S is for Sicily

Sometimes I give the impression that I worry about my age. And sometimes I do. I reckon I’m about four years off well-meaning relatives and domestically-blissed friends wondering out loud what I’m going to DO about ‘finding a MAN so I can have CHILDREN’ before it’s ‘TOO LATE’. I think it’s more the anticipation of this annoyance that stresses me, rather than the (not that many) years I’m carrying. Maybe it’s a single woman thing… I reserve the right to be contrary over matters of age, in any case.

It’s new year’s eve and notions of time passing are on my mind. And in August Heat they are also on the mind of my dear friend Inspector Salvo Montalbano, adrift in a sweltering summer in Sicily and pondering if his advancing years are affecting his reason, his actions, his decisions, his heart, his very being. The body of a young woman, throat slit, is found stuffed in a trunk in a hidden room of a holiday house and the police are determined to find her killer and violator, concentrating on a dodgy property developer and a simple young man with uncontrollable urges. Helping the police is the victim’s beautiful, twenty-something twin sister—but is she more of a hindrance than a help to our Salvo?

Like a glistening plate of antipasto; stuffed, fresh and colourful, and glistening with olive oil, an Andrea Camilleri Inspector Montalbano novel is always a delight. A feast of tight and pointed narrative, lashings of humour and social commentary, a sprinkling of literary and historical references, a breathing, sparkling sense of place, an intriguing mystery to solve and a cast of characters that gladden the heart. Reading this series always makes me so goddamn happy. Camilleri is a wonderful writer and I am highly sentimental about many of the characters, especially loyal Fazio and our Montalba.

But in August Heat Salvo is a troubled man, and though often a reflective creature, in this novel he has a darker edge. He does things, thinks things, makes errors in judgement which are out of character and a shade or two outside his usual moral code. Could it just be the interminable heat? Or is he losing his touch? Are the tendrils of senility starting to caress his mind? (Our protagonist is deeply worried about being 55 years of age ‘and more’.) These changes of character concern him as much as they concern his readers. Mind you, they concern his readers because of their affection for the detective, not because they don’t make for good storytelling. A darker Montalba in a state of slight despair only whets the appetite for the novels to come.

I find myself occasionally dreaming of visiting Montalbano’s Sicily. Strolling the beaches, swimming in the sea, dining in the trattorias, lying on a sun-drenched terrace, letting the Mediterranean breeze waft over me. Though in my crazy imagination I’d quite like the inspector to be there as well, and if we could just do something about the rampant crime and mafioso I’d be most appreciative. Of course there’s nothing stopping me visiting southern Italy the next time I’m in that part of the world. It’s definitely on ‘the list’. Perhaps I can visit it with that person who will help keep the well-intentioned questioners at bay for a few more years. You never know your luck.

Happy new year, everyone.

Books 22 and 23: The Patience of the Spider and The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri

What is it about some novels that make you want to travel to the places they depict? It’s not just well-told descriptions of place, although that helps. It’s something deeper, a heartfelt emotional connection with the characters and stories of a particular setting; with characters who are likewise intricately entwined with their surrounds.

I was thinking of this kind of thing while travelling around Prince Edward Island (PEI) in Canada, the home and inspiration, perhaps life force, of LM Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables. Thousands and thousands of people visit a tiny town on a small island to SEE the land where a fictional character resided. I did it. And every bookish person I know asked me if I was going to PEI on my Canadian travels. It was about all they wanted to know. And my visit to Cavendish was good and all was stunningly beautiful and satisfying and only served to place Anne with an ‘e’ on an even stronger footing in my heart.

So many novels do this to us. It’s why publishers so often refer to settings when promoting a book. Who doesn’t want to be whisked away to exotic or interesting shores? At the moment, my special novels which do this are the Inspector Montalbano mysteries. As soon as I open them I can smell the Mediterranean, taste the espresso, hear the church bells ringing and the scooters beeping. Whenever I read these books I want to runaway to Sicily and eat mullet on a paved terrace. Under the spell of the author’s words I am completely transported to the villages of Salvo Montalbano. Indeed, I feel almost Sicilian while I read these books. Ciao.

The transportation qualities of a good novel, is one of the most pleasurable things about reading. And when we read while we travel those qualities are at least doubled in power with the parallel journeys we’re taking. So at the moment I am enjoying the double delight of dining on lobster rolls and watching little fishing boats bobbing in the cold waters of the Canadian Maritimes in person, and indulging in clam linguine and zipping through the cobbled streets of a seaside Mediterranean village in my head (well, not zipping, really, because Salvo Montalbano drives likes his nonna).

A tough life, si?


Canadian depository for The Patience of the Spider:  Halifax HI Hostel book exchange.

Canadian depository for The Paper Moon: window ledge of room 336, HI Quebec City.

Book 7: Rounding the Mark, Andrea Camilleri

If ever I wanted a character from a book to be real and whisk me away to their world, then Inspector Salvo Montalbano is the one for me. roundingI want to swoon into his arms and have him carry me to Sicily and we will live in his villa by the ocean and eat broccoli pasta and freshly caught squid (lightly grilled, with lemon), slurp espresso after a morning swim and catch the evening breeze on the verandah while sipping the very best whiskey as he tells me of his day policing an island which is endearing, terrifying and somewhat nutty all at once. Ah, Salvo, the times we would have…

I first came across Montalbano in my insomniac days when I would wathc the Italian telemovies on SBS late at night. They are fantastic and wonderful renditions of the novels, the characters are spot on, the humour just right, the attention to food, dress, literature, architecture, human relationships and foibles and all the things that make up Salvo and his compatriots is spot on and no one, no one aside from Luca Zingaretti could play Montalbano (and I freely admit to the Italian actor being a significant part of the reason I am in love with Salvo). And of course there is a liberal sprinkling of exclamations to the virgin mary, swearing against mothers, head slapping and cheek kissing that make any one who likes to like Italia tingle with joy. And there is the food, oh the food… and that romantic almost-decay of the buildings and people of Sicily…

The Montalbano novels are exquisite. I’m not sure what version of the crime oeuvre we should put them under. They’re more than cosies but never venture into the forensic or gruesome, they’re not procedurals because the over-bureaucracy of the Sicilian police force is often ignored by Salvo and his crew. They are just good – let’s say that. Any one who enjoys a classic British detective tale (or telly show – think Morse, think Frost, think Poirot) will like them. Camilleri is a master – his ability to portray life, to portray how humans and relationships areis a delight. The translator, Stephen Sartarelli, does a marvellous job – you wouldn’t know they were originally written in Italian.  They are funny (Catarella – the most perfect clown-simpleton character you will find), intelligent, whimsical, sad, beautiful – a joy to read (and also easy to read – how nice!).

I love these novels because they reflect a great love for life, for the things that make life a joy. Montalbano is a Good man, who often finds the modern world saddening, who fights for what is right, who is respected by his men, and also by most of the mafioso who tend to sit at the back of a lot of the crimes he investigates. He can be gruff and moody (especially if he is hungry), insubordinate, and the occasional insensitive bastard (oh poor Livia his long-term but far away girlfriend) but he is full of so much passion for all those joyous things: food, literature, sex, love, theatre, nature, children, humanity, his homeland, the good in people. Like many detective-protagonists he is often trying to retire (he’s said to be a little over 50 – and no, that doesn’t stop me wanting to run away with him) or be on holiday but the case will draw him in, usually because of some kind of injustice, the tragedy of the victim’s life, the inhumanity of the crime, the insanity or insensitivity or inability of the top brass. Oh and he doesn’t like guns and drives really, really badly.

Rounding the Mark is the seventh Montalbano tale to be published in English. It is a fine addition to a glorious series of novels (this one focuses on some nasty folk trading illegal immigrant children). They simply bring joy and happiness to my life and I’m sure if you read them they will to yours too.