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la voce del violino

6 january 2010

Reading is unlike other addictions: it intensifies not vertically but horizontally. An alcoholic may need six drinks where he used to need three; he doesn't crave more and more diverse kinds of liquor. But while you can't really read more books per month unless you go seriously Evelyn Wood with your habit, your interests tend to spread laterally from their core, giving you more and more favorite authors to keep up with. And while I have caught up with Colson Whitehead, Stan Jones, and Arnaldur Indriðason, I am 12 years behind Andrea Camilleri. It's going to be heaven trying to overtake him, though.

Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano novels have become some of my favorite contemporary fiction in any genre. I started reading them in English translation this fall, with The Shape of Water and The Terra-Cotta Dog. The first two Montalbanos are elaborate, Rabelaisian detective fictions set in Sicily of the present day. Murder is rarely simple in Montalbano's world. A corpse leads to webs of national and international corruption. Commissario Montalbano's superiors are vicious, his operatives are incompetent, and his killers are frequently more ethical than their pursuers.

I was enjoying Camilleri so much in English that I figured I would try to read him in Italian – though with some trepidation. My Italian is OK for reading purposes (though I can't produce a single utterance in the language). But reviews of the Montalbano novels warned that his Italian is a complex instrument. Indeed, though Camilleri doesn't write in Sicilian per se – a dialect that in its written form might as well be Catalan or Occitan in terms of similarity to any standard national language – he uses lots of Sicilian dialect words. Moreover, depending on the social class and regional attitude of the characters, Camilleri's dialogue, and even at times his third-person narration, slides along a scale from standard Italian to full Sicilian. One of his most endearing characters, Catarella, speaks no known language at all, but somehow manages to hold down a position in the Vigàta police force.

Oddly enough, if you don't really speak a language, dialect forms in written texts are not as off-putting as you might fear. Camilleri's Sicilians say "sira" for "sera" and "macari" for "magari," but hell, since I barely understand this language, I don't know many of the standard forms in the first place. One result is that reading Camilleri's Italian may make La Repubblica on-line a little more opaque to me. But I'm happy taking that chance.

Both Il ladro di merendine and La voce del violino have paid off in reading pleasure. They're different from the first two Montalbanos. Their plots are simpler, more focused on a single murder, or two intertwined cases. We also see more deeply into the Commissario's personal life, which is in perpetual disarray. The title character of Il ladro di merendine is the little orphaned son of a murder victim. François comes along at an opportune moment in the moribund relationship between Salvo and Livia, his longsuffering Genoese girlfriend. At the end of Il ladro, Salvo and Livia decide to marry and adopt François.

We hope it will stay fair for them, but we suspect it won't, and La voce del violino takes the domestic story into more complicated territory. Salvo loves Livia, but he just can't keep his mind off his work. He'll get started tracking down clues and suspects, and forget to call her for weeks on end; then he'll call every ten minutes to find that she's left the phone permanently off the hook. These are good people, but they love life too broadly to narrow its scope to each other's domestic needs.

Meanwhile, Salvo has taken on a baffling murder case: a young woman found naked and dead in a house she's been building for herself – with her clothes and shoes stolen by the perpetrator. Montalbano finds the decedent himself, after breaking into her house. He breaks into the house because one of his lieutenants, afflicted with a "complesso d'Indianapolis," has smashed into the victim's parked car.

Well, I said things were complicated in Sicily. Montalbano has sometimes been compared to Georges Simenon's Maigret. Like Maigret, he does like a drink or seven, and savors good unpretentious food. But his working conditions are utterly unlike Maigret's. The Quai des Orfevres is an orderly place run by good police who show filial affection for their patron. The homicide unit in Vigàta is run by halfwits with ADD, and their boss constantly abuses them in the most hurtful terms.

The result is hilarious and affecting detective fiction, even if I do have to look up half the words to understand the jokes, and even if half of them aren't in the dictionary when I look them up. So far, (and as of his progress 12 years ago), Camilleri's books rank among the best genre novels I've ever read.

Camilleri, Andrea. La voce del violino. Palmero: Sellerio, 1997.