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un mese con montalbano

7 june 2013

Andrea Camilleri intends the reader to go through Un mese con Montalbano in the one month that the title suggests: a single short story per day, for thirty days. Let the record show that I did it just as prescribed, from 28 April through 27 May 2013.

Any collection of 30 stories will be uneven, but more of these are excellent than are merely good, and more are good than indifferent. At their best, they are as good as anything by Maupassant, like "Il compagno di viaggio." In this five-page story, Salvo Montalbano takes a train from Sicily to Rome. He hates sleeping cars, and dreads having anything to do with the strangers who share them. Luckily, his "traveling companion" is a stranger who gets in late and falls asleep quickly: but not before he appears to divest himself of a bagful of incriminating evidence. Before he knows it, Montalbano knows far more about his fellow passenger than he wants to: and what is he going to do about it?

If you know Montalbano from Camilleri's novels, you can predict he will do something oblique and unexpected. Montalbano's inventiveness is a theme across many of these stories. In "Trappola per gatti," he riffs on a child's innocent misprision to construct a potentially deadly sting operation for some murderous mafiosi. In "La sigla," Montalbano's sympathy with a vagabond bookworm leads him to solve the bookworm's murder. In "Quello che contó Aulo Gellio," Montalbano's long-standing bond with another sketchy character saves his life. In "Il topo assassinato," his willingness to seem foolish by asking for an autopsy of a dead rat cracks an ingenious ring of diamond smugglers. And so on; if I list all the offbeat things that Montalbano does in Un mese, I'll soon have named all thirty stories.

Un mese con Montalbano does not follow an actual month in Montalbano's career. For one thing, that would be a hell of a busy month even for a hero of genre fiction. For another, the mese is the reader's month, not the character's. Instead of being linked, the stories jump around quite a bit, some of them set (or having roots) deep in Montalbano's past. (He seems to have as many lifelong old school friends as Jessica Fletcher.) The stories, as Camilleri notes in an afterword, "non sempre (fortunatamente) comportano fatti di sangue [don't always, fortunately, involve bloodshed]" (355). The Montalbano novels all have murder victims in them somewhere ("the deader the corpse the better," as S.S. Van Dine used to say). But in shorter form, Camilleri knows that murder mysteries would pall at the rate of one per day for a month.

And the freedom from having to solve murders allows for stories like my favorite in the collection, "Guardie e ladri." "Cops and Robbers," we'd say, a story about the game that Montalbano plays with a little boy, son of friends, who calls him "Zio Salvo" and insists on playing the robber and being hunted down by a real cop (who is pretending to be one, if that makes any sense). OK, I'll spoil the story, which hasn't been translated into English yet in any event: the boy isn't supposed to go into a shed on his parents' back forty to play cops and robbers, but when Montalbano (some detective he!) can't find little Francesco anywhere else, he figures the boy is being naughty, and checks out the shed anyway. And of course Francesco isn't there either, but a real armed robber is, and all Montalbano has to confront him with are his turned-up lapel and his right hand in the shape of a pistol …

"Guardie e ladri" reminds me more of Calvino than Maupassant, but the fact that these stories remind me more of the absolute masters than Ellery Queen shows that the work of Camilleri consists of far more than romanzi gialli: especially when it never tries to be anything more.

Camilleri, Andrea. Un mese con Montalbano. 1998. Milano: Mondadori, 2013.