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la cappella di famiglia

30 march 2017

A new book by Andrea Camilleri is always a cause for celebration. La cappella di famiglia is a collection of stories, only a couple previously published, from the past 15 years of Camilleri's career. They are "stories of Vigàta," like most of Camilleri's fiction, but they are not about Salvo Montalbano.

Probably my favorite story among the eight here is "Il morto viaggiatore." A dead body shows up in a farmer's field. He doesn't want it there; as an ex-convict for two earlier killings he really did commit, he doesn't want to have to answer questions about a new one he didn't. So he dumps the body somewhere else – and it becomes a hot potato for the denizens of Vigàta. The fun of the story is in the narrator's tone, which seems to take for weary granted that people in Vigàta must constantly have to deal with such problems.

Patrick Süskind, in Das Parfum, imagined a character with a preternatural sense of smell; in "Il palato assoluto," Camilleri imagines one with an unerring sense of taste. Caterino is a kind of princess-of-the-pea of the culinary world, able to tell if there's a single aging egg in an omelet. He's a born restaurant critic – but can anybody live with him? This is another classic story, a Midas-touch motif reminiscent of O. Henry.

"La rettitudine fatta persona" is a sharp story reminiscent of both García Márquez and Boccaccio. Fofò Serra's two brothers die, leaving him to care for their widows and the widows' baby daughters. Fofò becomes the "probity made flesh" of the title. Then his sisters-in-law start having more baby daughters, and the daughters grow up to have daughters, initially without benefit of husbands. What a burden for Fofò, and how nobly he bears it – and how far too noble the whole thing is to be true. But like Ser Ciappelletto in the first story of the first day of the Decameron, Don Fofò appears headed for posthumous beatification.

"Il duello è contagioso," "Duelling is contagious," is a literary shaggy-dog story. In Sicily in 1912, a lurid anecdote brings on a challenge to a duel, which quickly touches off other challenges, till most of the bourgeois male population of Vigàta seems to be headed off to try pistols at ten paces.

In the title story "La cappella di famiglia," a host of other characters converge in a cemetery on the second of November, 1929. Their interlocking motives are financial and sexual jealousy – I guess you could say that about most world literature, couldn't you – and they make a dark farce of what is supposed to be a solemn All Souls' Day.

In "Teresina," a 30-year-old mamma's boy falls in love with a beautiful young woman who poisons her way through his household and further before deciding she's had enough. You see the twists in this anti-true-love story coming early. It packs up and explains itself in too pat a manner, but it's good fun, sort of Roald-Dahl-Lite.

The two final stories in the book are inextricable from commentary on their historical settings – the Garibaldi years of the 1860s ("Lo stivale di Garibaldi") and the regime of Mussolini ("L'oro a Vigàta"). The former concerns a beset governmental official and the latter a five-year-old boy who is discovered to be a portafortuna – what the Germans would call a Glückskind, a preternaturally lucky young fellow.

Vigàta, far more than just the setting for the Montalbano series, has become Camilleri's Macondo, his Yoknapatawpha. There is much more to discover than I've read so far, and I look forward to the exploration.

Camilleri, Andrea. La cappella di famiglia e altre storie di Vigàta. Palermo: Sellerio, 2016.