29 de maig de 2016

The man from Porto Empedocle

[The Hindu, 29 may 2016]

Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta

Andrea Camilleri demonstrates the art of incorporating modern life’s messiness into detective fiction

A new book by the 90-year-old Andrea Camilleri, in an English translation, is a great event. Montalbano’s First Case and Other Stories is a collection of stories about Sicily’s most celebrated police inspector. After millions of copies and an immensely popular television series, a bronze statue of Inspector Montalbano now faces that of the playwright Luigi Pirandello in Camilleri’s birthplace, the town of Porto Empedocle. Or, as the town is now popularly known, in honour of the fictional setting of the Montalbano novels: Porto Empedocle Vigata.
One knows not to expect tidy endings in a Montalbano story. In the old days, detective fiction provided reassurance that in times of disorder, someone capable would come along and fix everything. That’s how it was in the golden age of the detective novel, between the wars: cosy mysteries in country houses, footprints in the flower bed, and denouements in large room with fireplaces. Very posh and ‘Downton Abbey’.
Change in crime fiction

Since then, times have changed, and so has the crime novel. In Salvo Montalbano’s Sicily, we find an ancient Mediterranean landscape now beleaguered by corruption, trafficking, immigration issues, drugs, environmental degradation, and the mafia. The first time we see Montalbano summoned as a witness in court, the accused is a mafia scion and the public prosecutor’s statement sounds like a defence argument. In his first year on the job, we are told, Montalbano “dived headlong into these Mafia murder cases, only to come up empty-handed. Nobody had seen anything, nobody had heard anything, nobody suspected anything, nobody imagined anything, nobody knew anyone.”

Yet against this background, we see Montalbano and his colleagues doggedly climbing up hillsides to talk to shepherds, visiting hospices to listen to dying statements, taking the train when the airlines are on strike, standing in line before court clerks, and generally trying to do their best in an imperfect world.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the detective novel expresses “some sense of the poetry of modern life”, and that the policeman, trying to deliver justice to ordinary people, is a poetic figure in the city. In the wasteland of contemporary urban life, Montalbano finds his identity in his work. “I’m like a photograph,” he says to his girlfriend Livia. “I exist insofar as there’s a negative made up of crimes, murder and acts of violence.”
A facet of Montalbano’s character is that he reads and rereads, often obsessively. His reflective temperament makes him think of stories by Borges and quotes from Roland Barthes. In a Pirandellesque twist in one story, Montalbano finds the details of the crime too oppressive and telephones his author to say so. His name itself is a feat of inter-textuality: Camilleri named his fictional detective after the Spanish writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban, the creator of the witty private eye Pepe Carvalho.
Sicilian characters
Unlike the infallible detectives of earlier crime fiction, Montalbano is all too human: beset by bad dreams, self-doubt, mood swings, an irascible temperament, a kind heart and a weakness for good food. He often lies, bends rules, and hates signing papers. At the same time, he has an unshakable sense of duty and responsibility. When he sees an old lady walking home at two in the morning, he insists on dropping her home. When an elderly small-time burglar calls him one night with information, he takes coffee for him in a thermos. In Montalbano’s view, everyone deserves a fair chance. “Sometimes I ask myself what proof God had to accuse Cain of murdering Abel,” he tells a priest in one story. “If I could, I swear I’d reopen the case.”
Unforgettable Sicilian characters shine through Camilleri’s stories. In Montalbano’s first case, his boss is described as “unfit” (for the job) “because he wasn’t afraid of anybody.” In another, a villager wrongly accused of murder is described by the locals as a “shepherd king”, one who “would never cut down a nettle, let alone kill a man.”
And then there is Montalbano’s cook, the incomparable Adelina whom we rarely see except through her heavenly food. Montalbano has one eye on her wastrel sons and the other on her caponata. On New Year eve she writes a note to Montalbano, inviting him home for dinner: “Botha my boys are free and I gonna meck arancini rice balls wich they lika so much.” Despite his belief that the best meals are eaten alone, Montalbano decides to accept the invitation. “Only one question still nagged him before he fell asleep: would both of Adelina’s delinquent sons manage to stay out of gaol until tomorrow?”
Camilleri’s inventive, ironic prose, in a unique mix of Italian and Sicilian, comes to us through the elegant translations of Stephen Sartarelli, an American poet based in France. His translator’s notes are a pleasure in themselves. When we read that “old issues of Topolino covered the floor,” Sartarelli explains that Topolino is Mickey Mouse in Italian, a popular fortnightly that still exists today.
Adelina will not cook pasta in Trapanese pesto sauce and Montalbano must therefore organise it for himself. Sartarelli informs us that this recipe substitutes blanched almonds for pine nuts, along with uncooked tomato; and toasted breadcrumbs sprinkled on the dish instead of cheese. Like the Montalbano novels, this sounds like a special delight.
Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the IAS and currently based in Bengaluru.

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