The writer behind Sicily’s sly sleuth
Americans have Philip Marlowe and Raymond Chandler. Britons have Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle. And Italians have Salvo Montalbano and Andrea Camilleri.
Camilleri, a bespectacled, gravel-voiced 83-year-old, has become a national character as beloved as his Montalbano, a shrewd, resolutely Sicilian police commander who solves crimes in the fictional town of Vigata.
Remarkably, Camilleri’s career didn’t take off until he was nearly 70, when he retired as a playwright and screenwriter. Since then, he has published an astonishing 40-plus books and sold 20 million copies internationally, inspiring a series of made-for-TV movies and, in Sicily, guided tours and a statue of his sleuth.
It’s not unusual for Camilleri to have two or three titles atop European bestseller lists at once. In addition to the Montalbano mysteries, he writes works of historical fiction full of humor and a virtuoso command of dialect.
At an age when most people tend to focus on scheduling medical visits, he gets up every day at 6 a.m. in his comfortable apartment here, showers, dresses and gets to work. And enjoys himself enormously.
“I spent 30 years in television, theater, where you must have great physical energy,” he says in a study decorated by images of comic-strip hoodlums. “In theater it’s a 24-hour day. . . . I am accustomed to this kind of rhythm. In fact, writing relaxes me.”
Craggy features, a bald dome and a longish fringe of white hair give the author the look of an ancient eagle. His speech and movements are jovial and deliberate. He’s a chain-smoker, a habit he describes as “imbecilic.”
“On the other hand, I have made it to 83,” he says. “Maybe if I quit cigarettes today, I would drop dead.”
Camilleri, the son of a coast guard officer, was born in Porto Empedocle in southwestern Sicily, near the ruins of the Greek temples of Agrigento.
Despite stereotypes of the island, more than half of the best Italian writers of the last 120 years have been Sicilian, says Stephen Sartarelli, an American poet who is Camilleri’s translator. They have included Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello, a playwright, and Leonardo Sciascia, a cerebral, politically engaged novelist.
This is the result of a cultivated intellectual class, a folk-tale tradition and a dark reality that, as in Latin America or Russia, lend themselves to fiction, Sartarelli says.
“When you live in more violent surroundings, you have more moral decisions to make,” he says. “The Russians lived that in the 19th century. Moral dilemmas create the most interesting literature.”
But a sense of humor comes with the territory as well. Camilleri has a playwright’s ear for the language of subcultures, regions and historical periods. He delights in the “verbal inventiveness” of early Italian immigrants in the United States who said “backahouse” for outhouse and “robbachoos” for galoshes.
His approach does not seem a prototype for mainstream success. He writes not in standard Italian but a pastiche of Sicilian dialects, a language of his own concoction.
“It’s a difficult kind of Italian because it’s very much my own language,” he says. “And it’s even sometimes not very comprehensible for my own Sicilian countrymen. . . . I confess there are also invented words.”
Only half in jest, Camilleri says the stardom of his sleuth mystifies him. The middle-aged Montalbano is no action hero. Resentful of authority but slow to violence, gruff but sentimental, he commands a station-house ensemble featuring Catarella, an endearingly bumbling front-desk officer, and Mimi Augello, a skirt-chasing deputy commander.
Rather than cop-show realism, Camilleri lingers on details of place, personality and meals, which are near-religious experiences for Montalbano.
“I wanted a character who one could invite tranquilly to dinner knowing that he would not talk about a case unless you asked him about it,” he said. “A person you can trust, who respects his word in friendship. With his private troubles, but nothing exceptional. Maybe it was this lack of the exceptional that struck a chord in Italy.”
And what a chord. Except for a few young crime writers who complain that his world lacks grit, Italians can’t get enough of Montalbano, on the page or on the screen.
It’s hard to imagine an American mystery writer with comparable influence. In 2001, Italy’s center-right government withstood an uproar about alleged police brutality against protesters at a Group of 8 summit in Genoa. Later, the leftist Camilleri published a novel in which the Genoa incidents angered Montalbano so much that he considered quitting the force.
Some Italian police officers agreed with Camilleri; others thought Montalbano’s reaction rang false. The upshot: Two police unions invited the author to a lengthy discussion with 600 officers.
Nonetheless, Camilleri prefers the meticulous research and intricate construction of his historical novels, which ride Montalbano’s commercial coattails. “I have more fun writing these,” he says. “First of all, because I can do linguistic experiments. That would be a problem for readers in the mysteries. In ‘The Brewer of Preston,’ I had great fun. I had seven Italian dialects in there.”
Like the mysteries, the historical novels are set in Vigata and are based on real events because, he grumbles, “I’m not capable of making up anything.”
“The Telephone Concession” is one of the best. Set in 1891, it recounts a sneaky businessman’s attempt to install a telephone in Vigata. The initiative deteriorates into a delirium of political skulduggery, extortion and, that Sicilian obsession chronicled by Camilleri and many others, adultery.
Camilleri’s vision of his island recalls the imaginary microcosms of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Colombia or the American South of William Faulkner, the Sicilian’s idol.
“I remembered Dostoevsky’s phrase: ‘Tell the story of your village. If you tell it well, you will have told the story of the world,’ ” he said. “I have created this imaginary town, Vigata, the way so many writers have imagined: Garcia Marquez with Macondo, Faulkner with his county. My Macondo is Vigata.”
His writing habits
Most non-Italians associate Sicily primarily with the Mafia. Gangsters appear in Camilleri’s fiction but remain only part of the landscape.
“When you write a novel about the Mafia, it’s inevitable that the Mafioso becomes a somehow sympathetic character,” he said. “If you think of the film ‘The Godfather,’ Marlon Brando’s performance makes you forget that he’s a killer, a bandit. . . . That’s why I keep Mafiosi to a second level, so to speak.”
Another constant: the influence of his wife, Rosetta. He reads manuscripts to her; she makes him rewrite entire pages.
“When I did theater, the evening of the premiere I didn’t fear the big critics of the time,” he said. “I feared my wife. She’s pitiless.”
A final farewell
Camilleri has plenty of ideas and a dozen manuscripts in the pipeline. The last installment of the Montalbano series is ready for publication upon the author’s demise or incapacitation.
Camilleri wrote it as the result of a conversation in Paris years ago with two fellow mystery writers: Manuel Vazquez Montalban of Spain and Jean-Claude Izzo of France. The three old friends amused themselves discussing how they would do away with their sleuths one day. Vazquez Montalban and Izzo have since passed away.
“They both died before their characters, so that made me think how I get rid of mine,” he said. “I do have a bit of a Sicilian thing, superstition let’s say, so I invented a solution. . . . I sent it immediately to [my publisher] and said, ‘Here, keep it.’ This is irreversible and there’s no going back. It’s not like Conan Doyle, who had Sherlock Holmes fall into the abyss and then revived him. This is a literary character, and he vanishes.”