Tuesday, July 10, 2012

THE SHAPE OF WATER by Andrea Camilleri

Thanks, whoever you are who got me started reading British-born author Michael Dibdin's 11 books about Venetian-born detective Aurelio Zen. And thanks to all of you who advised me to plunge into American-born author Donna Leon's 21 (and counting) books about Venetian-born police commissioner Guido Brunetti. I love both series (you can read my comparison here).

But alas, Dibdin died in 2007. Leon, though apparently in good health, writes only a book or so a year, and I'm gaining on her. What series will I read next? I wondered aloud to my Italian friend Sharon. "How about one by a Sicilian-born author about a Sicilian detective?" she suggested. "Have you heard of Andrea Camilleri?"

I hadn't, and I'm suspicious of translations. But now that I've read Camilleri's first book featuring Inspector Montalbano, The Shape of Water, I believe I've found my next fixation. Booklist's summary is right on:
Salvo Montalbano, police inspector in the small Sicilian town of Vigata, has a potentially explosive case on his plate: a local politician has been found dead in his car, apparently the victim of a heart attack. The position of the politician's pants (around his ankles) and the location of the car (parked in an abandoned field where prostitutes ply their trade) suggest that the victim may have died in flagrante delicto. Higher-ups want the embarrassing case closed quickly, but Montalbano smells a setup. Unlike many European cops dealing with the horrors of modernity, Montalbano is no melancholic brooder; rather, he puts a comic face on the noir world, sorting through multiple layers of corruption Sicilian style while still finding time to enjoy a good lunch. 
Montalbano's lunches aren't quite as good as the meals prepared by Commissario Brunetti's wife, Paola--the Sicilian detective, wifeless, has to heat up the food the housekeeper leaves for him. But a quick dish of boiled shrimp with pasta, garlic, and oil isn't half bad, and the "multiple layers of corruption Sicilian style" are downright delicious (if you don't happen to live in Sicily).

Will Montalbano be able to figure out what actually happened to the dead politician, and why certain schemers are likely to benefit from his flamboyant death scene? The politician's widow gives the inspector a challenge:
"That is up to you to discover, if you so desire. Or else you can stop at the shape they've given the water."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand."

"[When I was a child,] I had a little friend, a peasant boy, who was younger than me. I was about ten. One day I saw that my friend had put a bowl, a cup, a teapot, and a square milk carton on the edge of a well, had filled them all with water, and was looking at them attentively.

"'What are you doing?' I asked him. And he answered me with a question in turn.

"'What shape is water?'

"'Water doesn't have any shape!' I said, laughing. 'It takes the shape you give it.'"
I needn't have worried about reading a translation. Stephen Sartarelli is a poet and translator of poets, and his diction in The Shape of Water is simple, idiomatic, and elegant.

And fortunately, I'm not going to run out of Montalbano books anytime soon. Camilleri, now in his late 80s, is still writing. The Age of Doubt, the English version of the 14th Montalbano novel, was published in May 2012, four years after the original Italian edition, L'Età del dubbio. Since 2008, Camilleri has published at least five more Montalbano novels in Italian, plus several collections of short stories. Those of us who like our detective stories served up with humor, cynicism, and la cucina italiana can expect this feast to continue.

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