provide a nostalgic and romantic counterpoint in the story of a young man’s fascination with a mysterious bohemian woman who, at his first glimpse of her, had “a face that had something old-fashioned about it, with a look in her eyes that was halfway between melancholy and arrogance.” Her arrogant side is a romantic free spirit (a writer and freelance editor as well as part-time teacher) who is a polar opposite to the young trainee lawyer about to plunge into a staid institution of fixed laws and strict (though not infrequently ignored) standards of behavior.


The other, melancholy side of Lorenza is ascendant in the present-day narrative: the mother and defender of Iacopo, a woman who, no longer a writer and editor, has cobbled together a living from marginal jobs, still a substitute teacher and now a companion (not a caregiver) for the aged (a job that takes on a key role in Iacopo’s trial). Guido is as bored with his new life as he is disillusioned about his youthful self, but Lorenza is living the life of a dropout, at the edge of desperation as she struggles to pay the bills of Iacopo’s original lawyer.


What holds together the various retellings of Iacopo’s case as well as the story of the youthful affair is Guido’s voice, always clear and straightforward while simultaneously philosophical and deeply humane. His consideration for what is right and ethical, as well as for the lives of those with whom he has direct contact, is in stark contrast to the often cynical and narcissistic voices of noir in Italy and elsewhere. In the middle of the novel, in a long digression, Guido gives a speech to a group of young trainee magistrates in which he discusses not the fine points of the law or the perspective of a defense attorney but the necessity of those involved in the legal system to recognize the complexity of reality. He advises:


A jurist must — I emphasize must — devote a sizeable part of their time to things that to all appearances have nothing to do with the law: reading good novels, watching good films, even good television. In short, they must take nourishment from good stories […] [b]ecause it’s the art of the storyteller that reminds us that there is not just one single answer to human dilemmas. These dilemmas are inevitably ambiguous.


Guido goes on to discuss ethical dilemmas, the law, and fallacious arguments, as well as the necessity of doubt. The importance of storytelling and the reiteration of the story from alternate viewpoints ultimately provide both the structure and the theme of the novel.


In a later passage, Carofiglio provides a comic contrast in Lorenza’s description of her own novel, which she had published in the years between their affair and the arrest of her son, a story that exhibits little tolerance for doubt and little interest in storytelling. Indeed, few of the jurists, criminals, and other characters that we encounter in Carofiglio’s novels show much evidence of cultivating a tolerance for ambiguity or any expanded scope of understanding that Guido is recommending (including spending time with good fiction). If Carofiglio’s novels themselves are evidence of Guido’s argument, Carofiglio keeps the tone from getting heavy or self-righteous by undercutting his philosophical thoughts with self-deprecating humor, as in one passage that also reflects his thoughts on the importance of reading. He tells Annapaola that he knows that she finds his constant literary references to be an irritating habit (though he continues to cite pertinent quotations to her).


As the trial concludes, the last of Guido’s memories of his affair with Lorenza also arrive with a different kind of ritualized language, that of fairy tales and dreams: Lorenza muses to Guido about the truth at the heart of fairy tales and about her dreams of the “Lord of Time,” and after Lorenza disappears from his life, Guido finds in the stories a truth about his experience with her: “She had been my involuntary mentor, the woman who had distractedly accompanied me through a metaphorical wood for a few months. Having emerged from that wood, I found myself alone in the open, dangerous spaces of adulthood.” In the final chapter, Carofiglio offers a path out of the dark tangle of law, time, and memory, and a final focus for all of Guido’s own musings and digressions, a reckoning that comes not from the trial but from the world beyond the court’s rationalistic facade.


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Glenn Harper is the former editor of Sculpture magazine and reviews crime fiction at internationalnoir.blogspot.com.