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Blade of Light (2012)

Andrea Camilleri

trans. by Stephen Sartarelli

§ Imagine you're a writer, someone who wrote a pretty good novel which was recognized as being a pretty good novel, and you decide to follow up by writing another, which is also seen as pretty good, even though it's awfully similar to the first one, and in fact you've just used the same characters in a different situation which, well, isn't really all that different either.

You don't care. You write twenty of these novels, all reworkings of the first, but with different titles and some different incidental characters. Yet the setting is always the same and the protagonist is the same... except, well, maybe he isn't always the same. He gets older, just as you, the writer, gets older and the obsession gets older and maybe worse, because pretty good doesn't seem to be good enough even though you're making some decent money from writing the same novel over and over without even pretending to be telling a different story.

Is this what Andrea Camilleri is doing with his lengthy series of Inspector Montalbano novels?

Camilleri: Blade of Light

"...not a single one of the Montalbano stories was written without a specific prompting, I am tempted to say. Writing just for the sake of writing is not my sort of thing. I would even say I'm incapable of it."

(Camilleri, preface, 'Montalbano's First Case & Other Stories, 2008/16)

Perhaps, like the protagonist in Borges' celebrated story The Circular Ruins (1940), Camilleri thinks he's just one in an infinite chain of dreamers who, in this case, instead of dreaming new dreamers into existence, dreams novels endlessly.

With writers like this, it gets difficult to tell when their imaginations have run dry or when they've actually advanced the narrative. Is Camilleri like this? Maybe by the fifteenth or sixteenth Montalbano mystery you're thinking this cop should die, go out in a blaze of mafiosi bullets or succumb to food poisoning at his favorite trattoria, Enzo's, or maybe get knifed by his long suffering lover Livia or one of the many femme fatales he investigates a little too personally in person.

'the earth smelled as good as the sea'

Blade of Light (2012) is a bit like this, seeds the veteran Montalbano reader with doubt. The deja vu seems stultifying at times, and you wonder if you can make it to the end, even though the writing is the usual easy read, as loose as silver in the pocket. Once again -- for anyone who has read the earlier novels in the series -- it starts with Montalbano dreaming, this time of a coffin in an open field.

Ah yes, his mystic Sicilian surrealism gambit, where events are foreseen by the great detective as if he's tapped into the ancient oracles of the nearby Valley of the Temples. Well, it's an attractive method, sure enough, unless you're thinking Camilleri has used this old trick one too many times, and do I care who is in the coffin? In his dream, it's the Commissioner Bonetti-Alderighi, his immediate superior and tormentor... it's funny, although you suspect that if a coffin should be found, it won't be the Commissioner's.

A farmer called Intelisano comes in to the station to report that someone unknown has installed a padlocked door on an abandoned cottage on one of his properties. So the dream farce is set aside for the moment as Montalbano investigates the mystery of the padlocked door and a couple of Tunisian farm labourers who really don't look like manual workers at all, who just might be into smuggling some heavy weapons back to the rebels in the old country. Montalbano assumes a light disguise -- hat, shades, a convivial manner -- approaches the ruined house, sees a flash of light from the loft (the poetic "blade of light" that provides the title), suspects he's under surveillance by someone using binoculars.

But this is really a job for the anti-terrorism unit. The other crime is more his speed -- the rape and robbery of a young married woman late at night when delivering the day's cash from her husband's supermart to a deposit box on a deserted midnight street. So, when is Montalbano dreaming, when is he not? All these women and their tricks. Montalbano has a few tricks of his own, of course, and while he's well-known from the crime-beat interviews on local television, and is therefore a local celebrity, women should be wary. While not exactly a one-night stand artist, Montalbano has a polite way of shucking his women like fish bones or crimes solved and filed.

And who is the woman here? Marian, an art gallery maven who pounces on Montalbano like cat finding a warm stone to lie beside. Of course his main throb Livia is giving him a hard time. And as usual she's way up there in Genoa suffering from some sort of depression that's more like a guilt trip ploy, something to make Montalbano move or get off the pot... yet turns out to be a premonition of nasty things to come. So there are forces at work here that subjugate any crimes of fidelity, robbery, murder, and conspiracy, and all of these things are going on in Blade of Light.

Just what is a "blade of light"? you ask. A forced poeticism? Another edition goes by the title 'A Beam of Light', a more ordinary figure (perhaps you'd call it a dead metaphor). 'Blade" is better. When you reach the ending, and reflect on what has happened, the irony of this figure is bitter sweet -- bitter for Montalbano, sweet for the reader (who is, of course, a connoisseur of Camilleri's Sicilian epic). Guilt, revulsion, irresponsibility. It's quite the pivot, a piece of dark psychology that perhaps doesn't leave Montalbano in the best light. You do need to know something of Montalbano's history from the earlier novels -- especially The Snack Thief (number 3) -- to understand absolutely what has gone down, although the author does insert some history to help finesse the moment.

Nest of Vipers... Montalbano's First Case... Pyramid of Mud... 20, 21, 22...

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