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la scomparsa di patò

23 march 2015

La scomparsa di Patò is an outrageous exercise in intertextuality. It's so much just plain fun that one might overlook its considerable postmodernist complexities. It's in the Italian tradition of serious play that connects Pirandello to Sciascia to Dario Fo to Amara Lakhous. I was going to say that it also shows Andrea Camilleri as much more than a detective writer, except that it's a detective story par excellence, and anyway, what could be higher-brow than an intricately hall-of-mirrory crime novel?

Camilleri's point of departure is a throwaway incident from Sciascia's 1966 novel A ciascuno il suo. Long ago in Sicily, apparently, somebody named Antonio Patò was playing Judas in a passion play. The script called for him to disappear below stage; he did; but he was never seen again.

Evocative; but it took Camilleri to turn the suggestion into a 240-page epistolary novel. Where better to stage his passion play than Vigàta, his ready-made fictional world – though the Vigàta of 1890 rather than that of Montalbano. Antonio Patò becomes a mild-mannered, outwardly upright accountant who has risen to the position of bank executive and been given the key role of Judas in the annual Good Friday play.

But we of course never see Patò in the novel's "real time." He exists only in retrospect, and as reported by others. The narrative begins shortly before his disappearance, and is told entirely in documents; Patò never tells his story directly. Newspaper accounts, various official correspondence, letters from concerned outsiders, anonymous letters, and even graffiti provide some of the storytelling.

Most of the narrative is told, however, by two detectives, Giummàro and Bellavia. They work for the Carabinieri and the police respectively. They scarcely exist as characters, and anyway, early on, after some partisan rivalry, they combine their efforts and solve the case in tandem, apparently becoming BFF in the process. But since we know them through the reports they send their superiors, we get to know them as verbal tics and narrative styles – or perhaps most clearly, as typefaces, because Giummàro writes in italics and Bellavia in Roman font. (Giummàro has the additional delightful mannerism of ending almost every paragraph with "quanto segue": "what follows." That would be a seriously useful device to teach freshmen how to make transitions from one paragraph to the next.

A man can't just disappear down a trap door and into thin air (or thick earth.) Various theories are broached, but each contains some element that causes Giummàro and Bellavia to reject them. If Patò had amnesia, he would have forgotten to pack up his clothes or his costume. If he'd been abducted, there would be noises, signs of a struggle, and again, why would a kidnapper waste time getting him to pack? If he'd left deliberately, where was he going? He apparently took nothing with him but a bag with those pesky clothes. The accounts of the bank are in perfect order; he seems to be a man without secrets.

The case is so baffling that a couple of amateur English detectives intervene, one explaining that Patò has slipped through an interstice in spacetime, and the other that he's gotten lost on a Penrose staircase – which wouldn't be invented for another 70 years, but heck, when you're slipping through spacetime, these things happen.

As in many a Montalbano, our heroes figure out what happened and then find it impossible to explain – not in physical but in political terms. La scomparsa di Patò is one of the best-constructed – and needless to say one of the funniest – crime novels that I've ever read.

Camilleri, Andrea. La scomparsa di Patò. 2000. Milano: Mondadori, 2002.