Farewell Andrea Camilleri and Thank You, by CWA International Dagger Judge Ruth Morse
With the inauguration of what in 2006 became the International Dagger, the CWA took great care to get things right, especially since there had been a ruckus about books in translation. This matters because – at the time – there were so few foreign authors translated into English. So began a major development, not just for the CWA, but also for authors previously unknown and as yet unread. Anglo-Saxon readers had hitherto had to read their crime fiction in what were, alas, often not very good translations. But that was just the start. The International Dagger spurred publishers to produce works of quality translations that matched the original novels. In our first three years as judges we had repeat offenders, of whom one of the most welcome was a Sicilian theatre director none of us had heard of.
And thus we discovered Andrea Camilleri, a writer of perfectly plotted crime novels with a cast of recurring characters and subjects that ranged through the hilarious to the subtly political. For three years Picador annually sent us one, and sometimes two, books. I confess that I liked this new writer so much that I sometimes couldn’t wait, and bought my Camilleri in French, especially for his short stories. There will be one or two Montalbano books still to come: the last one may still be in a bank vault. Europa Editions are adding to Camilleri’s Montalbano novels by bringing out some of his historical novels. For us as judges, the arrival of a new Camilleri was always reason for rejoicing. As the years passed, a succession of judges tended to put the new book in the bottom of the waiting pile so we’d have something to look forward to, come a rainy day. In 2012 Camilleri first won the prize of the International Dagger with The Potter’s Field. We became accustomed to longlisting Camilleri’s commissario without fuss: the books were consistently of such a high standard.
Camilleri had his roster of characters who created what went on in Vigata – such as the Swedish neighbour and her fast car, or the restaurateur, Enzo, who made sure Montalbano always got a good lunch. He also had Adelina, an excellent cleaning lady who made sure that when she went home she left a reheatable dinner in the fridge. Montalbano knows that Adelina’s children are closer to the Mafia than she or Montalbano find altogether easy to cope with, yet somehow they do. The commissario’s squad of detectives worked well with each other, finding skills that Catarella, the sergeant at the front desk, didn’t know he knew so much until he discovered and mastered the use of computers. Mimi Augello, is another member of the squad, though his skirt-chasing doesn’t suit everyone. Fazio, one of the younger men of the squad, is prone to over-annotate his notes about whole genealogies of no importance, which drives Montalbano crazy. In the Montalbano novels Camilleri spread his web thoughout the area we know as Vigata. A more complex relationship is with Livia, who shares Montalbano’s willingness to live together – except that she lives too far away. In fact, what brings the two together is not Adelina (who dislikes Livia for all the usual reasons), but Livia’s relatively recent acquisition of a dog. Between Montalbano and Livia there is always her plangent desire to have children.
Camilleri was a writer who wrote every day – as good writers do. After his three-hour stint in the mornings he released himself to do other things. And, lately, Europa Books have published earlier work which had never been published before, sometimes because an acquaintance told him a story, sometimes because he had one at his fingertips. Mainly, his historical novels had to make way for Montalbano. Born in 1925, living under fascism, Camilleri joined the Communist Party. He directed theatre work, both as a teacher and as a director. He was lucky enough to have known Leonardo Sciascia, himself a pioneer of crime fiction in Italy, including The Day of the Owl. In the theatre he directed Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
In an interview with Mark Lawson, Camilleri said, ‘you can write a novel from first to last chapter with a perfect order of logic. I saw the form of the thriller as a cage that does not allow you to escape’. Above all, perhaps, Camilleri’s politics deal with the Mafia (with a long spoon), as well as Berlusconi. Concomitantly, Camilleri’s politics include an untainted police force.
In 2012 Camilleri and Stephen Sartarelli, his English-language translator, each received one of the CWA Daggers: for the author, and for the translator. I cannot imagine there being no more Montalbano, no more than I can think ‘no more Camilleri’. Perhaps he’s found a comfortable cloud somewhere in writers’ heaven. I leave his last words: ‘In many crime novels, the events seem detached from the context. I deliberately decided to smuggle in a critical commentary on my times’.
by Ruth Morse, Judge/CWA International Dagger
Ruth Morse retired recently from her Chair at the Université Paris-Sorbonne-Cité (Diderot), having previously taught at the universities of London, Sussex, Leeds, and Cambridge. She has published many articles and reviews on a variety of topics including medieval literature, Shakespeare, and crime fiction, which she reviews for The Times Literary Supplement. She now teaches crime fiction at the National Humanities Center in the US and for the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge.