Sunday, June 23, 2013

That's Italian

It was probably Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Book Review who first alerted me to Detective Salvo Montalbano of the Vigàta police somewhere in coastal Sicily.  Montalbano is now a Sicilian industry, as I witnessed Montalbano-themed bus tours when I visited Sicily.  (This was a pleasant surprise [even though I didn’t sign up for one of these], as the other "pop" bus tours seemed to be all Godfather oriented. Really? That film is now 40+ years old, the Mafia is but a pale shell of its former self (thanks to two martyred Sicilians, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino) yet Marlon Brando still adorns t-shirts in the tacky souvenir shops.  Interestingly, no Sopranos-themed items were evident – perhaps they are too American?) 

The fictional Vigàta is believed to be the town of Porto Empedocle, hometown of its creator, the now 87-year-old (and still writing) Andrea Camilleri.  I’d read a couple of these quirky detective novels, but when I found the “next” one I was supposed to read available as an audiobook, I knew it would be just the thing to listen to while soaking up the atmosphere in the home of my ancestors. This would be Voice of the Violin, the fourth book in the series, which was first published in Italy in 1997.  Inspector Montalbano is the chief criminal investigator, classically “maverick” in the way he flaunts authority, believes his hunches and always gets his man. Of course, this is Sicily, so he might get his man, but said man often doesn’t end up paying for his crimes in a conventional way.

In Voice of the Violin, Camilleri spins out what appear to be several disparate plot strands, which Montalbano deftly weaves together. This one involves a locked room mystery (nude woman found smothered to death with no physical clues present), a “slow” adult who suddenly disappears from his loving family, and a priceless violin that has found its way into the hands of a reclusive musician who offers occasional lunchtime concerts to his homebound downstairs neighbor who happens to be a friend of Salvo. Add to the mix, Salvo’s high-maintenance and long-distance fiancée, the young African boy they are attempting to adopt (he’s a leftover plot strand from the previous installment), the precinct’s dullard who turns out to have a surprising skill with the “new” computers, and publicity-seeking idiotic superiors, and it’s a miracle that it all gets wrapped up in five hours.  But it does, naturally and unhurriedly, and – of course – satisfactorily.

Camilleri doesn’t shy away from the influence of the Mafia in his novels, which is – of course – the reason why the bad guys often go unpunished; but in Voice of the Violin, they play a minor role.  A made man actually helps Montalbano prove that the prime suspect is innocent, although there’s no doubt that the alliance he creates is a dangerous one.

The setting shines in these novels as well.  Montalbano lives in what sounds like a delightful casa where the Mediterranean is at his doorstep and the many descriptions of the sea and the countryside are vividly portrayed.  The Inspector is also very fond of a good meal, it is possible to dine vicariously on the pastas, fish and wine lovingly described and consumed.

There were also places in the novel where references are made to Sicily and Sicilians, often made with a literary shrug, along the lines of “that’s just how Sicily is.”  I felt that I had witnessed that “Sicilian” experience in even the two short weeks I spent there.

(Even though I finished this book nearly six weeks ago, it is still – as evidenced by all I had to say about it here  -- still fresh in my head.  This confirms my approach to vacation reading: Always try to read a contemporary novel about where you are going.  Incidentally, aside from Inspector Montalbano (whose subtitled adventures are also available on DVD), this was very difficult to do.  A search of Sicily Italy – Fiction mostly brought up thrillers related in one way or another to the mob. Sigh.)

One of the things that make a Camilleri novel special, evidently, is that he writes in a Sicilian dialect, which is ably translated by Stephen Sartarelli.  The novel reads naturally and well, except for one character – the aforementioned dullard, Catarella – who ends up sounding like a New Jersey mobster in the narrator’s interpretation.  But, this was my only objection to Grover Gardner’s excellent narration.  He creates distinct characters for Vigàta’s half-dozen police officers, reads the women’s parts with a minimum of breathy, high-pitched tones and keeps the short novel moving along nicely.  With the exception of Catarella I appreciated that Gardner reads this novel in “middle” American English.  The last Italian detective novel I listened to turned me off this genre in audio completely, with its ridiculously sounding (to my ears) Italian-accented English.

(There was an odd little moment while I was listening, when the version on my player skipped a few tracks.  A little later on, there was a reference to Montalbano kissing a woman to whom he was not engaged.  I didn’t remember this at all, and relistened to a whole disc to see where I had missed it.  It was only when I returned to the States and listened to the actual disc that I caught this particular incident. I must have bumped it or something when I was downloading the discs onto my computer.)

The other books I read about Sicily were a bit of a slog compared to this, although I did enjoy the nonfiction I read: Sicilian Odyssey by Francine Prose. Not to be missed if you are planning a trip to that fair island.  It is an amazing place.

[Cefalù (pictured here in a photo taken by me) is on the opposite coast (north instead of south) from Vigàta/Porto Empedocle), but each is a beautiful Mediterranean Sicilian village.]

Voice of the Violin (Inspector Montalbano, Book 4) by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Narrated by Grover Gardner
Blackstone Audiobooks, 2008.  5:17

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