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il sorriso di angelica

17 march 2011

Il sorriso di Angelica is the final Montalbano novel by Andrea Camilleri, to date, and as much as I wanted to read it, and enjoyed it, I felt a certain melancholy along the way. Could this be the last time that Fazio compiles a list of dati anagrafici? The last time that Catarella answers the phone? The last time that Montalbano eats his pranzo at Enzo's trattoria and walks down the breakwater to sit on his favorite flat stone? Each paragraph had the same effect on me as saying goodbye to someone I might never see again.

Andrea Camilleri is alive, well as far as I know, and writing prolifically. But just in actuarial terms (he's 85 years old), there can't be dozens more Montalbanos in the offing. Each one is thus all the more a kind of treasure.

I finished Il sorriso di Angelica on an airplane. While driving to catch that plane – in the dark, in the rain, in a rental car, with a cataract in one eye, through construction that had obliterated freeway lane stripes, in New Jersey – I got lost twice, along a route that I've driven every few weeks for the past year-and-a-half. This was a coincidence, but it made me appreciate why I love, and identify with, Salvo Montalbano. He too gets lost on the roads, and drives too slow, and has other foibles that I can identify with (never being able to find his way around a hospital is another).

In Il sorriso di Angelica, once again, Montalbano falls passionately for, and is passionately desired by, a woman half his age. This theme is so insistent in the later Montalbano novels that it comes to seem emblematic of bigger things. Yes, Montalbano is in perpetual midlife crisis, even beyond middle age. Yes, he has commitment issues. He's a dirty old sensualist, who can't stop thinking about his own old age. He's a bit of a vampire, not in the forever-young, Robert-Pattinson sense but in the survives-by-consuming-youth sense.

But Montalbano is also, as befits a creation existing only in language, a thoroughgoing intertextualist. Angelica is the name of his new love, and Angelica, of course, is a much-desired character in Ariosto's great poem Orlando Furioso. Nearly everything that Montalbano does in Il sorriso di Angelica is accompanied by lines from Ariosto. At one point, inevitably, Montalbano himself is furioso.

Imagining yourself a character in chivalry has been a novelistic device since Cervantes. And Montalbano is Quixotic throughout his series, with Catarella as his inarticulate Sancho Panza. Yes, these are "just" police procedurals. But even if police procedurals weren't a dominant contemporary artform of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Camilleri's would stand out for their literacy, their postmodern playfulness, and their energy.

The plot is intricate, but secondary to the novel's interests. A series of thefts sweeps Vigàta. They hit a circle of friends, and exhibit the same MO: first a vacation house is burgled, and in the process keys to the victims' main house (and car) are stolen, and a much larger theft ensues.

The loot is a Macguffin, though, and tracking down the thieves becomes secondary to sorting out the insidious motives for crimes that mask other crimes and vengeances therefore. Meanwhile, Montalbano, whose relationship with his fidanzata Livia is finally going well after a rough patch of about thirteen novels, sleeps with the astonishing Angelica. He tells Livia immediately, and instead of responding with jealous rage, she laughs it off: if Montalbano says anything to her, she assumes it's a farfantaria, a wild fabrication. He's never told her the truth before; why would he start now?

Can Montalbano ever stay long with one of his dream women?

L'Angelica che aviva fatto l'amuri con lui era 'na fimmina come le altre, macari se di certo assá cchiù beddra delle altre.
Che s'aspittava?
'Na cosa a livello poema cavallerisco?
Son et lumière?
Musica di violini in sottofunno come al ginematò?
E 'nveci era stata 'na cosa squasi banali, nenti di straordinaro, 'na mezza sdillusioni.

[The Angelica who had made love with him was a woman like any other, though certainly more beautiful than others. What did he expect? Something out of a tale of chivalry? Son et lumière? Violin music underneath, like in a movie? Instead something almost ordinary had happened, not something wonderful; something a bit disappointing.] (168)

You're getting old, Montalbano; but then, he tells himself that every ten pages.

Camilleri, Andrea. Il sorriso di Angelica. Palermo: Sellerio, 2010.