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BLOOD CURSE (2008/14)
The Springtime of Commissario Ricciardi
Maurizio de Giovanni
trans. by Antony Shugaar
'the perfume of spring carried by the wind'
§ Even the poets are writing detective fiction these days. Maurizio de Giovanni is a poet -- you can see it in his language, his characters, his world view. In fact, in Blood Curse, characterization and language take precedence over police procedural detail, often to the point that you forget that there are any policemen in the action at all, save as something a couple of characters do as a day job. The main cast are given near equal stage time, events seen from their POV in an alternating sequence of short scenes, and psychological soliloquies.
The narrative rotates through these scenes and character sketches, a cultural web of linked situations. A cop, a prostitute, a barber, a pizza man (pizzaiolo), a suicide, a fortune teller, a professor, a murderer, a building site apprentice, a tenor lothario, a lovestruck aristocrat with a little red car, a suffering shop girl, a neighbourhood enforcer (camorrista), a mutilated beauty... and over the horizon, Mussolini.
'Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, Commmissario of Public Safety in the Mobile Squad of the Regia Questura, or Royal Police Headquarters, of Naples. The man who saw the dead'
This cop, this Commissario Ricciardi, is more like an undertaker who lost his hat passing through the gates of Hell. While the Neapolitan underclass hates cops, the people fear him instinctively, as if he's a warlock, can see their shame and guilt and cheap ambition at a single glance. Of course he's no fascist, just an orphan aristo who lives with his nanny and plays at being middle-class by holding a middle-class job. He's the 'New Man' although he holds no party card, a citizen of the present, lost between the old and the new, forensics and intuition, formality and poetry. He's a fantasy, as no one so sensitive could function as a homicide detective; maybe a rogue priest committed to exorcisms and a formal appreciation of the occult, yes, maybe that... but not a homicide detective. He's too much of a Stephen King contrivance to be real, yet de Giovanni gets away with this unlikely casting because Ricciardi's role is understated within the cast.
Is he the protagonist? Not really. His Sergeant's story is just as important as his own, if not more so, and several of the characters have just as much time in the spotlight. You might think of Ricciardi as being symbolism, a cipher for the poverty and suffering of the people, a mini Jesus with a mission. Of course he's in love, and loves from afar, a fugitive voyeur too polite to engage in foreplay.
'...nor did he pay attention to the bare-breasted women, who withdrew into the darkness of the cross-streets as he passed only to reemerge, immediately, offering themselves to anyone who felt the springtime pulsating in his veins, or who simply felt loneliness in his heart.'
The novel is more concerned about setting and characterization than plot, as scenes are often redundant in terms of advancing the action, although their sociology keeps us engaged -- manners, mood, and imagery. It all works. The lines, the images, the sensibility:
'A silence fell that was as thick as the earth covering a grave'
'So he said, let her stay home in the dark, since even the sunlight was disqusted at the thought of touching her'
No one is immune to this Neapolitan melancholy. Maione the cop -- Ricciardi's sergeant -- has fallen in love with Filomena precisely because of her disfigurement, as if she has become a living symbolism of his profession rather than the victim of an unknown lover.
Ricciardi dislikes modernism, the new architecture, is 'always moved by the sight of ancient, noble arches and the delicate friezes that lightly ornamented the massive marble blocks'. This marks him clearly as a Romantic, a prisoner of the Sublime.
'Ricciardi couldn't say exactly why, but he found it somehow more upsetting to think that people were dying needlessly in the service of ugliness.'
So there it is. One detects a rebuttal of the new fascist architecture and the brutalist grandeur of fascist Rome.
Blood Curse is only a 'detective novel' because it has a couple of detectives as characters, not because it follows the convention of resolving the mystery through the eyes of the investigator. To be sure, it uses the cheat-narrative method of withholding information by cutting from the scene, coitus interruptus, although the emphasis on character and relaying information from each character's point-of-view make this novel straddle both the mystery and mainstream styles. That de Giovanni is aware of this, is in revolt against the cliché, is signalled when Ricciardi's boss lends him a galla (the Italian "yellow" crime series) detective novel:
'...the good guys all had Italian names and the bad guys had American names, the women were blonde and emancipated, and the men were tough and tenderhearted.'
Ricciardi reads it in spite of himself, his scorn for the easy propaganda of the pulp genre... yet, save for the fantasy women and the ethnocentric morality, is it really that much different from the world he finds himself in? The difference is in the action, the speed of the sex and violence, the filmic need to make the story move fast regardless of time and space.
Blood Curse is slow, almost lazy in its movement. The landscape and its atmosphere predominate, as if the characters are mere puppets of the Neapolitan spring, infected by a Lawrencentian blood fever. It's this old-fashioned (or 'traditional') tip towards literary naturalism that underscores de Giovanni's poetic style, gives it a calculated sense of pity and mercy towards the characters rather than a headlong gallop towards the end and the bitter truth so typical of the crypto-fascist pulp genre. Just as Commissario Ricciardi is antipathetic towards modernism, so too Maurizio de Giovanni.
The murder at the heart of it all -- Carmela Calisle, fortune-teller and secret loan-shark, the malignant Mother Teresa of the Spanish Quarter, kicked to death in her ratty apartment -- is a clever crime to hinge the action on. The symbolism in it reflects not only the superstition of the Neapolitan regardless of class but also the desperation of a society stagnated in poverty and class privilege. The old lady was a bit of a detective too, it seems, as she used the concierge to sleuth-out information on her clients and so provide them with uncanny truths which helped indemnify her predictions. And, of course, her loans to her less mystical clients.
'In the rotating succession of Kings, aces and Queens, the old woman read what was fated for every single day of her life'
So who did it? Emmma Serra di Arpaja, free spirit noblewoman who drives a little red sports car (just like Mussolini)? Her husband, the tortured professor and lawyer?
Or Tonino Iodice, the pizza man who's stretched his business a little too far for his credit? How about Don Luigi Costanzo, the neighbourhood camorristi thug who lusts after the beautiful widow? Bambinella, Brigadier Maione's tout... Nunzia Petrone, the fortune teller's spy... Romor, the lothario tenor... Gaettano, the precious Oedipus Rex son of the mutilated one... or Teresa, the peasant maid... it could be anyone of them. There's no New Age airport mall homogeneity about this cast, no post-modern uniformity. All is caricature, like potatoes bursting from the sack.
© LR August 2017
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