Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Age of Doubt

I like to read in situ, when possible, which means that if I am travelling to, say, England, I like to read books set there. So, being on an island for vacation, I brought along the latest Andrea Camilleri, The Age of Doubt (Penguin, 2012) because of course it takes place in Sicily, which is, yes, an island. But the other, far more in-situ book on my bedtable, Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing (Viking, 2011) called, since it takes place on the actual island that I am on, Martha's Vineyard (not to mention my hometown of Cambridge, MA). Actually, I started Caleb first but tossed it aside as too introspective for my mood - if I am not introspective, why would I waste my leisure-reading time on people who are? - which was a mistake because then, guilt-ridden, Camilleri didn't satisfy either. I'm glad I returned to Caleb, because that is a lovely novel that New Englanders, Vineyarders, Cantabrigians, and really anyone interested in 17th c. lives should read.

And as always, I am glad that I returned then to Camilleri's perpetually exasperated and hungry masterpiece of Salvo Montalbano. Our hero is aging, however, and we find him here contemplating death, doubting his abilities, hornswoggled a bit by younger women, and possibly newly in love (the long-time girlfriend Livia notwithstanding, she makes only a cameo appearance on the phone here, although she is forever in his thoughts since one of the principal bad guys is a sexual predator named Livia).  Like The Potter's Field, this is a return to the better Camilleri.  The actual crime - well, other than the unidentified corpse in the dinghy - is not revealed until pretty late in the tale, but we know something fishy is going on, and we're happy to join Salvo as he tries to figure it out.

There are certain set pieces in Montalbano novels, that please readers of series like me. It wouldn't be the same, if, say, Catarella didn't talk like he was straight out of a dumb side of Brooklyn, or Salvo didn't visit Enzo for a delicious meal, or take a contemplative walk on the jetty afterward, or a hot shower in his enticingly attractive seaside home in Marinella.  Where would he be without housekeeper Adelina to cook for him, devoted underling Fazio to figure everything out, wayward underling Augello to test his manhood by boasting of his own exploits? 

Another thing that I like about Camilleri's writing is how he reveals the plot in little vignettes, and doesn't spend a lot of time setting the scene or describing any backstory to us.  Salvo has to figure it out, and so we do along with him.  The comparatively ornate settings of, say, a Louise Penny or Charles Finch (part of the cozy mystery crowd) just don't happen here, we see the police station and Enzo's and the harbor just in outline.  And while Salvo engages in a continual internal dialogue (what detective does not?), it is not as explicative as that in say, a Martin Walker novel, where the dialogue between characters is a major tool for providing key backstory details. 

I thought at first that the translated aspect of these novels was what underpinned their spare literary style, since it is somewhat reminiscent of Henning Mankel, for example, another author we read in translation.  But of course, the translators (in this case, Stephen Sartarelli, who has done almost all of Camilleri's novels) are translating what was written by the author, they aren't adding or subtracting text, I don't think. 

The Age of Doubt has a more shocking ending than most of Salvo's adventures.  It really took my breath away here on this island, and I wonder, how will he recover from this one?  The way he always does:  spending time at home, eating at Enzo's (eventually) and perhaps a visit from Livia.  We'll just have to see because this is clearly not the end of Salvo Montalbano. 

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