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il cuoco dell'alcyon

6 july 2019

"The cook of the Alcyon" is revealed, late in Andrea Camilleri's 2019 novel, to be a character familiar to readers of his Montalbano series. I won't spoil the book by telling you who.

In the latest Montalbano, the commissario's job seems to be on the line. He is rapidly nearing retirement age even for a perpetually middle-aged detective-series hero. The Sicilian bureaucracy is determined that Salvo should start taking half-months off to use up his vacation time. His office is to get a new director; his team will be dispersed. Or will it? Maybe the entropy that has suddenly hit the police station in Vigàta is just a cover for a massive, daring FBI operation.

That's the craziest thing anybody's ever suggested, even in a Camilleri novel, of course, so Montalbano, characteristically, can't tell at times whether he's dreaming or awake. A spectral ship keeps floating in and out of his reveries: the Alcyon, the lavishly appointed yacht belonging to a miserable local factory owner.

Il cuoco dell'Alcyon is on the lighter side of the Montalbano canon. Camilleri notes in an afterword that the story was developed awhile back for a possible Italian-American film coproduction; he dusted it off and updated some of its elements to fit the late 2010s. As with so many pop-culture icons, there are several Montalbanos. There is the seriously angst-ridden, if darkly hilarious, hero of the early novels; there is the more slapsticky commissioner of some of the later ones; there is the somewhat James-Bondy (in spite of himself) Salvo of this latest book. There is the by-the-numbers Salvo of some of the more routine middle entries in the series, and there is the TV Montalbano, a slightly different character whose image has clearly changed the direction of Camilleri's fiction.

(For some reason, I have always imagined Salvo Montalbano as older and slimmer than Luca Zingaretti's iconic TV detective. Though with his appetite for pasta 'ncasciata, it's perhaps impossible that Montalbano could have stayed slim. I guess I imagine Montalbano as skinnier precisely because he eats so much: he has always seemed to me one of those guys whose nervous energy keeps him underweight no matter how much he eats. The age issue is easier to explain: I think that the prose Montalbano does start older than the TV one did, and hovers at the same age much longer; but nobody can blame TV producers for casting Salvo a touch younger and a lot sexier than my own middle-aged-male imagination portrays him.)

Andrea Camilleri became critically ill during the rollout of Il cuoco dell'Alcyon (which sped to the top of the Italian best-seller lists). He is 93 and can't be with us very much longer. "The Cook" will not be the last Montalbano, as the concluding volume has long been submitted to his publishers under seal and awaits his death. That's one book, however wonderful, that I hope I don't get to read for a long time.

Camilleri, Andrea. Il cuoco dell'Alcyon. Palermo: Sellerio, 2019.