Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fresh Fish and Caponata: Italian Crime Fiction

If the pasta 'nasciata, when they had finished it off, was greatly missed, the melanzane alla parmigiana, when it reached its end, deserved some sort of long funeral lament. Meeting an honorable death along with the pasta was also a bottle of tender, beguiling white wine, while to the melanzane they sacrificed half a bottle of another white, which under a veneer of utter meekness concealed a treacherous soul. The Wings of the Sphinx, Andrea Camilleri, Penguin Books 2009, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, p. 69).

I have come to realize that I read detective fiction less for the mechanics of plot, mystery and resolution, than for the private moments I get to spend with protagonists as they contemplate their lives, accomodate coworkers, indulge in meals, develop and resolve personal conflicts, and allow me to view the larger world through their eyes. I pick up, almost intuitively, on clues, deceptions, red herrings, and guilty parties but to be considered a serious reader of mysteries, I should discipline myself to pay more attention to the crime at hand, and the solution. Instead, I wait for the interludes when the police inspector, or private detective, or amateur sleuth reveals more of himself or herself and allows me to spend some time with them.

The most satisfying shared times of all have been with two Italian detectives, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, of the police force of the fictional town of Vigata, Sicily, and Commissioner Guido Brunetti, of the Venice police (in the novels of Donna Leon, an American who lives in Venice and writes in English.)

These are two quite different men from two very different parts of Italy. Montalbano is a bachelor, whose long-term girlfriend lives elsewhere in Italy. He lives in a small home on the beach, has a housekeeper who keeps his refrigerator stocked with delicious meals, and takes long swims, and long walks to clear his mind and work out the mysteries. Brunetti is a family man, an urban sophisticate, who yearns for tranquility in a profession designed to deny him that.

And here is lunch with the Brunetti family in Venice:

Paola placed a platter of fried aubergine on the table, nodded in sudden agreement, and began to drop the newly made strips of pasta into the boiling water...[discussion of son Raffi's report card]...Paola, stirring the pasta, managed to give the side of the plot a few heavy clangs....[daughter Chiara returns from school]...

Starting with Rafffi's plate Paola served up four heaping dishes of pasta and then offered them grated parmegiano which she sprinkled liberally over their pasta. She began to eat. They all began to eat....

...Paola got up from the table and took their pasta dishes from the plates on which they rested. She went to the oven, opened it, and brought out a platter of cotoletta milanese, placed some sliced lemon wedges around the edge of the platter, and set it on the table. While Brunetti took two cutlets, Paola helped herself to some aubergine, saying nothing.

(The Death of Faith, Donna Leon, Macmillan 1997, pp 49-50)

Aren't you glad you were able to join them? The tension over the report card (and some disagreements with Paola) might have spoiled this moment, and yet the meal redeemed the day for all.

I am not alone in my appreciation of the attention to food in Leon's and Camilleri's books. I was excited to read a post some months ago in the blog Detectives Beyond Borders:A Forum for International Crime Fiction by Peter Rozovsky, where he commented on the culinary routines and adventures of these same two characters. When I read his comments, I felt less embarrassed that I read these books for the food first, and the crimes second. He understands the appeal of attention to the smallest details of a character's life, especially ones who have the capacity to savor life's pleasures. To his credit, Mr. Rozovsky, also follows his crime fiction with a professional's eye to the conventions, and surprises, and meanderings of mystery and solution. He is certainly more committed to crime fiction than I.

And me? I will continue to read crime fiction, American or international, cerebral or exotic or cozy, and I will enjoy most of it. It is with my real friends, however, like Inspector Montalbano and Commissioner Brunetti, that I will slow down and savor the leftovers in the refrigerator, the picnic on the beach, the lunchtime pasta and cutlets, the cappuccino and roll for breakfast, the espresso (coretto [with a shot] or not) and the wine. After dinner, I will stroll along the Venetian canals or walk to the lighthouse on the Sicilian coast to think about my son's report card, or solve a kidnapping or murder, or decide how I feel about life and love, and I will look forward to leftovers tomorrow.

[Note: I am most grateful to my friend Eleanor who introduced me to both of these series and with whom I have enjoyed many conversations, literary and culinary.]

1 comment:

  1. I like your insights into why we read crime fiction. There's no need to be embarrassed about reading the books for the food first. I suspect that not many readers turn to crime fiction for clues and red herrings these days, that character, and the protagonist's way of seeing the world are at least as great an attraction. Food, of course, can be a big part of that. It brings Montalbano closer to the divine, if he believes in such a thing at all.

    Now, try Manuel Vazquez Montalban -- hard-boiled, politically committed, and the only fictional detective I know of with a personal cook. (Salvo Montalbano's name is an homage to Vazquez Montalban.)

    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"