The bloody Continental take on an American genre
By DANA KLETTER
read from Europa Editions' Mediterranean Noir Reader
It all starts with murder. Since Dashiell Hammett took the crime story out of the drawing room and into the street, mystery has ceased to be the meat of the story. Hammett used his crime fiction as a magnifying glass to examine capitalism’s toll on America. Sometimes he found his perp in that lens, but it was less about whodunit and more about who had the power and money to do what he or she wanted.
Crime fiction in Italy and France today has become as prevalent as it was in the US in Hammett’s heyday. The “Mediterranean noir” novel also acts as a lens, trained on European political and social structures. The best of it is making its way to the United States via publishing houses such as Europa Editions and the New York Review of Books Classics series.
American noir was peopled with hoods, hard blondes and the rich husbands who owned them, and all the yeggs in yeggdom. Mediterranean noir portrays a Europe where the detritus of postwar, post-Soviet, and post-colonial society drifts across the continent, battling, exploiting, ripping off, and killing one another. Spanish anarchists, Albanian lap dancers, Croatian war criminals, Romanian whores, Moroccan drug dealers — it’s not so much that they have a price, it’s that they have no place.
Massimo Carlotto’s hard-boiled thriller, The Goodbye Kiss (Europa; originally published in 2000), begins, of course, with murder, specifically a “double-crossing execution.” Pelligrini, a former Italian leftist revolutionary and self-proclaimed “prick filled with delusions of grandeur,” has been on the run ever since he killed a man. Sentenced to life in absentia, he makes a run for it — to Central America, where he plays at being a revolutionary. When Pelligrini has had enough of the brutal life of the jungle guerrilla, which makes his militant activities in Milano seem like a game, he decides to return home. He shoots his only friend in the back and heads for Italy. Thus begins Pelligrini’s mission to erase his past.
Pelligrini wants to be an ordinary guy — “like everybody else . . . just a face in the crowd” — but he can’t untangle himself from the criminal life. Fractured Europe’s displaced millions provide him with an endless supply of accomplices. Neo-Nazis, latter-day Leninists, every asshole holding a grudge over the loss of a beloved country that was autonomous for five minutes in the 16th century — Pelligrini uses them all. Each new scenario that holds the promise of bringing him the money he needs to be free comes with a new set of problems. And the only solution he can see is to kill everyone and start again. The Goodbye Kiss is not for the squeamish. The body count is high, the nihilism quotient higher.
The novel plays off Carlotto’s autobiography. He was a member of the radical left-wing Lotta Continua, the Ongoing Struggle. Implicated in a murder, he was acquitted, then re-arrested and retried. He escaped to South America but eventually came back to Italy to turn himself in. It took 18 years to clear himself, eight of which he spent in prison. Today he is the reigning king of Mediterranean noir; his “Alligator” detective series has made him one of the most popular authors in Italy.
The American noir hero/anti-hero was a wiseacre. He held hard to his Emersonian individualism. He pooh-poohed the idea that he might have any redeeming features. Books and films showed psychological portraits of alienated and ascetic guys who might have been good, if things hadn’t gone bad. They used the language of the street and the poetry of violence, and, in the guise of genre writing, critiqued social corruption (“It is not a fragrant world,” Raymond Chandler said) in a way that highbrow literature couldn’t seem to.
Hammett and James M. Cain’s bleak portraits of modernity spoke not only to Camus and Sartre, but to succeeding generations of writers who have appropriated the form — crime fiction with noir’s characteristic dark fatalism — and turned its penetrating gaze on their own societies.
The protagonist of Jean Claude Izzo
’s Total Chaos
(Europa; originally published in 1995, and set in the early ’90s), Fabio Montale, illustrates the difference between the American- and Mediterranean-noir hero. He values, above all else, loyalty to the friends he grew up with in the projects of Marseilles. Despite the fact that he’s a cop and they are criminals, their shared heritage — the children of hard-working Italian and Spanish immigrants fleeing Mussolini and Franco, they “did the jobs the French wouldn’t touch” — bound them. A sense of community and a debt of honor draw Montale to the old neighborhood to investigate their murders.
To solve the crime, he must negotiate the street gangs, corrupt cops, and Mafioso of the crumbling projects, and battle the rising neofascist and fundamentalist movements. The chapter headings are a poetic shorthand for Montale’s real and existential struggle: “In Which the Most Honorable Thing a Survivor Can Do Is Survive”; “In Which at Moments of Misfortune You Remember You’re an Exile.”
Izzo, who died in 2000 at the age of 55, scatters his prose with song lyrics, poetry, and fantastic descriptions of the sun-dazzled, sordid city. The austerity of American noir is supplanted by every sensual delight Marseilles has to offer: beautiful women, perfectly grilled sea bream with aioli, copious amounts of rosé and pastis.
The novels of Leonardo Sciascia (1921–1989; pronounced “shasha”), recently released by the New York Review of Books Classics series, are the most elegant of the Mediterranean detective fiction. Sciascia’s writing owes more to Pirandello and Calvino than to Hammett or Chandler. Both lyric and ironic, his prose reveals a stratified Sicily, the island’s inhabitants embedded and held by each layer of sediment: church, family, political party, and Mafia. All are bound by a code of silence and resigned to the way things are, always have been, and always will be.
In The Day of the Owl, one of Sciascia’s best books, Bellodi, a “mainlander,” as the natives derisively call him, comes south from Parma to serve as captain of the carabinieri. He must solve the broad-daylight murder of a local businessman who resisted the Mafia’s demand for protection money. Eyewitnesses will reveal nothing, their faces “as if disinterred from the silence of centuries.” The local snitch, whose job is as much to mislead as to enlighten, meets with Bellodi. He gives him misinformation, thinking of “those other informers buried under a thin layer of soil and dried leaves high in folds of the Apennines ... staking their lives on the razor’s edge of a lie between partisans and fascists.” He is shot on his own doorstep.
In between chapters, anonymous dialogue — conversations unattributed but understood to be among politicians, Mafioso, and clergy — is a “Greek chorus” singing the party line: there is no Mafia, there is no collusion, outsiders will never understand.
In the showdown between Bellodi and the reigning don, Bellodi does not grasp what he is facing: “Beyond the pale of morality and law, incapable of pity, an unredeemed mass of human energy and loneliness, of instinctive tragic will.” Sciascia wrote fearlessly about Sicilian society in which “ ‘right’ had always been suffocated by violence.” His true-crime close reading of the kidnap and murder of prime minister Aldo Moro in The Moro Affair laid bare the corruption of Italy. In fact, all of his books are haunted by the fascist past, which forever compromises his beloved country’s future.