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la rivoluzione delle api

27 august 2017

Starting to read Serge Quadruppani's Disparition soudaine des ouvrières was bibliographically disorienting. I ordered the Italian version, La rivoluzione delle api, because I wanted to try one of Edizioni Ambiente's "Verdenero" series of eco-Krimis. Come to find that the Italian is a translation from French, by Maruzza Loria (who has worked with Quadruppani on translating Andrea Camilleri into French). But La disparition soudaine is set in Italy, so it makes more sense to read it in Italian, the language the characters are presumably speaking. To make things odder, the Italian translation seems to have been published before the French original. There's also an English version, The Sudden Disappearance of the Worker Bees, translated by Delia Casa from Loria's Italian.

I am always interested in how titles are translated. Quadruppani's original French doesn't mention bees, for instance. (One reader noted online that the cover of the French edition showed a wasp's nest rather than a beehive!) A sudden disappearance of workers must have sounded too alarming, and too indirect. The English had to specify bees, and the Italian dropped the disappearance part in favor of a phrase left behind by the killer: the revolution of the bees has begun.

The revolution is provoked by colony collapse disorder. Our protagonist is il commissario Simona Tavianello, a nationally-known antimafia police commander, on vacation in the northern Italian mountains with her husband Marco, a retired prosecutor. They're fixing to buy some honey from a noted local producer when they find a corpse on the beekeeper's premises. Worse yet, the corpse has been shot with the commissario's service weapon.

Simona shouldn't really even hang around for the investigation, and Marco really wants to get to the beach in Sicily, but you know how detective novels go. Simona Tavianello is a natural sbirro, and to decamp in the middle of a murder mystery is antithetical to her being. The mystery deepens when a local idiot smashes up the producer's hives and is slain by a sniper mid-mayhem. The killings seem to have occurred in the middle of an increasingly violent struggle between ecological activists and a sinister high-tech research firm. Meanwhile the bees may have intentions of their own.

Detective novels can be amalgams of lurid, stylized action, and patient application of topical research. La rivoluzione delle api is that kind of novel. In the course of trying to learn who's shot some stock victims that we don't really care about, we learn about agribusiness, pollinators, proposed etiologies for CCD, the rhetoric of promoting new technologies, the future of food – we even get a basic primer on posthumanism. Simona says at one point

mi sembra che quel che succede qui dovrebbe interessare tutti i cittadini di questo paese … e forse di tutto il pianeta. (103)

[It seems to me that what's happening here should be of interest to all the citizens of this country … maybe of the whole planet.]
At the heart of "what's happening here" is a conflict between eco-defenders and a research corporation that even sounds nasty, Sacropiano. Naturally the corporation sees the defenders of the bees as "ecoterroristi." In turn, the green alliance sees Sacropiano as "Dottori Stranamore della biosfera" (163), the Doctor Strangeloves of the biosphere.

These are suave Strangeloves. They frame their profit-driven applied research in terms of benevolence and mildness of impact – better living through nanotechnology. In particular, the disappearance of the bees is a chance to replace them with something better: trackable, calculable nano-robot pollinators which can edge living things out of the agricultural system and produce a homogenous, quantifiable benefit.

And that's why the bees are revolting. The spectre of nanorobots (Quadruppani invokes Michael Crichton's Prey) is a symptom of a larger imperative of surveillance. At one point Simona learns of research directed toward microchipping every individual creature in the fauna of a Piemontese park (68). It's a small step toward chipping people and maintaining constant surveillance on all their activities, commercial, social, and extra-legal. Sbirro though she is, Simona is not enchanted by the idea.

While Quadruppani kicks around big ideas, he also gives us characters that we can identify with. Or at least I could. Simona and Marco are about my age, late 50s. They squabble and display jealousy and flirt and act passive-aggressively, but one can tell that this is a marriage that has reached late middle age with all its senses alert and enjoyments intact. And the ancillary characters that they meet – a crime-obsessed journalist, a bee-obsessed scientist, a gauche marshal of carabinieri, a hunky beekeeper – are equally attractive.

La rivoluzione delle api is a wacky, self-conscious, artificial Krimi that deals in real-world problems while entertaining the reader, and I enjoyed it. Perhaps most of all I liked its intertextual immersion in the detective-inspector genre itself. With all the murders that are going on, the carabinieri of course have to call in the coroner, who turns out to be a profane, choleric Sicilian named Pasquano (51-52). Where did he come from? From Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels, naturally. Pasquano drops in just to growl at everybody and leaves the book quickly, but he ties it to a score of other Krimis. I am glad to be in a literary universe I already know.

Quadruppani, Serge. La rivoluzione delle api. [La disparition soudaine des ouvrières, 2011.] Translated by Maruzza Loria. Milano: Ambiente, 2010.