Nineteen Shades of Montalbano


Let's play an association game.

Let's play an association game. Italy? Fine arts, fine dining, the Mafia. Mafia? New York City, The Godfather. Ah, the unfair advantages of geolocation! A fine storyteller, Mario Puzo was born in Hell's Kitchen, within striking distance of the hub of US publishing. Backed by Hollywood, he single-handedly relocated Italian crime writing to the US east coast. But the authentic Mafia remains Sicilian. And back home on the island Andrea Camilleri, now 87, has been working quietly to shift the limelight back from Little Italy to tutto Italiano shores.

Camilleri's Inspector Savio Montalbano polices the fictional town of Vigata on the Sicilian coast, which has the texture of small-town north India. The familiar petty politics manipulated by local potentates, a never-ending petty crime wave, small people leading tiny, charmingly beautiful lives in the midst of this craziness and arching over this landscape, the shadow of the Mafia, who murder each other over trifles. Montalbano lives alone in a house on the beach, looked after by a housekeeper whose sons he has put behind bars. His girlfriend fears that the housekeeper will poison him. Montalbano protests that there is no danger because this is how life is lived in Sicily.

The 19th Montalbano novel, Una Lama di Luce (A Ray of Light) is just out in Italian and the housekeeper still hasn't murdered him. We'll have to wait a while to read the book, however, because Camilleri's translator Stephen Sartarelli is lagging. As far as I know, the last four Montalbano novels remain untranslated. Translating Camilleri must be hard. He employs crime fiction as a vehicle to traverse the constantly shifting complexities of Italy's colourful politics as it fights the very forces that India faces ó inequality, corruption and organised crime. He uses Sicilian dialect freely, and dialect is notoriously hard to translate. In the first book, The Shape of Water (1994), he had mentioned the Sicilian verb tambasiare. An untranslatable form of dawdling, it means "poking about from room to room without a precise goal, preferably doing pointless things."

... contd.

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