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il giro di boa

30 march 2010

James Wood prefaces his mixed review of Chang-Rae Lee's new novel The Surrendered by noting the conventions of mainstream fiction, conventions that have remained unshaken since Balzac and Walter Scott, at least.

All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization! . . . All too often, conventional novelists find themselves producing a version of what the art critic Harold Rosenberg called, about fifty years ago, "kitsch"—that is, the following of established rules at a time when artists are calling those rules into question.
Well, I'm not here to talk about The Surrendered (though it's on my bookshelf and I hope to review it here soon myself). But I got to thinking about Wood's ideas on convention when I was reading the latest in a series of detective novels that I apparently cannot tear myself away from, Andrea Camilleri's Il giro di boa.

Because if general fiction is conventional, detective fiction is positively hidebound. (In fact, the more paperback it gets, the more hidebound it becomes.) In Il giro di boa, our hero Salvo Montalbano spends the final chapters ambushing some smugglers in their seaside den. He swims around their hidden boat landing taking notes, and then leads his team of inspectors in a shoot-out that waylays the bad guys.

I swear I read the exact same thing in some Hardy Boys novel, probably The Secret of the Caves or The Shore Road Mystery. What's more, it's even money that Camilleri read them, too. But it isn't only juvenile pulp that provides Camilleri with his archetypes. Montalbano is on the track of these smugglers because they are smuggling children into Italy for immoral purposes. Early in the novel, he has a much less pulpy moment that incites the plot. Seeing an immigrant child separated from his apparent mother, Montalbano catches the boy and returns him to the woman. Only much later does he realize that the "mother" was an accomplice to the boy's kidnapping – only after the child himself has been murdered.

That's not something one sees in the Hardy Boys, but it might be called a "Dürrenmatt moment," a motif borrowed from highbrow postmodern detective fiction: the irredeemable complicity of the detective himself in a crime. And no less than the Hardy Boys (and everything in between), Camilleri has read his Dürrenmatt, too. Camilleri's novels are pastiches of bits of plot, theme, and language found in dozens of previous policiers, often with acknowledging citations, not to mention a subtle tissue of allusion.

So why do I keep reading such books, aside from addiction and inertia? (Not that those are the worst motives for aesthetic experience.) I think it has something to do with the status of detective fiction as ultra-, even meta-kitschy. If you press conventions past a certain point, they become irrelevant to the experience of art.

That's a somewhat facile assertion, of course: lots of artistic experiences, from Noh drama to Mozart to the cathedrals of Europe, are formulaic and celebrated as such. We object to formula in novels because we believe that the novel should constantly offer us new experience. Novels were at the forefront of Modernism, among other things, and we have a lingering sense that they should introduce us to new ways of seeing every generation or so. Why read Andrea Camilleri when one can seek out the new Proust or Joyce or Virginia Woolf?

One answer is, of course, that by assuming formulaic plots and characters, the detective novel can put its energies into limning new cultural situations. Il giro di boa, published in 2003, is in part about the flood of illegal immigrants into Italy in the post-9/11 world. Its situations are new even as its plot structure is venerable. Often we don't need a new artistic form to perceive truly new social developments; perhaps a new form and new subject at the same time would only obscure our perception.

But there's also much that's new about Camilleri's work, in a technical as well as rhetorical sense. As the Montalbano series progresses (Il giro di boa is the seventh novel, and I'm now just seven years behind its author, who has completed 16 as of this writing), Italian more and more cedes ground to Sicilian in the text. The dialogue is still heavily marked: Sicilian for locals, "book" Italian for everyone else. But the authorial narration (in third person but limited to Montalbano's perspective) is increasingly in a kind of creole, saturated with Sicilian usages and spellings.

(This technique must be hell on proofreaders. In the key scene in the cliffside grotto, the word for "grotto" appears in Italian as grotta when Montalbano first sees it, and then later in the same paragraph as grutta in Sicilian when he's gotten used to the thought of it [239]. How do you tell the heteroglossia from the typos?)

Heteroglossia, the fusion of different languages and sub-languages in a text, is of course what the great critic Mikhail Bakhtin identified as the essence of the novel as an art form. So it strikes me, in reading the utterly conventional Giro di boa, that its formulaic narrative technique is beside the point. It uses a creaky old story as a stage for utterly original (truly "novel") linguistic experiments. One will be able to read Il giro di boa in years to come to explore the linguistic tensions between dialect and standard in early 21st-century Sicily. And that may be of far greater human value than some recherché experiment in the psychology of narration.

And as always, Camilleri is worth reading simply because he's funny, and his humor is based on a careful exploitation of just how creaky some of his devices get. Montalbano dresses up for the climactic ambush in an outfit that makes him look like a sea-dog from a third-rate American movie. When he gets to his post, he worries that his backup might not arrive.

"Vuoi vidiri che avivano avuto un contrattempo e non erano arrivati? E lui che se ne stave lí allo scuro, pistola in mano, vistuto da bucaniere come una testa di minchia?"

[What if they'd had a problem and hadn't shown up? And him standing there in the dark, a gun in his hand, dressed in pirate clothes like a dickhead?] (263)
And speaking of dickheads, this whole investigation is touched off in the opening chapter, when Montalbano goes for a morning swim. He bumps into a floating corpse and tries to tow the body to shore using his bathing trunks. When he beaches himself, naked and dragging a cadaver, he is apprehended by a couple of senior citizens, the man of whom fires an ancient rifle at him while the woman hits him over the head with an iron bar. Naturally, a paparazzo is there taking video that appears on the evening news.

Humor is notoriously subjective, but I spend most of a Montalbano ROFL, and I imagine a lot of people do. And truly funny writing, very difficult to bring off, is never formulaic. Or rather, it depends on a sense of just how much formula its audience knows. There is a lot of room in the interstices of the most conventional prose for astoundingly original effects.

Camilleri, Andrea. Il giro di boa. Palermo: Sellerio, 2003.