Wednesday, July 17, 2019


"When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation", said Borges and it is true that we still have the works to console us. However, when a writer as great and as dear to the people of his birthplace as Andrea Camilleri dies, the feeling that something irretrievable is lost prevails and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Sicily is in mourning.

I didn't know until this morning that Andrea Camilleri had named his most famous character, il commissario Montalbano or Inspector Montalbano in English, after the Spanish writer Manuel Varques Montalbán, which I think is a nice touch. I also learned this morning - and I mention it because it makes Andrea Camilleri seem more like someone I'd have enjoyed having a coffee with - that, like me, he had been unable to get through any book by Dan Brown.

Most of us, of course, were introduced to Camilleri through the Montalbano books and TV series and I remember being in Sicily (eleven years before I settled here) when the first book featuring the gastronome detective came out. "This is by a new author", said a friend. "You might find the dialect parts difficult but try it." Now, I am not a fan of detective fiction but I think we can all admit that Montalbano is different and when the series was first shown I have to say it helped that he was played by Luca Zingaretti! 

The stories have certainly played their part in putting Sicily on the tourist map and nearly every town in this area offers versions of "Gli arancini di Montalbano" or "Montalbano's rice balls". Distrustful of food not prepared by a home cook or at least by the  restaurant owner Calogero - who shares the author's second name - Montalbano is witty and also knowledgeable about food, as are most Sicilians I know.

"Mangiarono parlando di mangiare, come sempre accade" - "They ate while talking of eating, as often happens", wrote Camilleri in La forma dell'acqua and in Sicily indeed it does.

Camilleri's sense of humour was sometimes dark, always down to earth and often ironic and, along with his defence of migrants and fearless criticisms of certain politicians, sometimes it made him enemies as well as friends, a fact that sadly became apparent when he was hospitalised in June and again today. Let us use British understatement for a moment to say that there was no love lost between Matteo Salvini and Camilleri but Salvini did have the decency to tweet a brief tribute this morning. Some of the latter's fans, unfortunately, demonstrated little of that virtue. But, as the author said,

"Un autentico cretino è difficile a trovarsi in questi tempi in cui i cretini si camuffano da intelligenti" - "A real idiot is hard to find in these times in which idiots disguise themselves as intellectuals."

The Montalbano books, set in imaginary Vigàta and filmed mostly in and around Ragusa, Punta Secca, Scicli and Modica, combine tales of the commissario's investigations with asides on Sicilian food and life, feature current events and have a cast of characters that all those who read them feel they know personally. 

I would like to add to the tributes by thanking Andrea Camilleri for bringing the place I came to love so much that I have made it my home to world attention in a positive way.

In 2017 Camilleri said of the blindness that had afflicted him in old age,

"Sono cieco, ma perdendo la vista tutti gli altri sensi si riacutizzano, vanno in soccorso. La memoria è diventata più forte, ricordo più cose di prima con molta lucidità e scrivo sempre."
"I am blind, but losing my sight made all my other senses more acute. They have come to the rescue. My memory has improved, I remember more things than before with great lucidity, and I still write."

When asked what he missed, he said,
"Mi manca la bellezza delle donne" - "I miss seeing the beauty of women."

The last Montalbano book awaits publication in a safe, where Camilleri had intended having it kept until the time was right, a decision which is now presumably in the hands of his publishers.

Camilleri recently said that he felt something approaching but didn't know what it was, adding that he liked to call it Eternity. Sì, maestro, let's call it that.

Andrea Camilleri:  6.9.1925, Porto Empedocle, Sicily - 17.7.2019, Rome

Actors' caravans for filming of Montalbano in Modica,
May 2019. The caravans are for Mimi Augello and Fazio.


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