The Father and the Foreigner, Giancarlo De Cataldo (trans. Ann Goldstein). Europa Editions. 160 pp., $15.00.
In Italy, crime stories are known as gialli, after the trademark yellow covers of the Mondadori series, which first appeared in 1929. Although Mussolini’s government encouraged its early growth—mostly translations of English and American writers of the time with a quota of Italians—the Fascists did an about face and banned crime fiction in 1941. They cited the harm to morals and the misrepresentations of society as reasons for the censorship. The first to be pulped were Mondadori’s I Libri Gialli and I Gialli Economici, followed by all crime novels in circulation in the country.
Giallo acquired a revolutionary edge in the Emilia-Romagna region, particularly in the leftist stronghold of Bologna, a city closely associated with the postwar growth of the form. Umberto Eco, an academic best known for his literary whodunnit The Name of the Rose; Carlo Lucarelli, a prominent TV crime presenter, scholar, and novelist; Loriano Macchiavelli, a pioneer of the form; and the five-author collective Wu Ming are all Bolognesi. So is Gruppo 13, a discussion and promotional cohort that includes Macchiavelli and Lucarelli. Gruppo 13 has produced several crime anthologies and stages an annual Mystfest in Cattolica.
The form continues to evolve beyond Bologna. Giancarlo De Cataldo, a sitting judge in the Court of Assizes in Rome and a bestselling crime novelist, was the first to use the terms “Italian noir” or “Mediterranean noir” to describe the work of Massimo Carlotto. Noir has become an established subgenre in Italy. It is so popular that in 2004 Monash University Prato Centre hosted a Mediterranean noir conference titled “Differences, deceits, and desires: Murder and mayhem in Italian crime fiction.” Although the form covers the whole shelf of Mare Nostrum from Italy to Israel and north Africa and includes Jean-Claude Izzo’s magnificent Marseilles trilogy, it is now closely identified with the Italian writers in the Einaudi Med Noir imprint list.
De Cataldo’s breakthrough as a writer came late in life at the age of forty-six when he finished his Romanzo Criminale, a best-selling historical novel that plots the connections between what De Cataldo calls “the street” and the corrupt establishment. Michele Placido adapted the book for a film and SKY Television serialized it.
Although De Cataldo chooses to distance himself from noir and other labels, certain common characteristic topoi surface in most noir works. In an interview on the website The Rap Sheet, De Cataldo admitted to the writer couple known as “Michael Gregorio” that he doesn’t like “the good old traditional crime set in a closed room, the clever policeman, the intellectual thief. . . . Let’s have more Dickens and Dostoevsky, and a bit less Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.”
If the old-fashioned Anglo-American gumshoe mystery typifies the supremacy of reason and detection with an entrenched belief in the rationality of society, its laws, justice, and morals, the Italian noir novel is without any such optimism. It thwarts the deductions and logical propulsions that lead to neat endings. Italian noir exemplifies the Foucauldian instrumentality of reason in the “mansion of power,” to use Pier Paolo Pasolini’s phrase, with conspiracies, compromises, cover-ups, and unsolved crimes resulting.
Not surprisingly, noir’s popularity soared during the polarizing and corrupt rule of the Christian Democrats, led by Giulio Andreotti, when the mafia and over two hundred urban terrorist outfits confronted the violence of the state. Under Berlusconi, new themes have emerged. Open xenophobia, cultural racism, machismo, the derogation of labor and human rights, and the usurpation of press freedoms have divided Italy. This has given rise to intellectual and creative ferment, evident from the new wave of noir stories.
This engagement of writing with social realities is what separates Italian noir from, say, the mystery pieces that have emerged from peaceful, happy, uncorrupt, and relatively homicide-free Scandinavia. Nathaniel Rich was withering in Slate when he likened Steig Larsson’s work to IKEA assemblages as “modish design with a side of Swedish meatballs.” The new Nordic wave is not critical in any deep sense. It exists for effect and mechanically reproduces the formulae of a successful commercial genre. While the older team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö brought a socialist critique of Swedish society to bear on Inspector Martin Beck’s resolution of criminal investigations, Italian noir is often content, in its pursuit of societal truths, to expose the crime and the apparatus of power and privilege behind it but to leave the mystery unsolved.
The inconclusive nature of Italian noir needs some delving into. Its practitioners trace the source of their inspiration to Luigi Pirandello, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Leonardo Sciascia, as well as Jorge Luis Borges. The Italians Gadda and Sciascia used regional flavors in their work—Sicily with its Greek, Roman, Arab, and Pirandellian antecedents and the presence of the aristocracy, the peasantry, the church, and the mafia, in Sciascia’s case. They drew on the motifs, structures and conventions of detective stories. However, Pasolini’s, Sciascia’s, and Gadda’s postmodern novels were content with understanding the corruption of the ruling social order and its rationalization. They were not overly obsessed with solving puzzles, and at the heart of their books remains the mystery of human existence. Not surprisingly, Sciascia had praised Gadda’s detective novel That Awful Mess on Via Merulana for being a “story without a solution.”
This lack of determinacy is also evident in De Cataldo’s latest work, The Father and the Foreigner. This slight novel describes the growing friendship and intrigue between Diego, a minor justice official, and Walid, a Lebanese man. Both men are fathers of children with disabilities. As their friendship deepens, Diego neglects his son. His marriage disintegrates. He is drawn into Walid’s mysterious world of intrigue. Then Walid disappears and Diego is asked to help to find him. The secret police arrive and question Diego. The plots gets twisted. Diego is called to a crime scene where Walid’s corpse is identified. Despite this, the book ends happily but, again, what Walid was implicated in is never made clear.
Soon to be made into a film by Ricky Tognazzi, The Father and the Foreigner is built as a scenic novel. The storyline and treatment are remarkably similar to Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness, a court procedural set in the Puglian city of Bari. In that book, Guido Guerreri, a defense attorney whose private life is unraveling, manages to get a schoolteacher from Africa who sells handbags on the beach to tourists acquitted of the charge of murdering a boy. Once an anti-mafia prosecutor in Bari, now a Democratic Party member of parliament and a leading figure in the Italian noir movement, Carofiglio’s focus is on exposing a racist and skewed justice system, but with a little more subtlety than De Cataldo. The murder of the boy, as expected, remains unsolved. Fitting all the pieces of the puzzle is secondary to both writers’ projects.
In Carofiglio’s and De Cataldo’s books, the suspect caught in the entrails of the law is a non-European “foreigner,” fitting, perhaps, because crime fiction, according to a German critic, is the art of alienation. The new noir wave deals with the issue of lo straniero, the highly topical Other in the discourses of Berlusconi’s post-9/11 Italy. These two writers treat the subject of “the foreigner” from a middle-class perspective, not the hardboiled approach you would expect. In each book the harried Italian protagonist, a state functionary who also feels trapped in the legal system, is approached by an alluring and exotic woman. The African or Lebanese woman who approaches him is merely the shadow of the man she is trying to enlist help for. Rarely is she imbued with any reality above her allure and mystery, a common failing in Italian crime fiction where women, particularly racialized women, have not been given their due.
By contrast, the protagonist’s partner is an Italian woman in her thirties, a working woman with some independence, a nod, perhaps, to the few female Italian writers who have breached the male noir bastion. In Carofiglio’s works, the female lead is also a survivor of a bad marriage or abuse.
By the end of both books, the protagonist finds some kind of personal redemption. He feels ennobled and liberated by his intervention, either through his newfound riches or his happiness. Once the case is over, the stranger’s reality ceases to impinge on the main character’s consciousness, except through a memento or a self-congratulatory memory of his caritas. In Carofiglio’s book, Guido at least questions this feeling of superiority as an expression of privilege. For a socially aware reader, this triggers a distancing from the leading character who gets on with his life. The cynical tone is reinforced when social change does not occur. The lack of closure and the divergence from the character affords us an open view into the workings of society.
In the past, English readers have seen Italy mostly from a tourist’s viewpoint. Daphne Du Maurier, Michael Dibdin, Donna Leon, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Harris, and Magdalen Nabb depict an Italy garbed in guide-book motley and covered with stereotypes that date back to revenge tragedies and gothic novels. Certainly their word pictures present a different country from what we encounter in Italian noir, with its hard realities of living and dying laid bare. Unlike their Anglo-American counterparts, De Cataldo in Rome, Carofiglo in Bari, Roberto Saviano in Naples, Michele Giutarri in Florence, Carlo Lucarelli in Bologna, and Massimo Carlotto in Cagliari know firsthand the workings of the underworld and the Italian criminal justice system, as well as each’s shortcomings and effects. These writers’ insider views may be privileged, unfinished, limited, and problematic but they are well informed and limn their country in diverse ways.
Importantly, noir continues to leave its mark on Italian literature in the works of Niccolo Ammaniti and Antonio Tabucchi, and more remarkably on a resurgent Italian cinema. Italian noir had taken many of its stock themes, images and treatments from black-and-white neorealist films and crime dramas but the trend of influence has been reversed. The film versions of De Cataldo’s work, Saviano’s Gomorrah, and Paolo Sorrento’s Il Divo, an exposé of the corrupt life of Guilio Andreotti, show the grip that noir exerts on Italian aesthetics as a preferred means of creative expression of the social critique of power and privilege.
Ahmad Saidullah is a prizewinning Canadian writer. His short story collection, Happiness and Other Disorders, was published in Canada and India in 2008. He lives in Toronto. He has drawn freely on the Monash conference proceedings and The Rap Sheet‘s interview with Giancarlo De Cataldo for this review.
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