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Thursday, 27 March 2008

Camilleri, the phenomenon


Translated by Cristina Johnston


As Andrea Camilleri continues to dominate the bestseller lists with “Maruzza Musumeci”, we offer here an interview that the great Sicilian gave to Roberto Mistretta and which was published in “La Sicilia” in January 2006. Roberto Mistretta lives in Mussomeli, in the province of Caltanisetta. With a degree in Journalism, he writes for several cultural magazines. He has published children’s books, stories, and dialect plays. Among his novels are “Il canto dell’upupa”, a new edition of which is about to be published by Cairo Editore, and “Sordide notte infernali”. “Non crescere troppo” and “Il canto dell’upupa” have also been translated into German as “Das falsche Spiel des Fischers” and “Die dunkle Botschaft des Verführers” respectively.

 Success came late to him, when he was already over seventy years old, but, from that point on, he has become ever more captivating. An anomalous wave that crossed Italy from North to South (strange but true!), went beyond the borders of the peninsula, spread across Europe and conquered even literary markets far from our own. And not only literary markets, given the enormous success of the tv adaptation of Inspector Montalbano, played by the excellent Luca Zingaretti and filmed in the evocative and baroque Val di Noto, the extremely successful series’ stand-in for Vigàta.

 As you will all have understood, we are speaking of Andrea Camilleri, born in 1925, undisputed master of a genre – crime fiction – that is enjoying a massive return to fashion, in no small part thanks to his irresistible success, a mixture of dialect, pleasantness, and enthralling plots.


1998 was the year of his greatest success, with the bestseller lists featuring five, six, even seven novels by this elderly pensioner with the husky voice of a heavy smoker (the presenter Fiorello does a great imitation of him on the radio), who shares his time between Rome and his native Porto Empedocle. And yet even Camilleri, at the beginning of his career, met with closed doors and refusals. Only one paying editor showed any interest in him.

 It was 1st April 1967 when Camilleri, then only 42 years old, wrote his first novel, dedicated to the father who had taught him to be that which he is. The manuscript was entitled “Il corso delle cose” (The Way Things Go), its protagonist was Marshal Corbo, a sort of embryonic form of Montalbano. He completed it in December of the following year, constantly rewriting it in an attempt to find his own personal style. A friend, a critic of some note, Nicolò Gallo, after having read the text, told him that he would have offered it to Mondadori, for whom he was an adviser and series director. The book was due to be published in 1971 but Nicolò Gallo died suddenly and nothing came of it. The novel was turned down by a number of publishers, the same publishers who, today, would bend over backwards to be able to publish a work by Camilleri. There was a small opening at the Editore Rinuniti publishing house which was willing to publish the novel (Camilleri, in the meantime, had written nothing more, suffering writer’s block following the lack of publication avenues open to his first work) but then there was a change in directorship and the new editorial strategy had no room for Camilleri’s work. Camilleri put an end to all thoughts of writing.

 A first turning-point came in 1975 when Camilleri wrote two texts for the radio programme “Impossible Interviews” (interviews of late historical figures) which were then published by Bompiani. Meanwhile, a friend of his, Dante Troisi, suggested transforming the original text of “Il corso delle cose” into a film script. Once again, the answer was no. Instead, the work was adapted for a tv production. Newspapers picked up on it and Lalli, a Rome-based publisher (which publishes works with a contribution from the author), said that it was willing to publish the work without the customary contribution from the author on the condition that, at the end of the programme’s closing credits, the publishing house’s name was mentioned. And that is what happened. The three-part tv series drawn from Camilleri’s work was entitled “La mano sugli occhi” but Lalli, who published the book in 1978, 10 years after its initial drafting, kept its original title “Il corso delle cose”, a title which was truly emblematic of what was to occur 20 years later. And of course, nobody paid any notice to the book. Much later, it was Elvira Sellerio of the publishing house of the same name which was, at the time, in a period of crisis, who, after much thought, placed her trust in Camilleri. And that is how “La forma dell’acqua” came to be published, the first adventure of Inspector Salvo Montalbano of Vigàta which made his fortune and that of the author. And the rest is recent history…

 Mr Camilleri, at the beginning of your success you were labelled a little grandson of Gadda by some critics, but today you are recognised as the undisputed master of a new genre that is hugely successful, namely crime thrillers with strong regional roots and the use of dialect. What effect does this have on you?

 “It has quite an effect to hear myself being described as “the little grandson” of Gadda in the sense that I had always accepted Gadda’s inheritance with some reserve: what I mean is that Gadda’s literary trajectory and research into the practice of writing have absolutely nothing in common with my own way of writing. It doesn’t seem accurate to me to be considered some kind of ‘head boy’ for this genre of the regional thriller. Before me, for instance, Scerbanenco and De Angelis had written of a Milan that nobody really thought existed at the time, but nobody levelled such accusations at them."

Having opened up a new path, what do you think of those authors who recognise you as a master and follow your example? 

“I don’t think there are many authors who are following my example. If there were any, I’d advise them that, rather than taking me as their model, they should follow in the footsteps of those who taught me how to write crime fiction, from Simenon to Dürrenmatt.”

In more general terms, what do you think of the boom in crime fiction in Italy and, more specifically, in Sicily?

“It immediately brings to mind the time when Italo Calvino wrote to Leonardo Sciascia that it would be almost impossible to set a thriller in Sicily. Facts are showing the contrary to be the case. The truth of the matter is that crime thrillers are an excellent training ground for novelists who are starting out because the genre forces them to conform to certain rules in their writing.”

What kind of relationship do you have with other Sicilian authors?

“Excellent. I know some of them personally, others I don’t, but I read them all.”

If you were asked to direct a school for crime authors in Sicily, would you accept?

“No. Many writers open writing schools and some great crime authors have written little books on how to write crime fiction, but I’m not able to do that.”

And what if a University on the island were to offer you the chance to run an option on crime fiction?

“I’ve already given a class at the University of Bologna, not so much on how to write crime fiction, but on the history of Italian crime fiction. An idea that is possible anywhere at any time.”

You alternate between historical novels and the Montalbano series, can you give us an idea of what your next works will be like?

“This summer a new Montalbano novel comes out entitled “La luna di carta”. For the time being, any other works are at an embryonic stage (can one still say such a thing?) and it would thus be premature to speak of them.”

Have you ever considered returning to your original character, Marshal Corbo from “Il corso delle cose”?

“Well, actually, I brought him to life again in the 2005 Calendario dell’Arma dei Carabinieri (*1). It’s true, he has a different name (Marshal Brancato) but he has the same characteristics.”

Of all your novels, which is your favourite?

““Il Re di Girgenti”, without a doubt.”

Apart from your love of Sciascia and Pirandello, who are your other literary references?

“Gogol, Sterne, Brancati.”

One last question, you have had the opportunity to taste the Mussomeli “mbriulata”, a particular kind of focaccia filled with fried foods, sausage, black olives and so on, that you have also promised to get Montalbano to eat. Truth be told, what was the “mbriulata” like?

“Excellent, no ifs, no buts.”


(1)  Annually published report that develops a theme related to the history or activities of the Italian Carabinieri.
Last Updated ( Thursday, 14 August 2008 )
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