Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Sicilian crime farce

I expect there are not many readers who have wondered what a crime novel by Ronald Firbank might have been like. Much less a Mafia vendetta à la Firbank. But in Ottavio Cappelani's newly translated (by Frederika Randall) Sicilian Tragedee, that's pretty much what you get. The new novel is more coherent than Ottaviani's previous, funny, violent Who Is Lou Sciortino, but with the same large and diverse cast of characters drawn from 21st century Catania, a not-quite-post-Mafia realm full of not only Mafiosi but also lots of gay men, jealous wives, marriageable daughters, and scheming bureaucrats. If you aren't familiar with Firbank, he's definitely an acquired taste: brittle, fey comedy full of absurdity and esoteric wit, from the 1920s, with sparklingly silly dialogue and plots that are at once extremely simple and almost opaque. What Ottaviani's prose shares with Firbanks is the funny, theatrical dialogue interspersed with oblique narrative and description. What Ottaviani adds to Firbank is one of the funniest murders in recorded (literary) history, plus a lampoon of Romeo & Juliet that circles around (and around and around) a codpiece joke, a lot of Mafia scheming, a lot of which is actually good old-fashioned matchmaking between rival families (Romeo being in this case one mafioso and Juliet the daughter of another). The book takes a while to get going, partly because of the oblique quality of the writing (cinematic in some ways, one reviewer likened the text to a screenplay). But about halfway through, once your ear is attuned and things start to get rolling, the weird and violent comedy becomes compelling in its own odd way. This book may not be for every reader of crime fiction (and it's definitely not noir), but it's definitely something different. Following Ottaviani's characters (gay and straight, mobsters and schemers) down their strange (but also very familiar) paths and you'll get is a very funny, crude, sophisticated, Firbankian ride.

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