Several of Italy’s greatest modern authors blossomed as writers relatively late in life. Two examples are Carlo Emilio Gadda (1893-1973) and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957). A third is Andrea Camilleri, creator of the Inspector Montalbano detective series, who died on July 17 aged 93.
Camilleri was arguably the most successful Italian author of the past 25 years, but he was approaching 70 when he published his first Montalbano book, La Forma dell’acqua (The Shape of Water), in 1994. In a sustained, prolific spell of creative activity, Camilleri wrote another 27 Montalbano books, one of which, Riccardino, wraps up the series but is yet to be published.
Despite going blind in his last years, Camilleri was energetic in other fields, too. One year ago, at the ancient Greek theatre in the Sicilian city of Siracusa, he acted the part of Tiresias, the blind prophet, in a play written by himself. “Since I lost my sight, I can see better,” the character says.
Like Lampedusa and two other renowned Sicilian writers, Luigi Pirandello and Leonardo Sciascia, Camilleri was a native of the island, born in the western coastal town of Porto Empedocle. In 2003, his birthplace added Vigàta to its name, paying tribute to the fictitious town where Montalbano is a police commissioner. The decision was revoked in 2009.
A distinctive feature of the Montalbano books, difficult to capture in translation, is the way that Camilleri incorporates Sicilian expressions and speech patterns into standard Italian. In his daring use of language, Camilleri was much influenced by Gadda, whose masterpiece, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana), he regarded as the finest 20th-century Italian novel.
Camilleri was destined for a career in the creative arts. He met Pirandello when he was a small boy. Sciascia became a close, lifelong friend. After the second world war Camilleri published short stories and poetry, and studied at the prestigious National Academy of Dramatic Art. In 1957 he took a job with the television arm of Rai, Italy’s state broadcaster. Three years earlier, Rai had rejected him on account of his leftwing political views.
I know that, politically speaking, he said all sorts of things about me, but Italy has lost something
Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister
Camilleri had grown up loathing Benito Mussolini’s 1922-1945 dictatorship. Like many anti-fascists, he found it natural at the war’s end to join the Italian Communist party, soon to become the largest in western Europe. To his last days he was a severe critic of neo-fascist trends in Italian politics, the former conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi and, more recently, Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the hard-right League party.
“I know that, politically speaking, he said all sorts of things about me, but Italy has lost something,” Mr Salvini said upon hearing of Camilleri’s death.
The Montalbano novels, converted into a hugely successful television series, stick to a formula. Each is about 180 pages long, with 18 chapters. Like other fictional detectives, Montalbano is gruff, sometimes sarcastic, a bit melancholy and burdened with a rather complicated love life. However, like Theo Kojak, the New York detective on CBS television in the 1970s, Montalbano is incorruptible and has a strong sense of public responsibility.
Camilleri expands on this formula by using his crime plots as a vehicle for a critique of Italian politics and public life. “In many crime novels, the events seem completely detached from the economic, political and social context . . . I decided to smuggle into the detective genre a critical commentary on my times,” he once said.
Italian readers are drawn to Montalbano because he is a fundamentally honest man in a public sphere that is anything but. He dislikes bureaucracy and sordid politics. He is an individualist, but not selfish. He is, in the end, the “better self” of the Italian character.
The fictional investigator most similar to Montalbano is not Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the logic-driven genius of Baker Street. Rather he is Pepe Carvalho, the Spanish private detective created by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Indeed, Camilleri borrowed the writer’s name for his own detective. Like Carvalho, Montalbano enjoys the simple pleasures of life, especially food — the Sicilian believes that good meals should be eaten in silence.
Camilleri is survived by his wife Rosetta Dello Siesto, whom he married in 1957, and three daughters. Luca Zingaretti, the actor who played Montalbano on television, saluted Camilleri as “a maestro first and foremost . . . always on the side of truth. He told the story of all of us and our country.”