Monday, July 15, 2013

Fruttero & Lucentini: Il Palio delle contrade morte

This post continues my occasional series of reviews of Italian crime fiction not translated into English (as my Italian progresses to the point that I can read some of them). Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini are best know in the English-speaking world for two, books, The Sunday Woman (an excellent police procedural and social satire set in Torino) and The D. Case (which concerns a meta-fictional investigation and completion of Charles Dickens's unfinished detective story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood). One other book has been translated, as Enigma by the Sea, a sort of locked-room mystery that is also very good--though there are hints that a translation was at one time available for another book, Lovers of No Fixed Abode (a combination mystery novel, romance, and evocation of Venice). Il Palio delle Contrade Morte, though, is something different.

The book begins with a married couple from Milan, Enzo and Valeria, watching the famous Palio events in the center of Siena, but from separate balcomies and in the company of apparently intimate but recent acquaintances. One track of the novel follows their observations of the events leading up to the race and ultimately the race itself. The other track is a series of flashbacks explaining how the couple came to be here, and came to be on separate balconies.

Attempting to reach an agri-tourism farm owned by friends, the couple is diverted by a halestorm and their own nervousness and lack of definite directions into an aristocratic villa, whose denizens invite them to wait out the storm. They ultimately stay for three eventful days, in the company of seven Siennese: the elegant Guidobaldo (with whom Valeria is immediately impressed), the young and beautiful Ginevra (at first inattentive and then very attentive to Enzo), an older couple (or maybe not a couple), a jockey famous for his participation in the Palio, and two visitors from Rome (as well as an Asian couple and a couple of other servants and their families). The interactions among all these people are very entertaining, told in beautiful, breezy prose.

But there is a strange twist out of normality that begins with a shadowy creature biting Valeria on her rear in a perverse sexual assault, and it gradually becomes obvious that Enzo and Valeria have stumbled into a labyrinth of conspiracy, family rivalries, and the history of the Palio (including the Contrade--rival neighborhood guilds that participate in the race), and in particular, the six contrade banned since 1729 from participating in the race. The banishment of these groups is explained as being the result of either corruption among them or the political maneuvering of the rival groups.

The mysterious goings-on reach a height in a murder and an investigation that seems to lead nowhere. But the conclusion of the novel reveals less about who committed the murder than what the motives for the attack had been--motives that shift the novel out of the realm of either noir or romance and into a sort of ghost story.

The book might not satisfy the taste of a crime fiction purist, though it has all the elements, plus a bit of horror story and historical conspiracy (not quite Dan Brown, but veering a bit in that direction). But Il Palio... has several things going for it. Though it may not be Fruttero and Lucentini's best book, it still has their vibrant style and wit. For a non-native speaker of Italian, it is also mercifully short. And it reveals a lot of detail about Palio, without ever being didactic or attempting to be a tour guide. Instead, the authors use the hermetic environment of Siena and its famous race to explore the experience of an average couple, having some trouble in their marriage but nothing drastic (as there is nothing drastic in their lives, in fact) who are thrust into a realm of mystery, murder, romance, and even the gothic.

I won't give a spoiler here, but if anyone is interested, I can post a very short "spoiler post" with a sentence or two about how the novel (and the race) does (and doesn't, since there is not a neat tying-up-of-loose-pends) conclude.

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