Monday, June 29, 2009
Blood Moon, by Garry Disher
Blood Moon, by Garry Disher, is another excellent novel in the Inspector Hal Challis/Sergeant Ellen Destry series (his legal central characters, as opposed to his criminal one, in the Wyatt series). At the end of the previous novel in the series, Chain of Evidence, Challis and Destry had fallen into bed together after years (and 3 previous novels) of dancing around their attraction to each other. In Blood Moon (the title refers to a lunar eclipse), they're dealing with some of the consequences of being a couple at home and colleagues at work. That's only one thread of this complex and satisfying novel, though. Disher is particularly good at giving what would be minor characters in another writer's hands a full and complex life. Scobie is a plodder, as a detective, but for that reason effective at detail work--and his wife has veered further into religious compulsion; Pam Murphy has been promoted to plainclothes CID work but is falling into a relationship with a shady new cop in the department; and so on, each thread of their private lives intertwined with the crime plots of the book. Vacationing school kids descending on the beach community of Waterloo, Victoria, which sounds like Panama City Florida at U.S. spring break, but the kids in Disher's story are younger. The chaplain of a private school is viciously attacked, and we follow the rather miserable life of a woman whose husband is a classic controller/abuser. We also meet venal bureaucrats and politicians, a racist blogger, religious fanatics, and "toolies" taking advantage of the "schoolies" on spring break. There has also been a series of sexual assaults (a thread that promises to recur in future novels due to complications in the professional lives of Challis and Destry, whose relationship is now public). The format of the police procedural is a perfect frame for such a complex story (Disher's "caper" novels with Wyatt at the center are much more straightforward). And as is typical with the procedural form, the mystery aspect of the story is not a puzzle but a process. what Disher brings to the form is a superior command of the material and a very evident appreciation for the individuality of the various characters. The crimes and the investigations proceed in zigzag fashion, so that the plot continues to be as engaging as the characters. Fortunately for readers in the U.S. we've almost caught up with Disher's production (Blood Moon was published here in the same year as its Australian publication), though there are still some Wyatt novels that haven't appeared here and are a bit hard to find without paying huge shipping fees. Maybe Disher's success (and accomplishments) will inspire a U.S. publisher (perhaps Soho, the premier U.S. publisher of non-U.S. crime novels and the publisher of the Challis/Destry novels here) to pick up the Wyatt novels...
Posted by Glenn Harper at 6:40 AM No comments:
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
K.O. Dahl's 3rd "Oslo Detectives" novel to arrive in English
K.O. Dahl's detective stories are distinguished by a couple of characteristic features. First, unlike most crime fiction, the narrative focus is split between a younger, fatter policeman, Frølich, and his older, thinner superior officer (with a strategic comb-over), Gunnarstranda. Another feature of the novels is that Dahl's stories are pure police procedural: The cops are constantly discussing what they've found out and going over possible theories of the crime, resulting in a kind of looping or spiralling structure with frequent repetition of facts. The Last Fix, the third of Dahl's novels to reach English (in Don Bartlett's translation), begins more like a cozy or puzzle mystery, with a 70-page long story about a recovering junkie who is attacked at her job and then feels obliged to attend a very unpleasant dinner party hosted by her therapist and the therapist's husband. As she escapes the party (and the husband's groping hands), her path leads to a murder (and to other murders later in the story). That 70-page tale and a 70-page coda (which includes a very unusual chase scene and the revelation of the murderer) frame a 425-page central section that is almost entirely concerned with Frølich and Gunnarstranda's investigation, which is mostly wheel-spinning with occasional lurches forward when a new fact is discovered. What saves that central section from getting bogged down or boring is the structure (short chapters with a lot of dialogue) and the personalities of the dyspeptic duo at the center of the story. Frølich and Gunnarstranda bicker constantly like an old married couple, though Gunnarstranda frequently pulls rank and drags Frølich into line. They are not brilliant investigators, mostly worrying the mystery like a dog with an old bone until something shakes loose--and the result is frequently quite funny. Though neither character is particularly likable or charming, they are both quite vivid, and they both have a determination and a moral sense that ultimately gives a social conscience to the story that is a common characteristic of the Scandinavian crime wave. Dahl's novels probably have more in common with Håkan Nesser's than most of the other translated Nordic crime fiction, except for the dual central character and the firm grounding in a very real Oslo (where Nesser's ensemble of detectives is, thus far in the translated novels, clearly centered on Van Veetern and the books are set in a hypothetical North European country). Both Dahl and Nesser include snappy and frequently snappish dialogue (on the part of both the police and the witnesses), and both adhere to the procedural method rather than the mystery or thriller. In Dahl, there is less of the "least likely suspect" and more of the twist and turn of new information typical of the pure procedural (in Nesser's books, the murderer is more likely to be someone the reader is familiar with, and in Dahl it can be a very peripheral character). Both have distinctive voices, and both have comic elements based in the characters' personalities. The final revelation of the plot of The Last Fix (and the explanation of the English title, more on that in a minute) is a bit strained, more poetic justice than naturalistic event, but by that point Frølich and Gunnarstranda know a lot more than they can prove about what has happened (it's not a forensic series, though there is a forensic specialist in the stories: they mostly learn what's going on by talking to people). The original title was En liten gyllen ring, which means "a little gold ring," and that is actually an image (and an object) that bridges the opening and closing sections (and provides the title for the long middle section). It's a better title for the book, but I guess Faber, the publisher, wanted a something that emphasized the drug culture that underlies the book's events (though not actually the main thrust of the story). The ring suggests the themes of love and desire (both of a sexual sort and of a more existential sort) that the story is really about. Dahl contrasts social interactions with the characters' personal aspirations: the two being frequently in conflict, leading to the violence on which the story relies. And filtering the themes of love, family, social ills, conflict, and desire through the dyspeptic duo of Frølich and Gunnarstranda is a brilliant device, grounding the big themes in daily life, in comedy, and in the slog of police work.
Posted by Glenn Harper at 9:46 AM 1 comment:
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Anthology of South African crime fiction
The new collection Bad Company, edited by Joanne Hichens and published by Pan Macmillan South Africa, gives us a sample of the excellent crime writing that has been bubbling up in that country for the past decade. Outside South Africa, we might know Deon Meyer and some of the classics (James McClure, Wessel Ebersohn) but we have little access to most of the writers collected by Hichens for this book. Here's hoping that Bad Company will get a wide enough circulation to change that situation: it certainly stands up to the best of international crime anthologies (such as the excellent City Noir series by Akashic Books). There's a wide variety of crime fiction here, from police procedurals to psychological thrillers, so there's something for everybody. My favorites are the ones in a more noir mode, but all of them are interesting, and Hichens provides an interesting introduction dealing with crime fiction and the reasons for its current boom in South Africa. Margie Orford leads off with a story featuring her series heroine Clare Hart (documentary film-maker and profiler--the first Clare Hart novel,reviewed here in a previous post, has recently been published in the U.K. and the second is coming out soon, I believe). The story is a chiseled, compact glimpse of a crime-ridden township, murder, and just a hint of hope. Deon Meyer's The Nostradamus Document is a fully realized police procedural with vivid characters, encompassing a full novel's worth of action and interaction in a fast-moving plot with an ending that is not quite a twist but more of a last minute save by the not-quite-straight central character, Detective Sergeant Fransman Dekker. There are several stories that twist back on someone engaged in a crime (such as the tales by Richard Kunzmann, Mike Nicol, Jassy Mackenzie, Hichens herself, Setswana writer Diale Tlholwe, and Zulu writer Meshack Masondo. Several explore extreme cases of social and psychological violence (as in stories by , particularly violence toward women. But there are also empowered women and women, like Orford's Hart, pushing back against the violence (in the case of Dirk Jordaan's story, pushing back in a rather extreme way). A story by the writing team know as Michael Stanley is more in the cozy genre (really more like a certain other writer using Botswana as a backdrop than are (so I've been told) "Stanley"'s novels featuring the same hippo-like policeman who puts in an appearance here). Several stories deal with the recently reported xenophobic violence in the country (such as the poetic story by Jane Taylor and Tim Keegan's study of the strained dynamics of family and race). Peter Church's The One is a tale about the conflict between justice and money, told in a fast and light tone, Andrew Brown's story investigates love and money a bit more darkly. Dark (very dark) tales by Michael Williams (the author of several Cape Town police procedurals) and Tracy Farren explore evil impulses. One of the best stories features private detective Nossel (also seen in Death in the New Republic, more available outside South Africa that the works of some of the other writers, but still not well enough known). Dison also deals with xenophobic violence: Nossel confronts the horror directly and concretely but also through Nossel's conscience and his own sheltered home life. The result demonstrates the great emotional power that a short story can have. If you can find Bad Company, it's a very good collection. Maybe if enough people clamor for it, Pan Macmillan will make it available as widely as it deserves.
Posted by Glenn Harper at 8:06 AM 2 comments:
Friday, June 12, 2009
Double Cross, by Tracy Gilpin (from South Africa)
Like Stieg Larsson in his Millennium trilogy, Tracy Gilpin in her Cape Town crime novel Double Cross makes reference to Pippi Longstocking. But unlike Larsson's young heroine, Gilpin's main character, Dunai Marks, in spite of being a single mother, is callow young woman who comes across as even younger than she is. The short novel has some suggestions of "young adult" fiction and some slight hint of romance fiction (the publisher, Black Star Crime, is evidently owned by Harlequin), but manages to achieve some credibility as a crime novel that is also something of a coming-of-age story. Dunai arrives at her job in an NGO/activist organization to find that her boss, Siobhan Craig, has been murdered. The overburdened police seem happy to dismiss the case as a burglary gone bad, and Dunai sets out on her own investigation--setting in motion what seems to be an "amateur detective" plot. But partway through that plot gets derailed by a global conspiracy, not toppling over into DaVinci Code territory, but almost. And right in the middle of the novel we get a political lecture that is interesting in its own right (dealing with questions of the justification of violence in the service of righting social wrongs, a major theme of the book), but the lecture interrupts the novel's forward motion. When we get moving again, the plot mixes the conspiracy, Dunai's investigation (along with a helpful private investigator who threatens to become Dunai's love interest in spite of her original antipathy to him), and various threats from several Cape Town lowlifes from both ends of the social spectrum. The story never quite settles down, and the conspiracy doesn't have much to do with the crime under investigation, but the theme of violence and revolution is interesting, and the local color in Cape Town is handled very well (Double Cross shows Cape Town more thoroughly, from the Cape Flats to the Company Gardens, from Robben Island to the Bo-Kaap neighborhood) than most other South African crime novels). The conspiracy is interesting in itself (spoiler alert!) dealing with a 1,500-year-old feminist religious heresy and political backlash, but the terrorism that the plot actually hinges on is elsewhere. And it seems to me that Gilpin loses an opportunity to link to historical feminist movements, like the Beguines, which might have given more of a conspiratorial hint of authenticity (as in some of Pynchon's stories or for that matter Dan Brown with his templars), as well as a bit of historical education for the reader--but I'm not one to tell a writer what to do, and Gilpin may have had good reasons for inventing her own feminist conspiracy (or for all I know her conspiracy may be based on a historical model, I just couldn't find it with a web search). There are hints at the end of the novel that Gilpin has in mind a continuation of this novel into a series, with Dunai joining forces with her friend the detective and also with further exploration of the links and conflicts between the conspiracy and the South African government--and I'd certainly happily follow these characters in their further adventures. Dunai has experienced some disappointments and some enlightenment regarding the realities and dangers of the world and it might be interesting to see how she progresses with further relvelations and experiences, much less the considerable opportunities for portraying crime in Cape Town and environs. Speaking of which, I'm moving on to the new anthology of South African crime writing, Bad Company (edited by Joanne Hichens and published by Pan Macmillan South Africa) which I've been looking forward to since first seeing it mentioned on the excellent Crime Beat blog at http://crimebeat.book.co.za/, dealing with the new South African wave of crime writers.
Posted by Glenn Harper at 11:49 AM 2 comments:
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.
Posted by Glenn Harper at 9:25 AM 1 comment:
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
August Heat, Andrea Camilleri
Karen at Eurocrime has already noted here that Andrea Camilleri pays homage to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in his newly translated (by Stephen Sartarelli) August Heat, and that he also comments on the poorly informed critic or reader who denigrates crime fiction as inconsequential. Camilleri once again makes his own point in the novel as a whole, as well. August Heat begins with more comedy than usual (and his novels are often very funny), even after the discovery of a terrible crime. There are many twists and turns in the plot as a murder leads to the discovery of illegal construction jobs, the cover up of another death (possibly murder) of an illegal immigrant, and (as is often the case in Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano novels) threads of Mafia influence on politics, the law, and daily life in Sicily. We expect the depiction of the stark, beautiful landscape and the tantalizing cuisine of Sicily in the Montalbano novels, and August Heat delivers on those scores. The story also gives a palpable sense of the brutal weather of a Sicilian August. But the charms of August Heat have more to do with the increasingly melancholy (though still dispeptic and irritable) Montalbano and his relationships with Fazio and Catarella (especially) among his police colleagues, with his girlfriend Livia, and with various sympathetic and unsympathetic people involved in the crimes in one way or another. The comedy, much less the surprises in the investigation, would be spoiled if I say much at all about the plot, so I will add only that Camilleri proves once again that he is the deserving heir to Leonardo Sciascia's terse, evocative portrayals of life in Mafia-ridden Sicily, and Camilleri adds to that deep note a light tone and comic touch that are decidedly his own. Sartarelli also once again demonstrates his ability to render an idiosyncratic (both Sicilian and, so I've been told, uniquely the author's own) language of Camilleri's Montalbano novels. There's one additional pleasure still awaiting the reader of this book: seeing it (or for that matter any of the other Montalbano stories) depicted in the excellent Italian TV series based Camilleri's work. And I want to thank public libraries all over the world, especially the Montgomery County Maryland library system--I've been getting a number of the books I review here from the library (including novels by Camilleri, Håkan Nesser, Bill James, and many others); the library makes it possible for me and many others to enjoy these great crime novelists work.
Posted by Glenn Harper at 8:29 AM 2 comments:
Monday, June 08, 2009
Matti Joensuu's To Steal Her Love
We in the English-speaking world rarely get access to Finnish crime writer Matti Joensuu's novels. The Stone Murders, published by St. Martins in 1986, was translated from a 1983 original which was not, I think, his first novel; To Steal Her Love, recently published in Arcadia's EuroCrime series, is translated from a 1993 original. The Priest of Evil, published in 2006 by Arcadia, is from a 2003 original (the later two translated by David Hackson, the earlier one translated by Raili Taylor). So of Joensuu's 10 novels, we have only the ones written at 10-year intervals (and in fact, there was a 10-year gap between The Priest of Evil and To Steal Her Love (published here out of order). However unfortunate it is that we have to wait, and that there are 7 of Joensuu's novels featuring Helsinki detective Timo Harjunpää still untranslated, we are lucky to now have To Steal Her Love, which succeeds on every level. Whereas The Stone Murders was a story about violent youths, through the experience of a humane and serious detective, To Steal Her Love is a broader canvas, suggesting at times the socially conscious novels of Sweden's Sjöwall and Wahlöö and at times the police thrillers of Norway's Jo Nesbø. Joensuu presents the story with occasional humor and with the authenticity a reader might expect from his background as a police detective. The police hierarchy is dysfunctional (more so than in the other two translated Joensuu books) in a totally believable manner. There is a malicious detective obstructing Harjunpää's progress in the investigation, but the relationships and motives between them are more everyday than is the case in the more dramatic subplot running through several of Nesbø's books. There are numerous cases that Harjunpää is called upon to investigate, some related to the main story and some not (making his life as a cop seem more authentic than in the one-case-only sort of police story): some of these cases (major or minor) are resolved and some are not, or only partially so. Harjunpää's private life, which features in all the novels, is here more completely delineated (though not so tragically as in the ending of The Priest of Evil). As in the later novel, the narrative is partly from the point of view of a demented criminal, though that criminal is more sympathetic than the riveting but totally evil character in The Priest of Evil. Tweety (named for his large head and small thin body) picks locks (by seeing the "colors" of the interior mechanism as he works a pick through it), and he also animates everything in his surroundings. He names everything that is important to him: each of his feet has a name, his flashlight and knife have names, and he gives his own names to the women whose apartments he enters when they are asleep. That plot concerning his molestation of the women does not go in the direction you might expect, and neither does the other major crime depicted throughout its planning and execution, a bank robbery. Tweety's criminal family is depicted mostly through his eyes in an almost Faulknerian fashion. But in spite of the almost Surrealist character of the story as seen through Tweety's eyes, and in spite of the complexity of the interwoven narratives, the story moves swiftly through the book's 300 plus pages (at least half again as long as either of the other two books by Joensuu that have been translated into English). The story moves along at a proper pace for a crime novel, but it encompasses more environmental and emotional scope than the average crime novel. And it accomplishes all that without a murder directly related to the central story: There are several corpses but for the most part we follow Tweety's frequently frustrated attempts to caress women in their sleep and his family's accelerating bank heist plot, from both the criminals' and the investigating officers' points of view (all told in the authorial 3rd person). And as a bonus, we get detail that fills out the stories of Harjunpää, his family, and one of the other detectives as glimpsed in the other books. After the experience of reading To Steal Her Love, I have to go back and read the other two, and reassess the less-than-glowing review that I gave to The Priest of Evil when I've come back to that book after finally being able to read its predecessor. From our first glimpse of Tweety's distorted perspective to Harjunpää's discovery of a headless corpse floating in the sea to the outlaw family's home life to Harjunpää's difficulties with the bureaucratic forces above him in the police force, To Steal Her Love is as good as any and better than most of the Scandinavian crime novels that have been highly praised here and elsewhere--and To Steal Her Love has numerous innovative and unusual qualities that makes it stand out in its own right. I was bowled over by it, and read almost straight through its 300-plus pages. This is a book that deserves a wide audience, much wider than Joensuu has up to now received in the English-speaking world.
Posted by Glenn Harper at 10:24 AM 2 comments:
Thursday, June 04, 2009
French noir: Beyond Suspicion, by Tanguy Viel
Though the film and fiction term "noir" comes from French, the French model for crime fiction remains American. In Tanguy Viel's Beyond Suspicion (translated by Linda Coverdale and published by The New Press), the conspirators in a "perfect" kidnapping scheme dream of getting to "the States" and prefer to think of the ransom as "a million dollars" rather than a million euros. The plot is also classic American noir: a "hostess" from a bar (Lise) and her layabout boyfriend (Sam) reel in a rich widower (Henri) and plan an amateur kidnapping (Lise will be kidnapped and held for ransom). the other important character, Henri's mysterious brother, is mostly offstage. The atmosphere and style, though, are all French. Sam is the only voice in the novel, he's the narrator and there's not much dialogue. The story is told in almost a stream-of-consciousness style, moving from the wedding of Lise and Henri to the kidnapping with frequent detours to the past and glimpses of the narrative present. French reviewer Dobrina Clabeaut called Sam's voice "disembodied" and also refers to the characters as stupid and trivial, all of which is true. But Clabeaut also describes being caught up in the flow of words, the poetry of the language, overcoming the triviality of the characters and the plot, and I'm afraid that didn't happen for me. Thankfully, the novel is very short, really a novella. And the characters are indeed trivial, both in their personalities and in the weight they have in the story: we don't really end up knowing much about them, not even Sam's impressions of them (or even much about Sam). They're all types, exhibiting typical behavior like desire, deception, and jealousy. In a "foreword" to the U.S. edition, Jonathan Lethem says that the French response to the noir genre is to "purify it in the mode of a dream, to stalk its alienated essence," and Viel certainly does accomplish that. Beyond Suspicion is a literary achievement, perhaps, and even in translation the language is fluent and vivid (if not persuasive, in terms of making the plot seem more plausible). The plot is simple enough (suggesting perhaps classic French crime writer Sebastien Japrisot, though not his directness of style), but there are (to me) some gaping holes in the way it plays out in the end (a flaw in their plan leads to a clue that seems pretty trivial, leading them to take steps that seem hardly necessary--though the emotional (and literary) resolution requires them to take those steps. A pleasant, quick read but I prefer the direct "show me" style for this kind of story rather than the indirect "tell me" style (Jim Thompson, say, rather than Paul Auster, a name invoked by Lethem in the foreword). Oddly, the U.S. edition's cover takes a more indirect, suggestive image and the French edition uses a very literal image of an important site in the plot, the Americans emphasizing the literary quality of the book and the French emphasizing its roots in crime fiction. Another "alternate covers" question for you: which is more effective for this sort of literary crime narrative)?
Posted by Glenn Harper at 8:16 AM No comments:
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Roots of terror: Domenico Starnone's First Execution
The books being published by Europa editions are seductive enough as book-objects that they hardly need the highest quality of writing and translation--but they have that too. The books are often less than 200 pages, printed with an untrimmed edge, and in a tall, elegant format with gorgeous paperback covers. They have published a number of excellent crime novels in translation, by Massimo Carlotto, Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett, Jean-Claude Izzo, and Carlo Lucarelli, among others, alongside first-rate contemporary fiction that would otherwise not be available in English. First Execution, by Domenico Starnone and translated by Antony Shugaar, could fit in either category. It's about the roots of violent revolutionary ideology in post-War Italy, and includes crimes of various sorts (seen and implied) including assault and assasination. But it's told in a two-part (really four-part) metafictional style that is always lucid and entertaining. We meet a retired professor, Domenico Stasi, who has been approached by a former female student, Nina Villa, who has been accused of complicity with a revived Red Brigades terrorist group. Nina asks Stasi to perform an errand that seems to be related to her terrorist connections. Then we meet (spoiler alert) the writer who is trying to write the story of Stasi and struggling with his material. So there is Stasi's first-person narrative, a third-person narrative about Stasi, and twin first-person narratives by the writer about the text and about incidents in his own life (and actually there is yet another thread at the end (several of which become intertwined with the tale of Stasi). But don't be put off by the complexity: Starnone is in perfect control, and the reader moves seamlessly from one thread of the story into another with no confusion. The writing is gorgeous: one passage as a simple example, when a man is assaulted and tries to run away from his assailant: "he was gathering himself together--collecting himself--with all his strength and then splintering himself away heavily, now a leg, now an arm, now the head. It was a weird, off-kilter flight: he hastened away, but uncomfortably, uneasily." That passage could be from a Futurist classic or from Carlo Emilio Gadda's famously complex detective story, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, a masterpiece of Modernist Italian fiction. There's also a bit of Luigi Pirandello and a bit of Italo Svevo in Starnone's style. But Starnone's prose remains, for all its flash, disarmingly direct, never difficult. Through Stasi's meditations on what he has taught his students, on his own motivations and convictions, and on the options for direct action that he now confronts we delve deeply into the distinctive left-wing politics of the "old Europe" and on the distinctive brand of violent opposition also appearing therein. The voices in the novel give us the whole pattern of Italian politics, the division of rich and poor, the frustration and the temptation toward violent resistance, the corruption and organized crime, the unemployment that confronts university graduates, and the global situation of the 21st century, in a fast-moving, lively, interwoven story. Starnone doesn't come to a resolution of the philosophical and political conundrums that he raises: instead he gives us a view of the realities and motives underlying Italian politics, giving no one a free ride in his cold-blooded (or perhaps hard-boiled) depiction. Starnone portrays the philosophical underpinnings for the host of novels and films depicting politics in modern Italy--and he does it in with entertaining, Postmodern panache.
Posted by Glenn Harper at 9:28 AM 3 comments:
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