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la caccia al tesoro

15 february 2011

La caccia al tesoro begins just like any other novel about elderly religious-fanatic snipers and inflatable sex dolls, but after that it starts getting weird.

The caccia al tesoro, the treasure hunt, is proposed by an anonymous challenger who wants to prove he's smarter than Salvo Montalbano. Actually the endearing thing about Salvo Montalbano is that he's not all that smart. He never claims to be smart, and that's not just false modesty working. In scenes worthy of Jacques Tati, Montalbano keeps turning up with the inflatable sex dolls at exactly the worst possible moment, delivering the worst impression to the wrongest people, and trying to explain just makes it worse. He's a marvelous composite of inattention and impulsiveness. Anyone who's been studying his investigations (as the treasure-hunt challenger apparently has) would know that Montalbano fights crime not with Holmesian deduction but with brio: not by figuring things out, but by attacking them with more single-mindedness and energy than his opponents.

In fact, when Montalbano starts getting arcane notes from the treasure-hunt challenger, he's frankly bored. He pursues them for a bit and then gives up. It's a slow novel for crime: aside from the snipers and the sex dolls, there isn't even a good robbery to work on, let alone a murder. Montalbano is relieved when a young whippersnapper named Arturo shows up, eager to help him with one of his "cases." Montalbano hands over the treasure hunt to Arturo, who proves himself a match for the enigmatist.

La caccia al tesoro is one of those mysteries where you make the perp even before he's committed the murder. But Andrea Camilleri's narration, limited to the perspective of Montalbano, makes it plausible that the reader should identify the criminal long before Montalbano does.

In La caccia al tesoro, Camilleri deliberately tries to cross up a reader familiar with his formula. In the first chapter, Montalbano does not wake up in the morning. There's no call from Catarella announcing that a dead body has been found. There are no mafiosi; Montalbano's idiotic superiors barely appear; even Pasquano, the acerbic medical examiner, doesn't scassare Montalbano's cabasisi for once in his life.

Montalbano does reflect on the nature of formula. As readers familiar with Camilleri's formulas know, Montalbano eats dinner every day at Enzo's Trattoria.

Enzo, in cucina, non aviva nisciuna fantasia, faciva sempri gli stissi piatti. Ma si trattave sempri di cose freschissime ed Enzo le cucinava da Dio. A Montalbano 'n cucina la fantasia piaciva, ma sulo se era garantita da un artista dei fornelli, masannò era meglio ristari dintra alla normalità. (69)

[Enzo didn't have any imagination in the kitchen. He always made the same dishes. But they were always made with the freshest ingredients, and Enzo cooked them gloriously. Imagination in cookery pleased Montalbano, but only if the chef were a great artist; otherwise it was better to stick to the ordinary.]
One can't help but overhear Camilleri thinking in parables about his own artistry as a detective novelist. There are flights of fantasia here and there in the Montalbano novels, but there's much more of gli stissi piatti: the same old dishes. The wonder is all in how they're cooked.

Camilleri, Andrea. La caccia al tesoro. Palermo: Sellerio, 2010.