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Sunday, 01 November 2009

Il ragazzo che leggeva Maigret (The Boy Who Read Maigret)

by Francesco Recami,

pub. Sellerio-Palermo, 2009.

Translated into English by Ann McGarrell


In July of 1969, Enzo and Elvira Sellerio, with the help and encouragement of their friends Leonardo Sciascia and Ignazio Butitta, founded in Palermo – for millennia one of the capitals of the western world, and for a thousand years on the extreme periphery of that world – the publishing house that bears their name. Today it is considered to be perhaps the most sophisticated of Italian publishers. This is the house that launched Camilleri, reprinted de Angelis and Scerbanenco; introduced Italian readers to Sjowall and Wahloo, Alica Gimenez-Bartlett, Bolaño, De Santis  -- to cite only a few great crime novelists from their list. To celebrate Sellerio’s fortieth anniversary in my own small way, I’ve chosen to review “The Boy Who Read Maigret,” by the Florentine writer Francesco Recami. As one might guess, this is an homage to Simenon and his immortal Commisaire.  Italians love Maigret, perhaps because he has all the qualities they would like to possess: he is a man of integrity, a faithful husband, a cop with a sense of humanity who is always on the side of the law. The book is also captivating, one to be read with a smile and with an inner tenderness and nostalgia. This is a small masterpiece for all readers between the ages of 10 and 90 (and beyond).

ImageThe protagonist, nicknamed Maigret in honor of his idol, is thirteen years old. His real name is Giulio. He’s the son of the foreman on the estate of the aristocratic San Vittore family, once wealthy but now in what seems to be a state of inexorable decline. Giulio is “a sturdy lad, broad-shouldered, ruddy, slightly overweight because he loves to eat (‘un fin bec’). Every day Maigret gets up at six to catch the bus that takes him to school. One winter morning of fog and chill, the bus is late. When Maigret glances towards the church in a moment when the fog is thinning, he thinks he sees a man dragging another under his arm, “pulling him along as if he were drunk or sick.” Later, on the bus, another odd thing happens: a man nobody knows climbs aboard, wearing a brown raincoat and elegant yellow calfskin shoes…. An amazing adventure begins for Giulio/Maigret. Its protagonists include a yellow dog; the shady owners of a two-bit café  (Guinguette à deux sous) whose customers include a bargeman (Le charretier de La Providence); three  widows who own a piglet (or more than one?) with no tail; an ill-tempered lockmaster and his daughter Emma; a young count who is always short of cash, with his mistress; and the ineffable Cottua Gobio, a wine merchant….Something strange has happened, but the witnesses remain reticent. Maigret can count on no one but himself, since he can’t conduct those interminable interrogations in his den at the Quai des Orfèvres, a pipe eternally in his mouth; endless beers brought in from the bar Dauphine, backed by his faithful officers. Furthermore, this is not a simple affair, and the boy’s vivid imagination transforms  the possible suspects into dangerous criminals: gangsters capable of anything, international thieves, brutal South American torturers.


But he is after all a Maigret. After having solved this first case, about which he will never speak even when he becomes a police commissioner, Maigret goes back to school, to  ordinary life, to his usual routine. But it’s he, Maigret himself, who has changed. At school, while his literature teacher  endlessly explains something, Maigret looks out at his world through indifferent eyes. He feels “like that ginger cat stretched out lazily on the roof across the way, waiting for something to happen.”

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