Grit and wit

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Andrea Camilleri The Shape of Water
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Picador 2005 (1994)

Truth is like water poured into a vase or a glass, a cup or a bucket: just as water takes its shape from its container, truth can be just as malleable, depending on one’s point of view. Camilleri’s The Shape of Water presents just such a conundrum: a corpse is discovered and though it soon becomes clear the deceased died from natural causes all is not as it seems, with Commissario Montalbano suspecting foul play when circumstantial evidence suggests things don’t add up.

The first in the Inspector Montalbano series set the bar high when it was first published two decades ago. The Sicilian detective is an idiosyncratic crime fighter who bends the rules if it’s necessary to arrive at the truth. Unlike the costumed heroes of comic books, however, he relies on intellect and logic rather than fists and superpowers to accomplish it, and with the corruption and violence that is still synonymous with Sicily it’s easy to believe that the ends justifies the means, even if his longtime girlfriend Livia thinks that he is behaving like a tinpot god.

Along the way we meet a succession of vivid characters, from an indulgent commissioner to a Swedish bombshell, from his boyhood friend who is now a pimp to the upright widow of the deceased. Several individuals we even get to meet again in subsequent novels, but they already seem to spring fully formed from these pages. Above all, you may start to care for the Inspector himself despite his irascibility; he is at heart a decent man who cares for the deserving, who does his best to redress the balance when criminals profit from their activities and who loves his job.

The Shape of Water is well plotted, ensnaring the reader in its twists and turns but playing absolutely fair. Even though the majority of places mentioned are fictional there is a good sense of landscape, a feeling of Sicily as ‘other’ than the rest of Italy. There are snatches of local dialect words (even in this translation), references to local cuisine, an underlying suspicion of layers of national government and policing that are ignorant and careless of the island’s particular identity.

And yet, for all Montalbano’s contentment with working in a backwater, he is (like his creator) well-read, cultured and intelligent. Yes, he may use foul language to match the bravado of his colleagues, but he remains faithful to his girlfriend, hates violence and enjoys his gastronomic pleasures. There are moments of unpleasantness (much of it related secondhand) but also of humour and humanity. You can see why the novels became popular in Italy, evolving into successful TV programmes and now, several series on, being enjoyed abroad even in English-speaking countries: its judicious mix of grit and wit is attractive even for those, like me, who are not out-and-out fans of crime novels.

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12 thoughts on “Grit and wit

  1. Camilleri with Montalbano is at his best. He is an amazing writer, but I’ve always wandered how it sounded translated into another language as he writes in Sicilian. However, Montalbano won’t be that faithful in the most recent novels. I loved you wrote about it, actually I was planning a post. 🙂

  2. I’m very much looking forward to your own comments on the books. A review of the second novel will appear here tomorrow.

    In the UK we’re almost up to date with the tv episodes and have even enjoyed, to our surprise, one series of The Young Montalbano. And we know he eventually does succumb to temptation with other women (who seem to rather throw themselves at him) but he does remain faithful to Livia for a long time — even if his job, as always, comes first.

    1. Zingaretti is a great Montalbano, even if he is from Rome, he well embodied the true Sicilian spirit. However, I must check the English translation……. Catarella speaking English!! He hardly speaks Italian 🙂

      1. It’s great watching subtitles — you pick up the gist of what’s about to be said moments before and then get a chance to brush up on language listening skills straight away, even if what Catarella says makes little sense in any language!

        My wife sometimes calls me Salvo — I also shave my head while retaining face stubble — but I sadly have little of Luca’s charisma or stage presence…

  3. I love Camilleri’s books, I think he creates a good sense of place, great characterisation and there is wit and humour. I once saw an interview with him, and he didn’t look at all the person who could create such books, and well done for writing so well in his 80s!

    1. Yes, more power to his writer’s elbow, whatever his chronological age!
      I certainly agree with what you say about the attractiveness of his writing.

      I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the Sartarelli translation, but it must be hard to convey dialect in the medium of another language; however, I think putting Catarella’s dialogue in what to my untutored eye and ear sounds like New York city speech doesn’t always work for me, but I have no suggestions for a suitable solution to that dilemma.

  4. I am really glad I read this post- and this series sound great – I look forward to checking them out.
    favorite part (that really stirred my interest):
    “…he is (like his creator) well-read, cultured and intelligent. Yes, he may use foul language to match the bravado of his colleagues, but he remains faithful to his girlfriend, hates violence and enjoys his gastronomic pleasures….”
    🙂

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