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excursion to tindari
31 july 2011
I had read Andrea Camilleri's novel La gita a Tindari last year, when I was storming through Camilleri's Montalbano novels in uncharacteristically direct order. This week, the English translation by Stephen Sartarelli was one of the erratically available audiobooks in my public library, as read by Grover Gardner, so I listened my way through its six hours. My biggest problem with the Sartarelli/Gardner version of the novel was that I couldn't stop laughing: a dangerous feature of an audiobook that you've gotten in the first place to avoid strain on a newly-lensed eye.
Excursion to Tindari is not ultimately a comic novel, but on the way to its somewhat macabre resolution, it has some of Camilleri's best comic material. Camilleri's approach to life is festive. His characters eat better than any in contemporary literature – fabulous descriptions of simple foods are the first thing most people comment on in his work – and they love life and its many pleasures. The prime villain in Excursion to Tindari falls into his villainy in part because he loves fine art so much. Too much, in fact, to let anyone see the paintings he collects: despite the extravagant appetites of Camilleri's characters, the author judges them by Aristotelian standards; his bad guys exceed the golden mean.
When I've read a mystery novel before, the mystery itself typically vanishes from my memory upon re-reading. One reason is certainly that I read so many mystery novels, and to burden permanent storage space in my memory with their details would be impossible. But another reason is simply that I have a bad memory for plots. Fortunately my memory for events and turns of phrase and random details is much better. So what I recalled of Excursion to Tindari was of the random kind, and coming to the book again I had no idea which Montalbano novel contained the details I remembered. Among them are an infant arsonist that Montalbano encounters in the course of police procedure, a guarded conversation with a sinister elderly mafioso, and a wild misunderstanding that transpires when Montalbano's sidekick Mimí Augello says he's decided to take a wife.
The latter misunderstanding may come across even better in Stephen Sartarelli's English than in Camilleri's Sicilian/Italian. I have read a few of Sartarelli's versions of Montalbano novels, but quickly abandoned them for Camilleri's originals. No disrespect to the translator, who is one of the best currently at work. In fact, Sartarelli's work is so good that it made me want to learn the language behind it: and there are very few translators who instill in you such a desire. To give just the tiniest examples, one of Camilleri's recurring characters doesn't even strictly speaking appear in Excursion to Tindari, because he keeps getting into automobile accidents. Sartarelli explains that the prosecutor Tommaseo drives "like a dog on drugs." I am still trying not to hurt my eye laughing at that turn of phrase.
Montalbano tells Augello at one point that he'd like to write mystery novels himself. (He reads a lot of them, in one of the series' more postmodern turns.) But he's deterred by the fact that critics and professors consider the detective novel to be a poor relation of classic literature. Augello asks if Montalbano would really aspire to the canonical status of Dante or Manzoni. Montalbano says hell no, whereupon Augello says my point exactly, just write them.
I am the kind of professor/critic who believes emphatically that detective fiction is of enduring literary value. But I can also imagine that audiobook readers of translated detective fiction may sometimes feel rather ancillary to the literary canon. Grover Gardner shouldn't. His reading of Sartarelli's rendition of Camilleri's prose is energetic, brisk, discerning. He does the character voices deftly and not too hammily – the bizarre languageless Catarella is a particular challenge to both translator and reader-aloud, and Gardner does well with it. But I also like his Livia (Montalbano's longsuffering lifepartner) and his Fazio (the wisecracking, data-obsessed junior inspector). It would be a sublime pleasure to listen to Gardner read all of Sartarelli's Montalbano novels. I wonder if I'm being a text snob by passing it up in favor of print.
Camilleri, Andrea. Excursion to Tindari. Translated by Stephen Sartarelli, 2005. Read by Grover Gardner. Blackstone Audio, 2009.