Wednesday, June 10, 2009
The Father and the Foreigner, by Giancarlo De Cataldo, plus a note on Camilleri
Giancarlo De Cataldo is the author of the bestselling book "Crime Novel" from which the movie of the same name was made (and is also the editor of the excellent anthology of Italian crime writing, Crimini, reviewed here some time ago). Crime Novel is an epic, covering some years in the careers of a group of young men who take over the drug trade in Italy, and also covering some very eventful years in recent Italian history (the bombing of the Bologna train station, the kidnap/murder of Aldo Moro, etc.). The recently translated The Father and the Foreigner (published in the excellent Europa editions series and translated by Ann Goldstein) is a more intimate story rather than an epic like Crime Novel. It concerns the inner life of Diego, a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Justice in Rome, who is the father of a mentally handicapped boy. While waiting for his son at a physical therapy clinic, Diego meets Walid, a Middle-Eastern man whose even more severely handicapped son is also in physical therapy. The friendship becomes very important to Diego, who is experiencing the grief and difficulty of dealing with his son's handicap and also the strain that the experience is putting on his marriage. Walid not only gives Diego someone to talk to, he also provides a philosophical perspective on their common difficulty. But the friendship leads Diego further away from the normal world that he was already diverging from because of his son's needs and limitations. And then Walid asks a favor that puts Diego on the path to an "other" Rome he didn't know existed, a city of immigrants that is beyond Italian cafes and bars, beyond his family, beyond Christian religious ideas, and eventually beyond the law. In some ways The Father and the Foreigner is more a thriller, almost a spy thriller, than a crime novel. De Cataldo keeps his novel rooted in Diego's experience, even though the voice of the novel is in the third person. Diego's experience of "Crossing the frontier of normality" occurred first in his and his wife's realization that their son is not normal (and therefore the life of the family is not normal); in that sense he is already prepared for the wild ride that Walid pushes him toward, and the return at the end is a kind of reconciliation to the "new normal," as the expression goes. This is a much more intimate novel than Starnone's First Execution (also published by Europa editions and reviewed here recently). The focus has something in common with some of Massimo Carlotto's novels, with a perspective that is perhaps more humane and less political, and a style that resembles noir fiction more in tone than in plot. In an article for The Telegraph last year, De Cataldo says that "The Anglo-Saxon crime thrillers are all about the triumph and restoration of order,…of everything being resolved. By contrast, the modern Italian equivalent is about psychological and societal disorder; it's rooted in reality and maps the evil and corruption in politics and society, without offering resolution." That's true of The Father and the Foreigner, both in its portrait of "normal life" and society in Rome and also in its portrait of Diego's personal journey, and also true of the Italian crime fiction that I've read (and reviewed here). There's also an interesting interview with De Cataldo here, at The Rap Sheet, responds in a very interesting way to the interviewers' characterization of Andrea Camilleri as "a sort of cozy Italian Agatha Christie" with an alternative view of the Sicilian crime writer: "He is cunningly political, let’s say…Camilleri’s great merit was to set Italian writers and readers free. For the first time, they could enjoy great pop literature in a country where writing was traditionally divided into 'trash,' 'trivial,' and the 'grand masters.'” It's true that Camilleri is light and funny, and certainly popular and accessible. But the Montalbano novels are not only "cunningly political," they also provide cunning views of Sicilian life, of issues like ageing, and of human (especially family) interaction that are deeper and have wider scope than can be dismissed as "genre fiction" or characterized effectively by an Anglo-Saxon comparison. De Cataldo sets out to be darker in tone and intention in The Father and the Foreigner than does Camilleri in August Heat, but in spite of the light tone and stock characters (like Catarello) and comic situations, Camilleri does investigate the "psychological and societal disorder" rooted in a reality steeped in the "corruption in politics and society," and also "without offering resolution" as De Cataldo suggests of the best of Italian crime writing. One might prefer the lighter or the darker tone in one's reading, but I think Camilleri both fits the pattern De Cataldo lays out and also deserves serious consideration both for his comic and perhaps reassuring narrative and for the disturbing currents that are always near the surface of his stories.