Saturday, October 22, 2005

Italian Detective Novels and the University

Of late my addiction to Italian detective novels has grown to disturbing proportions, and I've been wondering why.

Detective novels have appealed to me for some years as they seem to do to academics in general. I recall my surprise when a philosophy professor of mine in graduate school told me that he never read fiction; biographies were the closest he ever came to novels. It was more than surprise, it was shock. And my feelings were mixed because I find fiction a world I can escape into, one where the possibilities aren't bounded by mundane existence. So when he said this, I didn't know whether it was a statement of pride, seriousness, or some kind of emotional deficiency on his part. Did it mean I was wasting my time with frippery? I never found out. I continued to read fiction with enthusiasm.

I don't know at what point detective novels started insinuating themselves into my reading categories. I suspect it must have been when I was at Northwestern. My roommate worked in the local academic bookstore and would bring home piles of books for us to pick through. Among them were John Le Carre's and then it was a sideways move from spies to detectives. Then I realised that some detectives liked food, eg, Robert Parker's Spenser. Why food? I didn't know.

That became clearer when I was living in Italy for a year. I had a Jean Monnet Fellowship at the European University Institute in Florence. I used to the library of the British Institute of Florence to supply my English fiction needs. The remainder of Florence and Tuscany taught me about food and why it was important! I've always liked pasta but to be able to go to my neighbourhood pasta shop and buy some freshly made gnocchi or ravioli was a revelation. Just as detection requires a methodical approach so does food and cooking.

A friend staying with me in Florence--a lot of friends stayed with me that year--put me on to Magdalen Nabb's Marshall Guarnaccia. These books of course imprinted Florence on my mind. But more importantly they elucidated the chaotic nature of Italian society and bureaucracy. Later on I was drawn to Donna Leon's Commisario Guido Brunetti of the Venice Questura. His dealings with authority displayed the corruption and the petty malice that could drive the Italian polity. It might be tax evasion or bribing planning officials to get retrospective planning permission. The state appears all pervasive while its officials seek their own advancement in influence and wealth. If you flow with it, it works well, but if you reject its mores the bureaucracy becomes stifling in its thixotropic capabilities. Brunetti was of course ambivalent about it. He lived within the hermetic environment of Venice yet he wanted it to be a good place to live. What level of venality was it possible to accept and remain virtuous? In addition, his wife, Paola, was an academic who cooked the most wonderful meals.

For a while I was tempted by the rationality of northern Europe as I read the adventures of Inspector Kurt Wallender (Henning Mankell) in southern Sweden. His melancholy was never leavened by enjoyment of good meals. In fact the food was rather dull.

Sicily, that irredeemably corruptible environment, drew me back as I encountered Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano, the policeman who resisted promotion and abhorred the bureaucratic constraints Italian officialdom burdened him with. His moments of relief come when he opens his fridge to see what dishes his housekeeper has left for him that day. (For a while in Indiana I had a Brazilian housekeeper who would cook South American food for me--fantastic.)

Both Brunetti and Montalbano succeed in spite of their superiors and organisations not because of them. Consequently, they were viewed with deep suspicion by the authorities who probably feared their forensic skills bearing down on them. Moreover, their virtue made it difficult to mount attacks against them. They are deeply sympathetic characters.

I think it is becoming clear why I like Italian detectives--and I add Gianrico Carofiglio's Guido Guerrieri, a new one--they are not intuitively frightened of authority but they respect its capabilities to to overwhelm at times. They can work within it and yet remain apart. They retain their individuality; they aren't lost in the maw.

Another resonance for me is the uncanny resemblance between the Italian state and the character of universities. An overweening sense of rectitude matched by an incompetence that can only exist within organisations and institutions that effectively don't matter. Universities are domains of petty jealousies inhabited by satraps who secretly are burdened by the knowledge of their own failure and lack of imagination. Neither states or university administrations earn universal applause nor do they give us much to admire. The truly awful question is: what would we put in their place? Are they the least-worst solutions we have? Please, god, no.


johnflood said...

I do recommend the Italian Mysteries website at Italian In addition to details about the books, there are interviews with the authors. It's well worth visiting.

johnflood said...

I recommend Bitter Lemon Press, which rightly says "Our books are entertaining and gripping novels which expose the darker side of foreign places." Besides Carofiglio's book, Leonardo Padura's Havana Red beautifully eviscerates the hypocrisy of of the overweening state in Cuba.

John Flood said...

The Bitter Lemon Press link above doesn't work, so please use: