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la forma dell'acqua
5 july 2014
La forma dell'acqua is the first of Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels. In an unusual departure from my haphazard practice, it was the first one I read, almost five years ago, and I've now finished the novels and am starting over (though I still have a volume-and-a-half of short stories left to go).
As with Simenon's early Maigret novels, the formulas that sustain the long series aren't all in place at the start of the Montalbano books, even inchoately. The faithful Fazio is there from the start, but in La forma dell'acqua he doesn't yet have much of a character note. Second-in-command Mimí Augello barely appears, and isn't sharply drawn either; there's supposed to be bad blood between him and Fazio, but it evaporates as the series develops. The alinguistic Catarella, who would become the most memorable of Montalbano's sidekicks, isn't in this first novel at all.
Salvo Montalbano is, of course, and so is his girlfriend Livia (entirely sympathetic in La forma dell'acqua, not yet having acquired the mercurial contempt for Salvo that would reduce her, later on, to something of a running joke). And the other important woman in Montalbano's life, Ingrid Sjostrom, also checks in very early – as a prime suspect who turns out to have been framed.
Or is Ingrid framed? At the heart of La forma dell'acqua is a death by natural causes. The hypocritical politico Luparello (who teaches the children in his orphanage to sing "quant'è buono, quant'è bello l'ingegnere Luparello [what a kind and lovely fellow is our Mr. Luparello]," 35) has succumbed to a heart attack, apparently underneath a prostitute in a drive-in seaside bordello. There's been no murder (yet), but the circumstances suggest a set-up to cast scandal and even criminal suspicion on any number of local political and mafia players. Ingrid is the daughter-in-law of Luparello's principal political opponent, "di costumi non certo monacali [not exactly known for nunlike behavior]," 176). It's easy enough to involve her in scandal by planting a well-known jewelry item of hers at the scene. But she wasn't there – and how does Montalbano know this?
He just knows; Ingrid immediately appears to him as a good egg. (She also immediately gets naked in front of him, but Salvo resists temptation; in fact Ingrid's apparent lack of coyness is exactly what suggests that he can trust her.) And the series will bear out her good-eggy qualities. But for the moment, Montalbano is faced with an intractable mystery. As the dead man's widow suggests to him in a memorable scene, the facts will take whatever shape you put around them, as water takes the shape of its container.
In pouring the water several different ways for several interested audiences, Montalbano comes to the realization that he is not "un uomo onesto [an honest man]" (188). Right from the start, the Montalbano series is about the elusiveness of fact and the necessity for subjective, even aesthetic impositions of justice. Later on, Montalbano will catch many criminals by fairly standard detective-novel means; here in his debut, he realizes that at the heart of many a human event, there's nothing substantive to catch.
Camilleri, Andrea. La forma dell'acqua. 1994. Palermo: Sellerio, 2012.