When Andrea Camilleri died in 2018, at the ripe old age of 93, he left not a void but a full and rich attic, something that still nurtures the millions of readers who mourned his passing. His Inspector Montalbano series, presented thanks to the brilliant translations of Stephen Sartarelli, is one of those books that can be read several times and always provide the same pleasure. The bonus is to watch the TV series.
Camilleri began the first Inspector Montalbano novel at the age of 70, as an experiment that would presumably end with the first book. He was inspired by an essay on the rules of writing a detective novel by Leonardo Sciascia, but also by work alongside Diego Fabbri, who adapted Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels for television. At the same time, he took up the challenge of writing a detective novel based in Sicily, which Italo Calvino had declared impossible. He also wanted to take a break from writing his “historical novel”, The Preston Brewer. But it’s a classic example of the author’s creation taking over his life, something he had until now not believed in. Montalbano quickly became his alter ego and spokesperson in the two dozen or more books he ended up writing. The lack of space prevents me from writing everything I want. Besides, where would I start and where would I end?
There is, for example, his intertextual and allusive account in which we find Pirandello, Faulkner, James Joyce, Leonardo Sciascia and Manuel Vasquez-Montalban — in fact, the name of Camilleri’s detective, Salvo Montalbano, is a tribute to Montalban.
Camilleri is said to have invented his own language: what he used was Italian for formal conversations and the dialect for conversations between peers. Sartarelli’s use of cockney and mispronunciation where necessary is a stroke of genius. Ribald humor and wit season much of the narrative. Most of the comic relief, however, comes from Catarella’s persona, “poisonally in fish”, and her linguistic and cognitive disabilities. One of the many cases is when Catarella, in The terracotta dogasks his boss for the name of a medical specialist.
“Specialist in what, Cat?” »
Montalbano had looked at him speechless.
“Gonorrhea? You? When did you have that?”
“I first got it when I was still a little thing not yet six or seven years old.”
“What are you saying, Cat?” Are you sure you mean gonorrhea? »
“Absolutely. I’ve had it all my life, on and off. It’s here and gone, here and gone. Gonorrhea.”
On the serious side, Camilleri’s radical political views and his outspoken criticism of the Berlusconi government, which he saw as the legitimate offshoot of the fascist regime of the past, drew ire from the right, but he responded with flippant warnings , such as the note that appears at the end of The shape of water:
“I think it is essential to state that this story has not been drawn from criminal news and does not involve any real event. It is, in short, entirely in my imagination. But since these last years the reality has seemed to want to exceed the imagination, if not abolish it entirely, there may be some unpleasant coincidences of name and situation.As we know, however, one cannot be held responsible for the vagaries of chance.
A repressive regime breeds moral and emotional corruption, which affects all spheres of personal and social life. And it follows that the investigation of one crime exposes others that highlight the greed and cruelty that only humans are capable of; and consequently, to the divorce of sex and love. As Camilleri himself said, “I deliberately decided to smuggle into a detective novel a critical commentary on my time”.
Writing about the mafiosi is almost inevitable for a detective writer in Sicily. However, in Camilleri’s novels, the mafiosi play a secondary role, “…not because I fear them, but I believe that writing about mafiosi often makes them heroes… It’s a gift I don’t intend to give to the mafia. “
Above all, there is the protagonist himself. Characters and situations are revealed through his experience and his perceptions. Thus, we enter into his universe and share his affinities and his aversions, his sensitivity, his lack of professional ambitions and his acute sense of justice; his discomfort with the aging process but with vitality for life – and so much more. So I decided to limit myself to what seems to me to be the essential in Montalbano’s life: food and its pleasure. This is seen in all the novels, so I will select some excerpts from the first three novels, The shape of water, the terracotta dog and The snack thief.
Food is the counterpoint to the sadness of violent death, as there is a constant celebration of life in food. Overcooked pasta can create a dark mood in Montalbano, but reminiscing about the flavors of a tabisca can immediately lift your spirits. We wonder if he likes good food even more than Livia when he tries to dissuade her from coming to Vigata one day when he has been invited to dinner with the commissioner. Unable to dissuade her, he resigns himself, discouraged, to missing Signora Elisa’s cooking. His relief when he and Livia receive the invitation is palpable.
Montalbano’s heroes in these novels are Calogero and Tanino, and with them his governess, Adelina, and Signora Elisa, who leaves Montalbano speechless, looking like “a stray dog rewarded with a caress.” In describing the food, Camilleri reaches the heights of poetic fantasy:
… eight pieces of hake arrived … shouting their joy – to have been cooked as God intended them to be”. Good food demands respect and reverence, and silence during a meal is how it is paid for. Conversely, indifferent cooking arouses contempt in the same way as the rude taste of others:
Mimi proceeded to sprinkle a generous helping of Parmesan on her plate. Christ! Even a hyena, who being a hyena, feeds on carrion, would have been disgusted to see a dish of pasta with clam sauce covered with parmesan!
The greedy detective is an archetype: Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout, Maigret by Georges Simenon, Carvalho de Montalban being among the notables. But what sets Montalbano apart from Camilleri is his appreciation of the essential flavors of native Sicilian cuisine, delicate and seductive. Signora Elisa’s cuisine is described as follows: The supper was light, but cooked, in all respects, with a touch that the Lord very rarely grants to the Chosen.
In terms of taste, Montalbano is closer to Maigret than to Carvalho, “who gorged himself on dishes to set a shark’s belly on fire”. It’s true. Carvalho’s dish of fried aubergines baked with ham, prawns and cheese would probably have done just that for Montalbano himself. This does not mean that he has no taste for exoticism. Adelina gets a hug for her pasta con le sarde, which is spaghetti cooked with sardines, pine nuts and raisins, an indigenous Sicilian dish with North African influences, and purpi alla carretteraa Sicilian antipasto – “exquisite but deadly”.
Even on ordinary days, when Adelina has left food in the fridge for Montalbano’s dinner, the reader feels the same thrill of anticipation as he does: there may be cold pasta with olive oil, lemon and black olives, and a second dish of boiled prawns dressed in olive oil and lemon. As he breathes in their flavors, there is vicarious pleasure from the reader. When his friend Zito offers a parsley garnish, the reader nods. Then there’s Montalbano’s comfort food: potatoes and onions in equal proportion “long boiled” and seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil. Maybe a parsley garnish here too?
Most of what he likes consists of fresh fish and seafood, simply boiled and dressed to retain their flavors. Tanino, a former con artist reinventing himself as a chef in Mazara, is skilled enough to make Montalbano do a risky U-turn and take him back halfway to Vigata just to ask him how he cooked the striped red mullet served for lunch. The crab pasta he served for another lunch “was as graceful as a first rate ballerina, but the saffron sauce stuffed sea bass took his breath away, almost scared him”. However, Tanino’s masterpiece is something that resonates in our hearts:
Outraged at first when the second course arrives, which appears to be meatballs (“Meatballs are for dogs!”), Montalbano follows his companion, who then lets out a soft moan of ecstasy, and skeptically dares a first bite “…and with his tongue and his palate began the scientific analysis…. So: fish and, no doubt, onion, chilli, beaten eggs, salt, pepper, breadcrumbs. But two other flavors, hidden under the taste of the butter used in frying, had not yet answered the call. At the second bite, he recognized what had escaped him at the first: cumin and coriander.
“Koftas! he cried in astonishment.
During the long months of confinement during the pandemic, it was Inspector Montalbano who kept me sane and relatively unscathed. He always does.
Indranee Ghosh is the author of Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved; Recipes and Souvenirs from the Eastern Hills of India.
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