Saturday, February 03, 2007

Andrea Camilleri's humor

I stopped by Philadelphia's press club after a bad night of work at my newspaper this week (though "bad night of work at my newspaper" is a pleonasm – unless one works there during the day). An acquaintance of mine from Italy's Lazio region sat at the bar chatting with two friends who the bartender told me were from Rome.

I understand enough Italian to pick out a word here and there and even to follow the thread of a conversation if I concentrate hard enough, which I could not do because a vacuous blowhard with an extremely loud voice sat across the bar from the Romans commiserating with his female friend about cruise ships and Jamaica.

Not only did he hear what she was saying, but he knew where she was coming from. If he had decided to not even go there, I would have slapped a twenty-dollar bill on the bar, ordered him to shut up, and paid for their drinks and their taxi home.

What does this have to do with Andrea Camilleri and his protagonist, the unparalleled Inspector Salvo Montalbano? Montalbano also hates clichés and psychobabbling banality. Here's Montalbano on the phone with his lover, Livia, in The Smell of the Night (titled The Scent of the Night for delicate-nosed U.K. readers):

"`Come on Livia, don't get upset, try to be patient.'

"`You would try the patience of a saint!'

"Oh, God, not another cliche! Sow your wild oats, count your chickens before they hatch, or eat like a horse, when you're not putting the cart first!

"He realized he couldn't put up with this conversation much longer. Aside from the clichés and stock phrases, he couldn't stand the sallies of cheap psychoanalysis that Livia all too often liked to indulge in -- the kind of stuff you get in American movies ... "
This by itself would be good enough to make Montalbano an enjoyable version of the gruff but loveable old uncle. But what follows elevates him to something like a great comic creation. As he and Livia argue, parry, thrust, and make plans, Montalbano muses upon their strange contentiousness of their phone conversations:

"The best of it was that this animosity remained independent of the unshakable intensity of their relationship. But then why, when talking on the phone, did they quarrel, on average, at least once every four sentences? Maybe, thought the inspector, it was an effect of the distance between them becoming less and less tolerable with each passing day, since as we grow old ... we feel ever more keenly the need to have the person we love beside us."
That's lovely, I think, an aching and tender insight, and its resonance grows when one reflects that Camilleri was about eighty years old when the novel was published in 2005. But the scene gets better:

"As he was reasoning along these lines (and he liked this line of reasoning, as it was reassuring and banal, like the sayings one finds on the little slip of paper inside Baci Perugina chocolates) ..."
Bellissimo! What a perfect topper! Montalbano is irritable, Montalbano is wistful, and Montalbano slips with comfort into banalities just as bad as those he finds so maddening in Livia. What a perfect little parable of human relations! Has anyone written about love with such tenderness and humorous understanding?

(For more rhapsodizing about Andrea Camilleri and Salvo Montalbano, read Uriah Robinson, the King of Camilleri, on his Crime Scraps blog.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007Technorati tags:

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Blogger sauron said...

Grande Peter!!
Io amo molto Camilleri e ho letto quasi tutti i suoi libri; quelli che ho apprezzato di più sono questi:
- La presa di Macallè
- Il birraio di Preston
- Il re di Girgenti
- La concessione del telefono
- La mossa del cavallo
- Privo di titolo

Inoltre, come Camilleri, sono siciliano anch'io!!

A presto

February 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Grazie da sua raccomandazione! Ecco sono i romanzi Montalbano disponibili in inglese:

1. The Shape of Water (2002)
2. The Terra-Cotta Dog (2002)
3. The Snack Thief (2003)
4. Voice of the Violin (2003)
5. The Excursion To Tindari (2005)
6. The Smell of the Night (2005)
aka The Scent of the Night
7. Rounding the Mark (2006)

Io devo aspettare traduzioni degli altri romanzi -- oppure apprendere molto meglio italiano!

Lei e siciliano? L'anno passato, ho letto qualche romanzi del grande Leonardo Sciascia.

February 03, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Grazie for the coronation.

February 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

N.B. Later in the novel, Montalbano and two assistants are sharing theories on a killing, and one of the assistants makes a good guesss, to which Montalbano replies "You hit the nail on the head." Is that another sly dig on Camilleri's part, having Montalbano lapse into a cliche?

February 03, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Peter,
in my site you'll find my post in few time about 'Le ali della sfinge', the last book of Camilleri. It is the first book of this author that i have read. That's incredible! Camilleri in Italy is very popular because there is a beautiful fiction based on Montalbano. In my post i explain why i have read in late this author.
Camilleri writes in sicilian language and i believe that is very difficult translate it in english. Camilleri's books are editing by Sellerio. Sellerio has got a catalogue very various and interesting. For example, Sellerio has published some of Carlo Lucarelli' books, one of the most important author of italian noir. And sellerio has in catalogue Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett.
I agree with you about your description of Montalbano's personality.
Ciao, Andrea

February 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment. I'll go look for your post now.

I was interested in your comment about Camilleri's Sicilian language. My post is about how Montalbano grows frustrated because Livia speaks in cliches -- and then he reveals that he likes cliches himself. The English translation uses real English cliches. I would be curious to see what expressions Camilleri uses in the original. That must be a difficult task for a translator -- how to translate idiomatic expressions.

"Uriah Robinson," who writes about Andrea Camilleri on his blog Crime Scraps at, also likes Carlo Lucarelli.

I started to read one of Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett's books, but I did not like the English translation. I should look for discussions about her to see if anyone else had the same problem.

February 03, 2007  
Blogger sauron said...

Yes Peter. I'm sicilian and of course I know Leonardo Sciascia.
Reed here:

February 04, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, sauron. I left a comment on your post about Leonardo Sciascia, and I printed out a copy of the post. It will be a pleasant lesson in Italian for me to read about this brilliant writer.

February 04, 2007  
Blogger chemcookit said...

Dear Peter,
I found your blog thanks to Simona's Briciole. How nice! I'm delighted to see Montalbano loved by non-Italian readers. And, I agree with Andrea, Sicilian is not exactly like Italian. My boyfriend speaks Italian pretty well but I didn't dare giving him a Montalbano in Italian yet. Still, I think if you really wanted to enjoy it thoroughly, it would be wonderful if you could hear a Sicilian person read it for you. Or maybe you could find some DVD of the fictions inspired to the books, with English subtitles? They don't have the poetry of the books, but you can enjoy the way they speak :)

January 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, and welcome. A cable television station in Washington has shown some of the Montalbano television programs, and I think the programs may become available on DVD soon. I agree that it would be nice to hear the characters speak. I have travelled in Italy from Milan and Venice in the north to Naples in the south, but not yet to Sicily.

Many people in my neighborhood are of Italian descent, and sometimes I hear the old people speaking a dialect I don't recognize. My guess would be that they are speaking Sicilian.

January 28, 2008  

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