In 2014, Italian writer Andrea Camilleri received the ninth Premi Pepe Carvalho, an annual award that was set up by Barcelona city council to honour the life’s work of a crime novelist. It was no ordinary prize or visit. The late Paco Camarasa, co-proprietor of Negra i criminal, the crime novel bookshop in the Catalan capital’s Barceloneta neighbourhood (2002-2015), founder of the annual BCNegra festival in 2005 and its curator till 2017, had been hassling Camilleri to come for years. Camilleri couldn’t: old and ailing, he only ever travelled from his Rome apartment to visit his native Sicily once a year.
Finally, the literary maestro made one exception. In February 2014, he came to Barcelona and received the Premi Carvalho in an emotional ceremony in the Saló del Cent. There is a well-known photograph that shows Camarasa and Camilleri together in a packed Sala Barts the following day, celebrating their continuing desire to change an unjust world.
The reason why Camilleri finally came to Barcelona was clear: he gave his protagonist the name Salvo Montalbano as a way of paying homage to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, the creator of the fictional private detective Pepe Carvalho. He explained: “Why did I like [Montalbán’s novel] Murder in the Central Committee so much? Because the detective puzzle matched the portrait of a society examined critically.”
Technical and political synthesis
The jury for the Carvalho Prize pinpointed the qualities of the two novelists and their detectives:
Andrea Camilleri is today a genuine representative of the Mediterranean crime novel. Montalbano and Carvalho are characters full of vitality, temptations and contradictions, who prefer the street to the office, looking and speaking to advances in computer technology. Yet both are stubborn and persistent in the search for justice, over and above the details of the law. The two need to know the truth and make us part of this struggle to create a world where the powerful are not above the law.
Though a policeman, Montalbano is an outsider, always prepared to risk his job to achieve justice. Unlike the tormented Northern cops such as Ian Rankin’s Rebus or Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, Montalbano is not a lonely, divorced alcoholic, tottering on the precipice of self-destruction, driven by his inner demons and the pressures of seeking justice in an unjust society. Rather, he goes swimming instead of drinking. He plots comic revenge on his tormentors rather than turning anguish inwards. And he sits on a tiled terrace in the sun with a glass of wine and sea-food delights, rather than booze in filthy pubs and eat junk food. He handles the anguish, the pressure, better by turning it back on those in power, the real crooks.
There is a lot of farce in Camilleri’s books. The endearing, incompetent Catarella is a constant source of pleasure. An example of Camilleri’s wild humour: in The Scent of the Night, Montalbano stops his car for a rest at a favourite spot and is outraged to find that the new owner of the neighbouring bungalow has chopped down the olive tree whose shade he loved to sit under. In a fit of rage at the vandal against Nature, he smashes the various vulgar statues and the windows of the bungalow with a sledgehammer and sprays ’arsehole’ on all four walls with green paint. Understandably, first thing next morning, the enraged owner is down at the police station. Inspector Montalbano has to keep a straight face and sympathise with the victim of such appalling vandalism. Later, his colleague Fazio offers to buy him a new shirt. What? Why? says Montalbano. “Because one of your cuffs is stained with... green paint.”
Rounding the Mark is a good example of the political explicitness of the 27 Montalbano novels. Camilleri places the story at a very specific time: the return of Berlusconi to power. It is July 2001 and the rioting police have just killed Carlo Giuliani during the anti-G8 demonstrations in Genoa. The police also planted evidence to justify their infamous raid on the school where demonstrators were sleeping. It is one of the key moments of the anti-globalisation movement, when Berlusconi’s government, supported by the rest of the G8, took deliberate steps to intimidate all opposition.
After hearing this news, Montalbano had sat there in his armchair for a good half-hour, unable to think, shaking with rage and shame, drenched in sweat… his Genoese colleagues had committed an illegal action on the sly, a coldly calculated vendetta, fabricating evidence into the bargain, the sort of thing that brought to mind long-buried episodes of the Fascist police…
Montalbano feels ashamed to be a policeman representing this abuse of power. Camilleri’s laughter and lightness of touch mean he can land some powerful political punches.
Montalbano is watching TV in the preceding quote and television plays a greater part in Camilleri’s novels than in most crime books. Montalbano uses a sympathetic contact on one channel to combat the prurient lies of the right-wing channel. In Rounding the Mark, a passionate defence of the right to migrate, to move freely, this latter channel raves against “the uncontrollable hordes of desperate, lawless people who daily land on our shores”. Camilleri is seeking to educate his readers to be critical of the government-controlled media. The enormous farce of Berlusconi is real and dangerous.
Forcing history’s hinges back on themselves
Anguish stalks farce in the novel, Rounding the Mark. Montalbano makes the mistake of returning a child to his ’mother’: the woman is not actually his mother and the child is later murdered. Montalbano’s friend the journalist asks him why he’s so upset about a missing boy. Salvo replies that when his father emigrated to go and work in Stuttgart, he encountered notices that proclaimed: “Dogs and Sicilians prohibited”. Salvo understands that the African migrants landing in Sicily are just like his father in Germany a generation earlier. It is the children, in particular, the hundreds of parentless children who arrive that Montalbano feels for. The journalist explains to him that these lost children have “great commercial value.” The lucky ones are sold into adoption or for begging. The less lucky are sold to paedophiles or for the use of their organs.
Camilleri tells a story of a church Montalbano had encountered many years before, whose door hinges were twisted back. A local man told Salvo why: the Nazis had locked everyone inside the church and began to throw grenades in through the windows. “The people inside, in their desperation, had forced the door to open in the opposite direction, and many had managed to escape”. Now, Montalbano reflects, “those people flooding in from all the poorest, most devastated parts of the world were strong enough and desperate enough to turn history’s hinges back on themselves.”
The collective strength of migrants is capable of defeating racist government laws and police control. Camilleri’s optimism of the spirit believed that mass movements from below can defeat the capitalist powers.
Montalbano, the key to success
Few people knew much about Camilleri until his first Inspector Montalbano book, The Shape of Water, was published in 1994. The book wasn’t his first novel, but several he’d published before had only achieved moderate success. However, by the time of his death he had gone on to write 27 Montalbano novels, rising at 6am every day, and some 100 books in all. In 1999, he had five books occupying the first five places on the list of best-selling books in Italy. Eventually, in his old age he became a household name, and Italy’s most popular writer.
Clinging to memory
Andrea Camilleri was born in Porto Empedocle, a coastal town in south-eastern Sicily and the Vigàta of his Montalbano novels, in 1925. He died in Rome on July 17 this year, aged 93. He worked till the end, dictating for his last 17 years to his secretary Valentina as glaucoma brought blindness. “You can’t fight darkness,” he said. “There’s nothing to be done. You have to cling to memory, going over the past”.
Camilleri was a member of the fascist youth in Mussolini’s times. In World War Two he became a Communist, which impeded him from entering the RAI (Italian radio and television) when it was founded in 1954. A few years later he did enter and for most of his working life he produced TV programmes and wrote scripts. It wasn’t till 1978 that he published his first novel. His master was his fellow-Sicilian, Leonardo Sciascia, who put Camilleri in contact with a publisher and whom Camilleri revered as a much greater writer for his dark and morbidly humorous stories analysing Sicilian life.
Many know Camilleri best through the Montalbano television series. Good as this is, evoking the Mediterranean, the smell of fresh fish, decaying villas and crumbling stone, the feel, the gestures, the food of Sicily and Camilleri’s group of policemen, the novels are still richer. Farce and slapstick purvey rage at injustice and power. Sciascia would be proud of his disciple’s achievements.