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the Wings of the Sphinx (2006)

Andrea Camilleri

trans. by Stephen Sartarelli

§ You think this guy can't write, is a light-weight?

'In the days of the Greeks the Salsetto had been a river. Later, in the days of the Romans, it had become a brook, then a rivulet by the time of Italian unification, and later still, in the Fascist era, a stinking little trickle, before finally becoming with the advent of democracy, an illegal dumping ground.'

This allegorical history lesson describes the setting for the murder victim.

Camilleri: the Wings of the Sphinx

"She must have been very beautiful. A fantastic body," said the public prosecutor, his eyes glistening with excitement.

Tommaseo, the prosecutor, has intercepted Inspector Montalbano on the path. Notice how Camilleri achieves two things at once with very few words: a sense of the victim, a sense of the prosecutor. Other than a couple of other details -- she has a tattoo of a four wing Sphinx moth and a considerable part of her face has been blown off by a heavy bullet -- you really don't need to know anything else about the crime scene.

Just concentrate on Montalbano, who becomes your alter-ego:

'It used to be that he felt afraid of dying people, while the dead made no impression on him. Whereas now, and for the past few years he could no longer bear the sight of people cut down in their youth.'

Montalbano is 56 here, really on the skids. He's broken up with his girlfriend Livia and his police station hasn't received its allotment of gasoline, so the cops are forced to use their own cars, buy fuel on their own dime. It's a shitty situation, a Berlusconi moment, an Italian cause de grace as the country crawls through the mire of its own corruption, economic malfeasance, open borders, senseless love, senseless death... auribus teneo lupum... untenable, citizen.

And who's the beautiful corpse? A Russian girl, another economic migrant, a 'dancer', a maid, who certainly could be something else, for, who else ends up like a depraved art exhibit in an illegal garbage dump if not involved in the sleazy world of greedy sex and greedy money? So you're thinking. The only clue is the purpurin resin beneath her fingernails, whatever purpurin is.

There's another case, more amusing than anything, a fellow by the name of Picarella has gone missing, kidnapped his wife asserts, even though no ransom demand has been received. Then a guy with a gold chain and a Ferrari shows up at the Vigàta station, tells Montalbano he saw Picarella dancing with a chick in a Havana nightclub that weekend, shows him a photo. What does Montalbano hate the most? Di Noto, the guy with the gold chain, or his Ferrari or the fact that now he has to confront Picarella's wife, Ciccina, the rich vixen with connections in the upper echelons, can make his life a misery with his boss the Commissioner with the double-barrelled name, Bonetti-Alderighi? While Montalbano isn't resentful towards the upper classes per se, he definitely doesn't like playboys with gold chains and ostentatious cars, even if they're Italian cars. Bear in mind that one of his good friends, Zito, the TV journalist, is a communist. And when things aren't going well, it's easy to get pissed off like a communist, export the pain.

Broadcast of the sphinx tattoo draws witnesses. An old keyhole voyeur called Graceffa comes in the station, tells Montalbano about the Russian maid he had for a month. Katya. He wanted sex ("I'm still a man") but nothing doing. Then Montalbano's old Swedish flame Ingrid shows up and reveals that she too had a Russian maid for a month or two and she disappeared, taking 400,000 Euros in jewelry. Irina Ilych. And she has the sphinx tattoo and was referred through a Catholic charity called Benevolence, run by some priests and their friends, specialize in providing foreign "home-care assistants". An arrogant cleric called Monsignor Pisicchio runs the show; after a testy interview, Montalbano. 'smells a rat'.

Montalbano goes home, eats, sits down in front of the TV.

'...the television had been presenting the same news story for years; the only things that changed were the names....

'In Fela the charred remains of a farmer previously convicted of collaborating with the mafia were found in his car (the previous evening it had been the turn of an accountant in Cuculiana, likewise a collaborator, to be charred).

'In the countryside around Vibera the search for a mafioso on the run for seven years intensified (the previous day the search for another mafioso, on the run for only five years, had intensified in the countryside around Pozzolillo).

'In Roccabumera, carabineri and criminals exchanged gunfire....'

I've shortened the montage here, but you get the point. It's like the old newsreel roundup used to condense the News for movie houses in the days before television, and used very effectively at the beginning of Citizen Kane and Shangri La (the unreleased, first version) (both assembled by Robert Wise, I believe). For Camilleri, the montage is incantatory, almost a lament, but funny. The absurdity of it all is like asking how many detectives does it take to fix a light bulb.

Montalbano retires to bed with a novel -- 'proclaimed a masterpiece in the local paper' -- but ends up throwing it against the wall. Once again it's the portrait of Montalbano the man caught in the crossfire of modern life and death that carries the action, because the imagery of serial crime and its culture in Montelusa province remains much the same book to book in the series. The perpetual redundancy of a job where law and (dis)order make a mockery of creative achievement is demoralizing. The natives are incorrigibles. Sicilians, Italians, Euros... the World.

So, half-way through the story and still no gasoline... and a bunch of mouthy priests who use the Old Boys network to put heat on Montalbano to cease and desist. Sergeant Fazio's car is in worse shape than Columbo's. Fazio and Montalbano get stopped in a carabinieri roadblock, fines being written and more humiliation until the marshal recognizes Montalbano, waves them through. If it wasn't for the Carlo Carrà paintings at a Notary's apartment they visit to see what they can learn about his Russian maid, the day would've been another exasperating experience.

'The landscape by Tosi was superb, but when standing before Carrà's seascape, Montalbano was moved almost to tears.'

Carlo Carra seascape

Carra seascape

This is interesting, because, if you know that Carrà, like many of his Futurist colleagues, was a supporter of Mussolini in the inter-war period, you might wonder how the liberal egalitarian Inspector Montalbano could respond so positively to the work of a fascist. Of course if you look at any of Carrà's seascapes, you'd be hard pressed to see anything political in their faintly metaphysical castings. Montalbano responds to beauty, which is feminine in his world view, so when he pursues the killer of a woman, he's like an artist in search of a subject.

Here, the priests are in his way:

'How many politicians with powerful connections in Rome, and all of them, whether of the Right or the Left, with their wheels greased by priests, would take to the field in defence of Monsignor Pisicchio and Benevolence?'

His boss phones from Rome, tells him to step back, pass the case to the Flying Squad.

Montalbano thinks:

'You eat, shit, sleep, read a few novels, and every now and then you go to the movies. And that's it. You don't like to travel, you don't go in for sports, you have no hobbies, and when you come right down to it, you don't even have a few friends with whom to spend a few hours....'

The self-pity doesn't overcome the driving humour, that Camillerian sense of the absurd, where farce and tragedy struggle for not only control of the News Channel but his own self-worth. The decline in the status quo is both societal and personal. It's a Zorba moment -- he can dance or go to sleep. He sleeps.

No, The Wings of the Sphinx isn't the best novel in the series, yet it has some very good writing and human insight along the way. It's almost scrubbed clean of romance, and the shading of Montalbano's character shows him deteriorating almost to the edge of despair. He's not really a detective, he's an artist, in the way that we're all artists when frustration stands between us and beauty. And the death of romance will do this every time. The dead girl in the dump isn't Livia, but it some ways it is.

How does it end? Better than you might think: tutte le strade condocono a Roma... all roads lead to Rome.

© LR May 2017

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