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the Dance of the Seagull (2009)
trans. by Stephen Sartarelli
'A good start is the best of guides, as the poet said'
§ As Montalbano sits on his veranda sipping a cup of coffee he sees a gull dive into the sand, then perform a death dance that electrifies his attention and haunts him for the rest of the novel. Camilleri's writing here is superb, both in its clarity and in the empathic psychology of its impressionism. He's a poet, in the ancient sense of the term, where language moves to the rhythm of its visionary necessity. You know the incident is a metaphor for the fragility of life, and you suspect its meaning extends well beyond this, is somehow an omen of things come.
Why did the gull drop from the sky? Was it shot? Or is there some larger, mysterious environmental source at work here, something that can only come from the unnatural acts of unnatural men. Montalbano is spooked. He bags the gull, as he doesn't want to leave it to the dogs or the ants -- or perhaps despoil his view -- then wades into the sea, swims a short distance and throws the corpse beyond the tide line.
While this danse macabre is the key to the through-line in Camilleri's narrative, the plot is immediately driven by the disappearance of Fazio, Montalbano's main capo, a steady-as-she-goes cop that you've become familiar with from the previous novels, which personalizes the crisis for both the Inspector and the reader. To be sure it's a police fiction cliché, yet here it's just a fact, and the tension builds as you realize that Fazio has been abducted, perhaps killed, as his mission at the port of Vigàta was unofficial, and his colleagues don't know what he was up to. Seems he was helping out an old school friend, a former ballet dancer, who has suspicions about goings on with the fishing fleet and a certain warehouse that he has been observing through a telescope from his apartment. Turns out this man, this dancer -- Manzzella -- is a habitual voyeur, enjoys spying on his neighbours, and since he left his wife, is now taking a walk on the wild side.
Here the story might remind you of The Crying Game, Neil Jordan's 1992 film about transsexual love and terrorism, but only distantly, as a shared exoticism rather than a formula theft. There are several very good scenes along the way, especially when Montalbano follows a tip that Fazio was seen struggling with two men in 'the territory of the dry wells" at Monte Scibetta, a known Mafia body dump. This sequence produces a couple of bodies, then ends up in an abandoned highway tunnel. Darkness, amnesia, and bullets -- can anything good come from any of this?
'Without anyone noticing, Montalbano superstitiously touched his balls to ward off bad luck'
'The night was soft and clear and windless. And the moon, instead of resting over the orchards, was floating on the sea'
At one juncture, Montalbano visits a murder house, moves like a somnambulist through the moonlit rooms reconstructing the crime. It's a nightmare, a seance for detectives and madmen with the art of remote viewing. The house stinks of death, is a theatre of torture and sadism. This self-hypnosis induces seeing through blindness, a trap for coincidence and fate. It's occultism and Montalbano knows it, despises himself for indulging the ritual, this taboo possession with its grotesque voyeurism and shabby exorcism. But he sees it all, the two torturers shooting their victim in the foot, then forcing him to dance, to flutter until he dies. Then they take a shower. Why?
'To cleanse themselves for human society as humans, not as the beasts they were'
There's no question that this is one of Camilleri's best Montalbano novels because, even though many of the characters and the situations remain the same, the story runs against the grain, is anti-romantic. Montalbano is 57 here, 'in the twilight of his career', and the issues and crimes he deals with really have no happy resolution. He has a romance with a blonde, sure, but it's a vulgar exercise in political sex, not love. He uncovers a heinous crime of international significance, but it isn't something the government can admit, let alone punish. He does stage some local justice, but you know it's tabloid, not institutional.
You might wonder -- as Camilleri has a lot of experience teaching theatre direction -- if this novel owes anything to Chekov's play The Seagull (1896). In this symbolist drama, which was avant garde for the times, the seagull is a gift to a young actress from a crass suitor who shot the bird because he had nothing better to do. But the actress prefers a visiting writer who thinks the incident would make an excellent short story. This sort of internal aesthetic commentary anticipates the post-modern fashion of blurring the alienation wall between the author and his characters... a technique Camilleri engages occasionally in the Montalbano series. And towards the end of The Dance of the Seagull, Montalbano indeed wonders how "Camilleri" is going to get him out of the situation he finds himself in. So, you could say there's an oblique influence, intellectual rather than story-wise, where Camilleri has borrowed a symbolic motif, adapting it for his own design.
As I've said before elsewhere, Andrea Camilleri is a major writer, regardless of genre. He walks with beauty.
© LR April 2017
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