Endlessly endearing

Historical map of Sicily by Piri Reis (Public Domain)
Historical map of Sicily by Piri Reis, oriented to show north at top (public domain, Wikipedia)

Andrea Camilleri The Snack Thief
Il ladro del merendine (1996)
translated by Stephen Sartarelli (2003)
Picador 2004

Every time I pick up this or another Inspector Montalbano mystery I can’t help myself: I always hear the wonderful strains of Franco Piersanti’s tango, the signature tune to RAI’s popular TV series.

As a musician I love the quirky nature of this piece, the insistent dance rhythm, the melodic fragments promising but rarely delivering development, the dark chocolate of the double bass — Piersanti’s own instrument — counterpointing wind and upper string fragments. In a way, the cornucopia offered by this short opening credits sequence matches both Montalbano’s dependable unpredictability and his self-evident delight in the range of Sicilian cuisine. And of course the various themes, short as they are, are the counterparts of the several distinctive plot lines that are woven together in this and every Montalbano novel. Naturally Sicily, at a geographic crossroads in the Mediterranean, is full of cultural strands too, from prehistoric peoples, ancient Greeks and Romans, Iberians, North Africans.

A Tunisian shot dead on a Sicilian fishing boat at sea, a retired businessman knifed in a lift, youngsters plagued by a child who steals their snacks; for Commissario Salvo Montalbano these all appear to be unrelated incidents along the south coast of the Sicilian triangle. But as investigations continue all is not as it seems. Worse than that, there are further deaths along with dirty tricks played by government spooks, and Salvo and his long time girlfriend Livia find themselves becoming personally involved in cases where they should remain dispassionate. But this is the joy of Salvo: despite being a maverick policeman you know his heart is in the right place when all around there is the stench of corruption or the indifference of officialdom. Yes, he can be petty, bad-tempered, a liar, even an agent provocateur, but he also is big-hearted, generous, a committed fighter for justice and truth and a boss who gets well-deserved loyalty from his colleagues.

Building up behind Salvo’s championing of the underdog is the cloud that is a threatened promotion. He doesn’t want to move away from this backwater — he loves where he is by the sea, he works well with his colleagues, he earns respect for his humanity and for his success rate in solving crimes, above all he enjoys the local food — so why would he want to climb the greasy pole by beginning anew elsewhere? And yet the inevitable beckons, so how does author Andrea Camilleri, native of this same area, resolve this particular conundrum? Is there also a solution to Salvo’s resistance to marrying Livia, a resistance partly born of his own family history with the loss of a mother and alienation from a dying father?

In revealing Salvo’s humane instincts Camilleri also reveals his own. People are still people, especially those who have weaknesses and foibles. In an efficient organisation seeming incompetents like Catarella would have no role, nor even a job, and orphaned children would be shunted off to social services. But on people with no humanity Camilleri  bestows his most stinging contempt.

Stephen Sartarelli’s translation as always is sympathetic to the tone of Camilleri’s original, and there are the usual helpful notes at the back to help give Anglophones some background to a turn of phrase, a historical reference or a Sicilian pun. Just one thing causes this reader angst: while the TV series is largely faithful to the novels — the author’s close involvement certainly ensures that — I still have difficulties matching the forty-something swearing hirsute smoker of the books with the thirty-something shaven non-smoking inspector played by actor Luca Zingaretti.

But, regardless, both fictive commissari are endlessly endearing and, in addition, there are several more titles to come in which to get to know him even better. And several more reminders of Franco Piersanti’s musical earworm to transport me to sun-soaked Sicily…

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16 thoughts on “Endlessly endearing

  1. I love the books of Andrea Camilleri! I first came across them when I watched a TV programme on Italian crime novels. Camilleri was interviewed, and looked humourless….so I was amazed to see humour along with compassion in his books! Excellent, pacy books, keep you engaged as much for the characters as for the plot.

    1. Camilleri comes across as being as humourless as his hero, but the books certainly belie that notion. I’ve got a set of about a dozen of the Montalbano novels which I’m slowly working through, and am inspired by the tv repeats that BBC4 is currently showing, right from the start!

      Glad to have found yet another Salvo fan — I’ve also got a couple of Donna Leon Venetian mysteries still to enjoy, set at the other end of Italy.

        1. Have a read of ‘No justice in Giudecca?’ in the link under ‘Related’ above for a flavour of Leon’s novels. Inspector Brunetti is as engaging as Salvo, but in a different way of course — there’s only one Salvo!

  2. How I love the poetic words you used to describe the tune to the Commissario Montalbano opening sequence . I just had to play with them! Many apologies!

    insistent dance rhythm
    melodic fragments
    promising development
    rarely delivering

    double bass
    dark chocolate
    counterpointing wind
    and upper string

    Franco Piersanti’s Tango

  3. I’m so pleased to find others who are watching the Montalbano episodes for a second time. `i don’t think that there can be many of us. Of course Montalbano’s humanity is cheering and the Sicilian landscapes are wonderful but don’t you find the plots thin and predictable? I just wish they were better because I’m loving the series in spite of my better judgement.

    1. Oh, they’re not realistic in any sense, not least in that it’s implausible that so many nubile young women should throw themselves at him as the years and the episodes pass by. But like you I enjoy it in spite of the contrived plots and the almost pantomime acting.

  4. I adore the books and the TV series!!! And I’m even enjoying the Young Montalbano TV series which is trying to explain the back story although its not quite the same without Luca Zingaretti!! Great post, thanks!

    1. Thank you, Lizzie. As the young Montalbano Michele Riondino has captured some of the mannerisms that Luca Zingaretti brought to the role but the statures of many of the younger versions of the cast vary significantly from the established characters — for example, Alessio Vassallo, who plays the young Augello, seems shorter than Cesare Bocci, who towered over Zingaretti, and so on. But the charm is still there thanks to consistent directing and acting and, of course, Camilleri’s writing.

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