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the past is a foreign country

5 december 2010

Gianrico Carofiglio's The Past Is a Foreign Country is an asymmetrical, offbeat crime novel that ends up being unusually strait-laced in its morals for a story with such a noirish tone.

The asymmetry of the novel lies in its narration. Two apparently unrelated plotlines take turns. One, which occupies far more space, is the retrospective story of how a young law student, Giorgio, abandoned his last year of school in favor of becoming a professional cardshark and small-time tough guy. Giorgio tells his own story; in the parallel and less-elaborated plotline, a lieutenant in the carabinieri, Chiti, is the focus of a third-person narrative about the investigation of a series of rapes. Chiti is as troubled by demons as Giorgio: he's one of the dark, depressed detectives who populate contemporary European crime fiction. But Chiti is appealing: though he's a cop, he'd rather be an artist, and he finds his calling when the local sketch artist is unavailable to interview a witness.

The reader sympathizes with Chiti because he's a cop and he's afflicted (with migraines, with elemental sadness). But he's not a regular policeman; he's a member of the uniquely Italian carabinieri, the para-military para-police who usually compete with regular cops for the glory of solving crimes. In Andrea Camilleri's crime novels, the carabinieri are a corrupt, vicious, and fairly bumbling force that the regular police keep well away from. In The Past Is a Foreign Country, despite their tendency to beat up suspects first and ask questions later, they are individually sympathetic, not least because they are tracking down a seriously depraved rapist.

Giorgio is appealing too, if primarily because of the inevitable pull of first-person narration. If somebody is telling you their own story, you want them to succeed (or at least, to emerge unscathed). Even as Giorgio's actions become more and more dubious and his motives more and more questionable, you want him to get out the other side OK. (Fortunately, whispers of foreshadowing let us know that he already has – though with how much of himself intact?) A key parallel between Giorgio's story and Chiti's is how both men are capable of sudden, pragmatic, unashamed violence. Such potential may exist in all young men, Carofiglio seems to say; what matters is where such violent tendencies are directed.

The cardshark story and the serial-rapist story converge: I won't tell you how, but the hinge between the two stories is predictable (without being trite). In the end, what matters most is that Giorgio opts for morally good actions after a long, slow slide into evil. It's a novel where you root for dicey characters, but ultimately not for dicey ends. Many noirs have a core of morality at the center (think of Sam Spade, unprincipled except on the issue of actually concealing murder). The Past Is a Foreign Country is just a little more rhetorically sanguine about its morals than most.

Carofiglio, Gianrico. The Past Is a Foreign Country. [Il passato è una terra straniera, 2006.] Trans. Howard Curtis, 2007. New York: St. Martin's, 2010.