I never met Andrea Camilleri, and I have no link whatsoever to the Italian author, but his death deeply saddens me (it’s a small comfort that he had a good innings, he was 93). Strangely, it feels as if there is something more to this sadness than a simple reader response to losing a favourite author. I can’t explain that because, paradoxically, I’m not one for heroes, but then Camilleri was a rare man. He was a literary and media legend in his home country and an inspiration to more than one generation of writers and readers around the world. Camilleri was an integral part of the post-WWII intellectual life of Italy. ‘If you could invite anybody to dinner, who would you invite?’ Camilleri would be one of my guests. When I saw an interview he gave on the TV a few years ago, as an octogenarian, he charmed both the audience and the presenter, but his sharpness of mind was the thing that stood out the most.
Camilleri was born in Porto Empedocle, Sicily, in 1925. He studied literature and then dramatic arts and film direction between 1944 and 1950. He was already publishing poetry and short stories. Camilleri began directing plays, he loved Beckett and Pirandello, and he maintained a lifelong link to the theatre, writing several books on the subject. Camilleri went on to work in TV and took up a teaching post at his alma mater, the Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica. He wrote his first novel, The Way Things Go, in 1978, although it and the follow up were not very successful. After a twelve-year absence he returned to novels with The Hunting Season in 1992, a comic historical novel set in Sicily that became a bestseller. In 1994, the first Montalbano mystery, The Shape of Water, was published, and it was a great success. Several of his books received awards, including 2012’s The Potter’s Field which won the CWA International Dagger. In later life, Camilleri moved to Rome where he continued to work in TV and theatre direction. Camilleri suffered a heart attack in June this year and died on 17th July. RIP.
Most people will know Camilleri from the Montalbano crime novels. Vigàta is a fictional version of his hometown and his irascible, often selfish, detective is one of the great crime fiction creations. The witty but pointed stories, often based on real events and cases, crossed reading tastes. All the way from cosy crime to noir. Camilleri’s love of Sicily, his homeland, the people, the culture and the food come across in all his fiction. As does his hatred of fascism, corruption, the mafia and incompetent government. The mafia are rarely the focus of any of his Montalbano books, he didn’t want to give them the oxygen of publicity. They are, however, clearly behind a lot of what is wrong with society in his novels. A passion for truth and justice shines out in Camilleri’s work. The mysteries feature several memorable characters, long-suffering girlfriend, Livia, lothario Mimi Augello, Fazio and switchboard operator and police gatekeeper ‘Cat’ Catarella. The Sicilian/Italian language divide forms part of the humour of the books. The Montalbano series is published by Mantle in the UK, The twenty-fourth novel in the series, The Other End of the Line, is due out on 5th September. Apparently in anticipation of his death, Camilleri wrote a final ‘end of’ Montalbano novel, which has been locked away with a notary since 2002. There are still three more to be translated into English before that.
My personal favourites include The Terracotta Dog, The Voice of the Violin, The Paper Moon, and The Pyramid of Mud.
Several of Camilleri’s historical novels have also been published in English, including The Brewer of Preston (Penguin) and more recently The Revolution of the Moon, The Sacco Gang and The Sect of Angels (Europa Editions). These novels are also based in Sicily and they demonstrate a deep understanding of the island and its people. Again, the tone is humorous and light but there is always a serious point, an insightful analysis of class, poverty, custom and character. Other books on political themes and theatre make up a wide ranging and extensive body of work. Camilleri was also a media icon and radio personality.
I first caught up with Camilleri’s detective novels twenty years ago. A particular scene where Montalbano takes on a sensitive case and receives a barrage of phone calls from interested parties (the commissioner, the bishop, etc), all not wanting to interfere but . . . hooked me, I scooped up all the published novels and I haven’t missed one since.
My admiration for the writer was reinforced in a recent interview with Lorenzo Tondo (published in The Guardian, 5/4/19), in which Camilleri expresses his vehement disapproval of the right-wing populist coalition ruling Italy. He has a particular dislike of Matteo Salvini, the far-right Interior Minster, a man who reminds him of the fascists of the 1930s (a time he lived through):
“I don’t believe in God, but if there is a Judgement Day, those like him will certainly end up in hell for their hypocrisy.”
One last thought, author Simonetta Agnello Hornby’s not mine, ‘He should have been put forward for the Nobel Prize.’