Andrea Camilleri: The Shape of Water – La forma dell’aqua ( 1994) Inspector Montalbano 1

Andrea Camilleri is an Italian crime writer, famous for his long-standing Inspector Montalbano series. Camilleri was born in 1925 in Sicily, where the series is set. I’ve been aware of him for ages, but for some reason, I never felt tempted to read his books. I thought this was a cozy crime series and while I occasionally enjoy them, I’m rarely willing to read a whole series. After reading a few reviews recently, I realized, I was wrong and that this wasn’t a cozy series at all.

Thanks to Stu, who dedicated March to Italian literature, I finally picked up the first in the series,  The Shape of Water – La forma dell’acqua.

The Shape of Water, like all the other novels in the series, is set in the fictional small-town Vigàta, in Sicily, which was inspired by Camilleri’s hometown Porto Empedocle, near Agrigento. On the outskirts of Vigàta, there’s the Mannàra, an open-air brothel. And it’s exactly here that the body of the dead engineer Luparello is found. The verdict is – natural causes – something that’s almost unheard of, in a region where the mafia drops body after body. Luparello was a prominent political figure and a lot of people profit not only from his death but from its unsavoury circumstances. Montalbano who is anything but obedient, demands to conduct an investigation. There are too many things that do not add up. Why would someone like Luparello go to a place like the Mannàra? Who is the woman who lost an incredibly expensive bracelet close to where the body was found? Who did Luparello meet with at his love nest?

Montalbano’s investigation introduces us to many striking and colourful characters. We get to know him, his girlfriend, his boss, his subordinates and friends very well. The book also introduces us to a place where corruption and violence are all too common. A place, where the mafia reigns and the police have a hard time keeping up with the crimes that are committed daily.

In his unorthodox way, Montalbano discovers more than one criminal act. And he decides to “play God” as his girlfriend calls it.

I’m so glad I finally read Camilleri because I enjoyed it so much that I have already started book two. This is such a perfect series for so many reasons. It paints an accurate, if somewhat embellished and exaggerated, picture of Sicily, its people, and customs. And its food. Montalbano enjoys good food, and for many readers, discovering all the dishes he eats in the books, is part of the appeal. While the descriptions of the place and its mores is part of the success of the series, the biggest reasons for loving it, is the character of Montalbano. He’s unorthodox, funny, dry, doesn’t suffer fools but has a big heart when it comes to “little people”. Montalbano’s name is an homage to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. It’s no surprise then, that the inspector reads one of Montalban’s detective novels in this book.

Another aspect that won me over is that this isn’t the kind of police procedural, that most UK or US authors write. The police in this book are chaotic, a bit useless and the investigation isn’t conducted very rigorously. At times it reads like a satire, which I enjoyed very much.

People often wonder, why an author chooses a fictional town. In an interview Camilleri gave a very good reason. While he used his hometown and its surroundings to make the descriptions in the books more authentic, they aren’t particularly violent places and definitely not places where so many people get killed.

I’m not at my most eloquent today. Possibly because I loved this so much. I often find it difficult to write about favourite books. I’m very fond of Sicily and this brought back memories, but even if this hadn’t been the case, I would still have loved it. It’s so colorful and original and Montalbano is one of the greatest fictional inspectors I know.

Antonio Tabucchi: Sogni di sogni – Dreams of Dreams (1992)

Elaborately imagined…mini-catalog of great artists’ dreams and the author’s interpretation of the last three days in the life of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Tabucchi’s rich language and his magical-realist charm tinge the volume with a visionary glow.

Antonio Tabucchi’s Sogni di sogni or Dreams of Dreams is a collection of sketches or short pieces, circling around the life and work of different authors, painters, musicians and other famous people. Arranged in chronological order they all tell of an imaginary dream of the person to whom the story is dedicated. At the end of the book, a short biography of each of the men gives some of the most important details about their life.

While this may not be an ideal starting point for someone who isn’t familiar with Tabucchi, it’s an amazing introduction into the Western European cultural heritage. It’s an amazing little book. To be able to write something that is equally enchanting, inspiring and instructive, is admirable. On the other hand it shows what a wonderful writer Tabucchi was. The short sketches are written in a beautiful and highly evocative prose that reminded me of the intensity of elaborate and sumptuous Persian miniatures.

If you are familiar with the men included in the book, it will enhance the experience but it’s not necessary.

To give you an idea of what Tabucchi does in this book, I’ll pick the example of Ovid. In his dream, Ovid sees himself not only loved by his emperor but transformed into a giant butterfly. Only when he stands in front of the emperor and should perform one of his poems, all that comes from his mouth is a high-pitched whistling sound. He tries to move his wings instead and perform his poem like a pantomime but this infuriates the emperor. Angered he has Ovid’s wings cut off. When they fall to the ground, Ovid knows he will die.

Hidden behind this sketch is an allusion to Ovid’s most famous work, the Metamorphoses and the whole tragic life story of one of the greatest poets of all times, who spent his last years disgraced and banned from Rome, in Tomis, on the Black Sea.

Here is the list of all of the people included in the book:

Lucius Apuleius
Cecco Angiolieri
François Villon
François Rabelais
Francisco Goya
Samuel T. Coleridge
Giacomo Leopardi
Carlo Collodi
R. L. Stevenson
Arthur Rimbaud
Anton Chekhov
Claude Debussy
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Fernando Pessoa
Vladimir Mayakovsky
Frederico Garcia Lorca
Sigmund Freud

Sogni di sogni is highly imaginative and one of those books that opens doors. It will make you want to explore the people and works behind each chapter. It certainly made me want to read more of Tabucchi, one of the most amazing and creative Italian writers who sadly died earlier this year.

It’s often difficult to find Italian books in translation but Tabucchi is one of the rare authors who has been extensively translated. Some of the newest books are not out in English yet but most of his earlier ones are.

Have you read Tabucchi? Would you be interested in a Tabucchi week?

Gianrico Carofiglio: Involuntary Witness aka Testimone inconsapevole (2002) First in an Italian Legal Thriller Series

A nine-year-old boy is found murdered at the bottom of a well near a popular beach resort in southern Italy. In what looks like a hopeless case for Guido Guerrieri, counsel for the defence, a Senegalese peddler is accused of the crime. Faced with small-town racism fuelled by the recent immigration from Africa, Guido attempts to exploit the esoteric workings of the Italian courts. More than a perfectly paced legal thriller, this relentless suspense novel transcends the genre. A powerful attack on racism, and a fascinating insight into the Italian judicial process, it is also an affectionate portrait of a deeply humane hero.

Former anti-Mafia prosecutor Gianrico Carofiglio is said to write some of the best legal thrillers Italy has to offer. I am not an expert when it comes to legal thrillers but  his novel Involuntary Witness, the first in the series centering on Avvocato Guido Guerrieri, is really good. Guerrieri is such a likable character and the themes of the novel are varied, spanning from racism, immigration, relationships and marriage, the meaning of life, to the Italian criminal system.

Guerrieri has recently been divorced and is very depressed. At the beginning of the novel he has panic attacks, can hardly sleep. He is a vulnerable, pensive  man who likes to read, have long discussions about books, movies and music. He loves St. Exupéry, Picnic at Hanging Rock and the music of David Gray. As a criminal lawyer he has to do some dubious things and tries to ignore whether his clients are guilty or not. After all, he is paid to get them out, no matter what they did. But Guerrieri has  a conscience that’s why he often wonders if what he does is really right. He also lives dangerously occasionally.
One of the best parts of the novel is the change Guerrieri undergoes. The person at the beginning of the novel isn’t the same as the one at the end. Just to watch him, follow him, first through his misery and later when he starts to enjoy life again, feels so realistic. I started to believe after a while that the description was based on a real person.

Guerrieri is good at his job, no doubt about it. There is always work for him. We sense that Carofiglio knows what he is writing about. The descriptions of the city and the court, the people, the lawyers, judges, policemen, prosecutors are realistic. The series is set in the Southern Italian town of Bari, an attractive location, close to the sea.

The story is rather simple. A nine year old boy is found murdered in a well. Due to some unfortunate circumstances a Senegalese immigrant is accused of the murder. The case looks hopeless as there is a lot of evidence against the man. Guerrieri isn’t even sure at first whether he should accept to defend him but he feels pity and finally accepts.

I wasn’t familiar with the subgenre of the legal thriller. At least not in book form. The focus is really on the trial and whether the accused will be sentenced or not. Guerrieri isn’t playing the role of an investigator. He thinks his client is innocent but he doesn’t try to find someone who might have done it or even find out why the child has been killed.

In Italy Carofiglio’s novels are considered to be much more than just thrillers and I can see why. The books seem to tell the story of an interesting man who happens to be a criminal lawyer and is excellent in his job, but this isn’t the most important element of the books. Guerrieri’s outlook on life, the way he sees and analyses people is far more important.

Involuntary Witness is an excellent book and I am certainly going to read the next in the series. I absolutely want to know what happens to Guerrieri and where life and love will lead him.

Do you know the series or any other legal thrillers that you like?