Sunday, August 1, 2021

A Diary Entry Loosely Organized Around Thoughts About Inspector Montalbano

 At the beginning of this year, I started planning out season 2 of Island Demeter. Instead of the freeform feel of the first season, I decided to go with something way too ambitious. It's currently coming together, slowly. For the purposes of this post, though, what's relevant is that I started loosing preparing campaigns around some systems I found interesting. One of them was Rude Detectives, a game we've now run about a half dozen times and that I feel pretty positively about.

Sometime around the first session of Rude Detectives, I got it in my head that I needed to read more mysteries. I've never been a particularly huge fan of the genre, but mostly for lack of trying (and a deep antipathy toward police). What I did also remember early this year, though, by way of reading Terry Miles' Rabbits (a book that I think is pretty bad, all things considered, but which I did devour anyway and has for some reason stuck with me) is that I devour the worst kinds of mysteries; the ones with droll postmodern hooks and literary aspirations. It's the curse of falling in love with House of Leaves at a formative age and reading a lot of theory and cyberpunk immediately after.

Since I work at a bookstore, I grabbed whatever Nancy Drew books were lying around. Unfortunately there were two and I devoured them both in about a day a piece. I needed somewhere else to go.

Around this same time, I was seeing some success with the Prisoners Literature Project display I keep charge of at the store I work at, and was trying to branch out with different kinds of books for the display. I believe this is when I did some research into the authors we carried, and a used copy of Andrea Camilleri's The Sacco Gang landed in my lap. The book sounded interesting to me, so I chewed through it. I've been reading... a lot this year, and that was a while ago, but the things that stuck with me: it's billed as a gang of communists standing up to the mafia; it's a nonfiction novel; the writing style has the elliptical punch and brevity of a great headline, line after line after line; it opened me up to want to revisit Italian agitprop like Elio Petri's films and to want to learn more about moments like the Red Brigades and the Years of Lead; and it inspired me to look up more of Andrea Camilleri's work. All good things, in my book.

I didn't do almost any research about the Montalbano books, but I did want to make sure I started at the first one (since then I've read them wildly out of order, and don't feel like that's detracted much). Which, incidentally, lead to me taking a lunch break to walk over to Moe's Books right around when their union was recognized. I picked up The Shape of Water by Camilleri, a couple of cheap paperbacks by L. Sprague de Camp and Clifford D. Simak, and a copy of The People's History of the United States from the Prisoners Literature Project over there. One of the Moe's Books employees is my contact with the PLP, so it felt like a nice way to send a book and be able to say congratulations on the union.

I've read the first 10 Nancy Drew books, about a dozen Montalbano books, and seen the same number of episodes of the BBC release of the Inspector Montalbano TV show (each episode is either an adaptation of a single book or a handful of short stories, and they tend to run about an hour and forty minutes a piece).

You know: the last time I wrote this style of entry on the blog? I think it was the weekend I went to see a bunch of Alt Lit readings. I've since unpublished that because nearly all of those people turned out to be sex pests at the least, and because I hated the style I wrote it in. I know when I sat down to write this (what a novel thing, writing, to my brain right now) that I wanted it to be more wide-ranging thoughts on Montalbano in general, possibly in another old style (those old theses). Unfortunately these days my brain rarely works in any direction other than the total information glut, rambling expression of impossibly tangled hell. So here we are.

Detective Montalbano

Reading the Montalbano books as I am - at the whim of what comes in used, primarily from other booksellers who I think are expecting me to handsell their used consignment books - has lead to a lot of interesting juxtapositions. The one I want to focus on is my recent read of The Terracotta Dog, book two in the series. Over just a couple weeks I ended up reading five of his books. The Age of Doubt from 2008, The Dance of the Seagull from 2009, The Potter's Field from 2008, Angelica's Smile from 2010, and The Terracotta Dog from 1996.

The style difference between his books from the 90s (that I've read) and his books from the late 00s and on (that I've read) are kind of unbelievable. So unbelievable, to me, that I did that deeply annoying thing of bringing both The Terracotta Dog and The Potter's Field over to my coworkers and told them to open to a random page. The visual difference in the density of words per paragraph on the page says it all, to me. Obviously it says very little to anyone else devoid of context, so here I am trying to explain it some more into the void.

I've been basically borrowing these books like library books, so I can't do the thing here where I snap a picture and post side-by-sides (or type out representative passages) (or rather, I could, but that would  mean sitting on this piece for longer than I have any interest in doing). The long and short of it is that at the beginning of the series, the Montalbano books are a 2, maybe 3 paragraph-per-page series. By the end, a single page might have anywhere from a half to a full dozen paragraphs.

Or, to continue with the quantitative measures: in early books, Montalbano is surrounded by deputies. Catarella, Fazio, and Mimi are the ones who stick around; Galluzo, Gallo, and Tortorella fill up space in the earlier novels. That is: by the mid-2000s, the effective police force that surrounds Montalbano is halved. That may happen through plot contrivance (I don't know, having read them the way I do) or not, but it has an obvious effect. Half as many supporting characters means half as much space needing to be devoted to there whereabouts and motivations, or twice as much capacity to develop others. Roughly speaking, of course. I know it doesn't quite work out that way.

I point out these quantitative differences to get to an analysis of how that effects the act of reading these books, even wildly out of order, but I also know that being presented numbers with only a few words of context means basically nothing to me personally. So I'll come out and say right here: the difference of number of paragraphs and characters is massive. It's not quite the difference between reading, say, Proust and reading Chandler, or between reading Anna Karenina or a long tweet thread, but it isn't entirely dissimilar. Abstracted, it is absolutely baffling to me that the same author wrote The Terracotta Dog or The Shape of Water that wrote The Sacco Gang or Angelica's Smile. Actually reading it, though, at least to me, is seamless.

To contrast what I remember of The Terracotta Dog with what I remember of, lets say, The Potter's Field (even though the two end up closer together on the spectrum of themes and concerns than other juxtapositions might; it turns out my brain is my brain, as much antagonism as it might have toward me). The Terracotta Dog is motivated by a fairly banal mystery, where a secret cache of weapons is discovered behind a rock. There's a truck that stole a bunch of shit at a dock, a suspicious manager, Montalbano's ne'er do well friend Gege getting killed while in a car with Salvo (Montalbano's name to his friends), and some deductive twists and turns that make up the main plot. The central investigation, in other words, is filled with stuff that kind of doesn't feel important pockmarked with crucial character moments, like Mimi Augello (Montalbano's second in command) overstepping his station and Montalbano explicitly telling Mimi that he got Montalbano's friend killed by using police resources.

What The Terracotta Dog is interested in is actually a secondary mystery. Inside the weapons cave, Montalbano discovers two very old corpses. They're surrounded by a pitcher, some coins, a dog made of terracotta, and other accoutrement that I can't remember off the top of my head.

This secondary mystery is about the history of Italian Fascism and the people caught up in it, especially teenagers who happen to be in love at the time of war; it's about what it takes to disappear to the state (sometimes very little, it turns out, but done meticulously); it's about doing a humanities degree and how that hyperfocus can have repercussions down the line that barely ripple, and yet still matter; it's about complicity, people, trauma, desire, and death. It's also, very specifically, about semiotics (Umberto Eco's treatise on it is not so much a plot point as a leitmotif).

The Potter's Field is also about semiotics, but instead of the question of religious stories of awakening that are brought up in The Terracotta Dog, it is about the semiotics of Mafia killings. In The Potter's Field, Montalbano has a dream that the state has officially become run by the Mafia, and then investigates the killing of a man whose corpse was left in a field of clay. Over the course of it, he decodes certain messages, mostly revolving around the fact that Judas was buried in a potter's field (another name for a field of clay) after returning his thirty pieces of silver. The long and short of it is that it is a fabrication of a Mafia crime according to old codes, in order to implicate the Mafia.

I juxtapose these because of how similar the concerns and themes are. The organization of the state (or the black market) by one or two individuals, for instance. They way that organization is obsessed with a particular type of meaning-making through allegory and structured message. The ways that meaning-making fails, through action and inaction.

The real juxtaposition, though, is in the style. In The Terracotta Dog, the sentences drag on. The paragraphs take a half a page, or even two whole pages. In The Potter's Field, the sentences cut themselves off quickly. They might take a page, but more often than not they're a quarter of a page or less.

Which brings me to the seamlessness.

At least from what I've read so far, Andrea Camilleri's books have certain questions at their core that don't change. This might be explainable by the fact that he wrote them all over the course of the last couple of decades of his 93 years of life. But the wild style differences tell a different story, to me. There's a clear story of Detective Montalbano being worked out by Camilleri, whose interest in the political history of Italy through the lens of Sicily is glaring, over the course of his novels.

There's also a clear story of this series doing extraordinarily well, probably beyond Camilleri's imagination, and a desire to continue that success. But.

There's also a story of Montalbano, a character who struggles with the fact that he's a cop despite being involved in the 1968 student movement, who hates his bosses but is involved in one of the most repulsive institutions in history, who gives scoops to the communist journalist at the Free Channel and despises the Tucker Carlson motherfucker on the news. The Montalbano who, well. Allow me to quote Camilleri here, from an interview with The Independent

Inspector Montalbano

The most egregious crimes of the Inspector Montalbano TV series, to me (having watched six episodes, each of feature film length), are as follows:
  1. Montalbano is regularly seen eating and talking
  2. The food is barely remarked upon
  3. I haven't once seen Salvo sitting on a flat rock talking to a crab. I hope this is simply a later development.
  4. Ingrid was like "I'd like pasta con la sarde" and Montalbano was like "I can make that"??? Motherfucker Adelina made that and we all know that.
  5. The shift in point of view - from a tight 3rd person on Montalbano to including flashbacks or setup - is understandable in terms of making a popular TV show out of popular novels. The near-complete failure to represent Montalbano's internal dialogue sucks.
Here is a transition: the show's adaptation of The Terracotta Dog is damn near note-perfect. Each beat of the novel is represented in the show, from the discovery of the weapons cache to the conversation between Mimi and Montalbano about the death of Gege to the reveal of why those corpses were positioned in the way they were, in the room they were, by who they were. Note-perfect. But devoid of a certain history.

Basically every episode of the Inspector Montalbano show that I've seen starts, after the opening credits, with Montalbano swimming. Maybe there's a cold open, maybe there isn't, but he is almost always doing a freestyle stroke through the ocean in the first handful of minutes of an episode. It's an attention to detail to the novels that I really appreciate; the director is clearly interested in the way that swimming looks on television, to the way that this is an important aspect of Montalbano's character that isn't expressed anywhere else. He lives next to the sea, and with it. That is both worthy of being represented on screen, and worthwhile to represent on screen.

What's also worthy of being represented on screen is finding joy in food, or the relationship between a police inspector and his housekeeper that is fraught with class difference.

The history that the television adaptation of The Terracotta Dog is devoid of is all of the things that the book is interested in. They show up, in plot form: a big deal is made of the dog and the corpses. A good chunk of the episode is about how the central mystery isn't that interesting, what's really at stake is these two half-century old corpses. What is missing is the way that this is the real concern.

Let me back up. And acknowledge that we are nearing the end of this discussion, which won't be narratively satisfying. The things I write never are.

Here are the things I adore about the Inspector Montalbano show:
  1. Ingrid. Her actor delivers lines with laughter that really brings out her character.
  2. Sicily. The way shots of the island are full of particular architecture, or particular beaches, really works for me.
  3. The complexity, reduced. There's something about the way that the ending montage, over the end credits, recapitulates elements of the story. It reminds you of everything that happened in the acting
  4. The fidelity. There have been times that I saw a clip of the show and then read the book, and almost felt like I had fucked up. I thought I had read the book before but didn't remember the previous 100 or so pages, because the dialog is so particular and perfectly represented.
Here is an admission: I love movies that don't work. I am much more comfortable with the written word, because there's nothing quite like the failures of language.

But then, there's always the failure of adaptation.

Or the question of how long it takes to convey an idea.

Like, for instance: does it take a paragraph? A sentence? What's the difference?

Does it take the particular framing of a shot, one that slowly pans around a beach following a car? Or one that takes its time showing a labyrinthine house, only to disappear into someone saying "come on" who reveals a dead body that they don't (and can't) acknowledge?

This show - this 2-episode season where each episode is a feature film - wrestles with so many things. With shooting in Sicily, and finding locations that occasionally really work (and often don't). With who to give screen time to, in order to make an episode as compelling as possible while staying true to the source. With choosing what to adapt. It's all very obvious on the screen. Or, rather, it's all very messy, and all very comforting. I've fallen asleep while watching this show multiple times. I don't do that.

Have I just been writing to write? Yes. I'm so out of practice, and I chose this title before we even got to the discussion of the books. My brain is a tangled hell. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean a tight package of a post.

Have I been to be clear about the difference between a paragraph a page and twelve? Yes. Not because I think I have the capacity to write quite like Camilleri does, but. Sometimes it's important to lose your style, to engage in mimesis.

And sometimes it's important to talk about how in the novels of Andrea Camilleri, the focus on food is paramount. For instance: the books don't belabor the moment of eating, but they do revel in it. Even as they identify who made it, how it is a moment of peace among a difficult time, and so on. The show does not.

Just like it's important to talk about how the shots of the coastline, lingering, or the particular staircases, or the architecture or even the trattorias being represented on film are things that the books cannot do.

Ah. I'm tired now. It's 1am. I started writing this hours and hours ago. I didn't edit it, except in the process of writing it. I think, like that other post I mentioned, that this will be unpublished someday. I look forward to regretting writing it.

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