It’s been a very busy Summer so far for us all at CLC HQ! For our next theme on ‘Countries and Continents’ we are looking at the continent of Europe and the beautiful country of Italy which has such a rich variety of culture. For the first blog post I will be looking at the stories of Inspector Montalbano by Andrea Camilleri and the common themes that are found throughout this body of work. The series of books has been adapted into an excellent series of television episodes (which I’ve no doubt mentioned before!). Camilleri apparently wrote the last novel before he finished some of the other final stories and I’m really excited to find out what the overall grand finale will be!
The Montalbano stories can be largely split into ‘micro narratives’ (those that involve personal stories relating to a family or small community) and the ‘macro narratives’ (the stories that are much larger and involve wider criminal activities such as the Mafia, drugs, other countries and people trafficking etc). Across both kinds of narrative we can see common themes that can be used to bind the overarching story together.
The Inspector Montalbano books are set in the beautiful island of Sicily where my friend Yvonne has been lucky enough to spend the Summer! The sea is of course ever present in the Montalbano stories; he lives in the seaside town of Marinella and had a gorgeous flat that looks right out onto a beach where he regularly dines al fresco. The sea itself is a dual signifier of peacefulness and respite but also represents threat. Montalbano regularly swims in the sea to exercise, ease his frustrations and think about his cases but the sea is also threatening not so much in the case of storms but from criminal activity and access. Criminals in the stories frequently use the sea in the stories to access the land whether in the form of smuggling drugs (or people) or to hide murdered bodies. The ever lurking threat of the sea is particularly featured in some of the more bigger complex cases involving the Mafia. The sea is used to transport refugees from north Africa as seen in the pivotal tale The Snack Thief (Inspector Montalbano mysteries) The Age of Doubt (Inspector Montalbano mysteries) and Rounding the Mark (Inspector Montalbano Mysteries) are also good examples of stories that heavily feature the sea.
What’s great about the Montalbano stories is that Camilleri has stated that he believes that the Mafia should not be glamorised like they are in the American gangster films but that they should be represented more accurately. Camilleri wanted to provide a more realistic representation of the mafia in Sicily which is the fact that they are ever present behind the scenes in everyday life. The mafia have infiltrated many of the bureaucratic processes in Sicily and are as present in paperwork as they are in more exciting criminal activities. In Montalbano’s world the two local Mafia families are the Sinagras and the Cuffaros. There is a contrast between the more ruthless younger members of these clans and the elder ones who stick to a more traditional code of honour. When Montalbano deals with the elder ones or their representatives the conversation often takes the form of an allegorical tale which needs to be deciphered. An example of some of the stories in which the Mafia feature are The Dance Of The Seagull (Inspector Montalbano mysteries) The Potter’s Field (Inspector Montalbano Mysteries) and Excursion to Tindari (Inspector Montalbano Mysteries)
Food is a huge part of the stories and features in every one! Italy has a rich history of fine cuisine and in the region of Sicily as it is an island the speciality foods are mainly seafood based which Montalbano adores. Sicily is also known for special regional delicacies such as cakes and sweets. Montalbano relies on his housekeeper Adelina to cook him delicious food which he savours. A common signifier (especially on the television programmes) is for Montalbano to begin to it down to eat his delicious dinner and then the phone always rings! When you see him sit down to eat food at his house you know that he will soon be interrupted! Montalbano is also very particular about what he sees as the scared ritual of eating so when dines in company he always states that he likes to eat without talking but instead talk afterwards. Calogero’s restaurant was his favourite lunch spot at the start of the series but when Calogero retires he discovers Enzo’s a seafood trattoria with a beautiful seafront view!
Camilleri was a theatre director before he began the Montalbano stories and this influence can mainly be seen in the Commedia Dell’arte theatre tradition that has been updated and transferred into the Montalbano stories, mostly to add moments of comedy. The Commedia Dell’arte was a traditional early form Italian theatre that combined comedy, pantomime and stock characters in a variety of different stories. In the Montalbano stories we have the figure of Catarella who is representative of the commedia clown, the ‘lazzi’ foolish figure who uses physical theatre to provide comic moments to the narrative. This can be seen throughout the various stories when Catarella slips on Montalbano’s door and frequently mispronounces names of callers to the police station (which is a problem when he is the main one manning the switchboard!). Montalbano at first is quite angry with Catarella but as he ages he finds himself growing fond of him. Catarella also at times helps Montalbano solve actual cases! Another figure perhaps lifted from the Commedia Dell’Arte is Mimi Augello, Montalbano’s deputy who is a total lothario and often ends up in scrapes due to his bed-hopping nature! The Commedia Dell’arte also contains the stock figures of the lovers or the ‘innamorati’ who are characters in love who face obstacles from actually getting together permanently. This can be seen in the figures of Montalbano and his partner Livia (who lives far away in the northern Italian region of Genoa. Montalbano is also himself a figure of comedy at times mostly due to his paranoia about ageing and his ongoing mid-life crisis. An escalation of this crisis and issues with Livia can be seen in August Heat (Inspector Montalbano mysteries) and The Track of Sand (Inspector Montalbano Mysteries)
The regional media feature a number of times throughout the series of Montalbano stories. When the stories were first written, Silvio Berlusconi was the Centre Right Prime Minister of Italy and a powerful media tycoon. Camilleri is left leaning politically and during Berlusconi’s leadership you get the impression that this was a difficult time for those of a left leaning disposition. Berlusconi through his company Mediaset owned a number of national television channels which were often populist. The stories of Montalbano reference this despair that he feels through the antagonistic and popular TV channel Televigata which features an aggressive, opinionated presenter who personally dislikes Montalbano and frequently disparages him on television. The only ally that Montalbano has in the media is Zito a respected journalist on The Free Channel who helps him from time to time with appeals for his cases. Camilleri also uses real-life stories that he reads in newspapers to inspire some of his books. A series of unusual real-life robberies inspired the story of Angelica’s Smile (Inspector Montalbano Mysteries)
These are just a few of the common themes that appear throughout the Montalbano stories, but there are also many others! I highly recommend if you haven’t read or watched the Montalbano stories that you do so, then you may become as much of a fan as I am!