The Shape of Water, by Andrea Camilleri

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated by Stephen Sartarelli

According to Wikipedia, Andrea Camilleri wrote his first novel (The Way Things Go) in 1978 at the age of 53. A second followed two years later — neither attracted much attention so he took a 12 year break. A bestseller (The Hunting Season) was published in 1992 but Camilleri didn’t really find his “voice” — and most famous character — until two years later, when he introduced Inspector Montalbano to the world with this novel. The Wikipedia entry lists 16 Montalbano novels but there are 18 episodes of the television series, so I think it is a fair assumption that a couple more exist. Not bad for an author who didn’t find that signature character until he was approaching his 70th birthday.

This is a double review of both the Italian television show and the initial book in the series. Guy Savage put Mrs. KfC and I onto the video Montalbano some months back — Guy knows his noir (and detectives) and he recommended the Italian series in a comment. The show has been a hit for decades (Camilleri’s hometown of Porto Empedocle actually changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata in honor of the fictional Sicilian town he created for the series) but the North American DVDs — in Italian, with English subtitles — only became available last year. It is fair to say that we became instant, enthusiastic fans; we not only have watched all 18 episodes, we are well into a second viewing.

While I am a fan of English and European detective shows, I don’t normally follow that up with a reading of the books they are based on, but curiosity about Camilleri did get the better of me. According to his Wikipedia entry, Camilleri describes Montalbano as “a serial killer of characters”, meaning that “he has developed a life of his own and demands great attention from his author, to the demise of other potential books and different personages”. The Montalbano stories may be dark, but the sense of humor reflected in that comment is ever present.

While The Shape of Water was the first Inspector Montalbano book, it is actually episode four in the television series — the story is complex enough that the producers wisely opted for some simpler episodes to establish the cast of continuing characters before tackling this one. The story opens with two “ecological agents” (that would be garbage collectors) cleaning up “the Pasture”:

Until recently the Pasture had represented, for those who still went under the undignified name of garbage collectors, a cakewalk of a job: amid the scraps of paper, plastic bags, cans of beer and Coca-Cola, and shit piles barely covered up or left out in the open air, now and then a used condom would appear, and it would set one thinking, provided one had the desire and imagination to do so, about the details of that encounter. For a good year now, however, the occasional condom had turned into an ocean, a carpet of condoms, ever since a certain minister with a dark, taciturn face worthy of a Lombroso diagram had fished deep into his mind, which was even darker and more mysterious than his face, and come up with an idea he thought would solve all the South’s law-and-order problems.

Gegè [an old schoolmate of Montalbano's] , in short, succeeded in opening a specialized market of fresh meat and many and sundry drugs, all light, at the Pasture. Most of the meat came from the former Eastern Bloc countries, now free at last of the Communist yoke which, as everyone knows, had denied all personal, human dignity; now, between the Pasture’s bushes and sandy shore, come nightfall, that reconquered dignity shone again in all its magnificence. But there was also no lack of Third World women, transvestites, transsexuals, Neapolitan faggots, Brazilian viados — something for every taste, a feast, an embarrassment of riches. And business flourished, to the great satisfaction of the soldiers, Gegè, and those who, for a proper cut of the proceeds, had granted Gegè permission to operate.

On this day, however, the “ecological agents” discover something far different than the normal garbage: a luxury vehicle with the body of one Luparello, who only days earlier was named to the highest political office in the district. The garbagemen aren’t dumb — rather than calling the police, they call the lawyer Rizzo, known to all as the power behind the political throne. They can’t believe it when Rizzo summarily dismisses them.

With that, Camilleri (and Montalbano) are on their way. Luparello may have died of a heart attack but the Inspector has concerns about just why a person of such prominence (and integrity) would be visiting the Pasture for sex. As the novel unfolds, we will meet duelling Mafia gangs, a stunning Swedish rally car driver, a host of corrupt politicians (and judges) and some very decent, but very poor, people who are oppressed by all of that power.

That should be enough to whet your interest — the book is only 218 pages, proof positive that Camilleri moves complicated plot along at a breakneck pace.

I have to say, however, that the book does read like a screenplay and, alas, is not quite up to the television show. Before he started writing, Camilleri was in the television business and it shows. The novel supplies all the elements of the story but the Sicilian landscape and some wonderful acting not just by Luca Zingaretti who plays Montalbano but also by a very strong supporting cast have to be seen to be fully appreciated.

I did order four Montalbano books and will probably get to the other three at some point. I cannot be too enthusiastic about the television show, and the novel did bring back memories of it, but as entertaining as the novel was, it just isn’t up to the video version. Camilleri does deserve full marks for creating such an amazing “serial killer of a character”.

One final tease, however, in the form of an explanation for the title of the novel. It comes from Luparello’s widow:

“I’m not Sicilian; I was born in Grosseto and came to Montelusa when my father was made prefect here. We owned a small piece of land and a house on the slopes of the Amiata and used to spend our summers there. I had a little friend, a peasant boy, who was younger than me. I was about ten. One day I saw that my friend had put a bowl, a cup, a teapot, and a square milk carton on the edge of a well, had filled them all with water, and was looking at them attentively.

“‘What are you doing?’ I asked him. And he answered me with a question in turn.

“‘What shape is water?’

“‘Water doesn’t have any shape!’ I said, laughing. ‘It takes the shape you give it.’

At that moment the door to the library opened, and an angel appeared.

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20 Responses to “The Shape of Water, by Andrea Camilleri”

  1. Louise Says:

    Thank you for yet another recommendation! I’ve been reading your blog for some time; today I’d like to tell you how much I enjoy it. Thanks.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Louise: You are most welcome. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    I know crime isn’t your preferred genre, but I just wanted to say that the first book in a series is often a warming-up exercise. I thoroughly enjoyed The Shape of Water and was delighted with the subsequent novels I read. I think they get even better but I’m also willing to concede that I became fonder of the main character with each novel.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I will get to them at some point — the length makes them a good evening’s read and there are some evenings when interesting familiar characters and a strong plot are most welcome. The disadvantage of watching the shows first is that I can’t help but plug the story into the tv setting.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    I have a cupboard full of lightweight books that I read for a range of reasons. They serve a purpose. Sometimes they just fit the mood.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting Kevin. A foray into crime!

    Presently I’m more tempted by the tv show than the books, which perhaps just reflects my own reading backlog and the other stuff I’m currently working through. I suspect I’d enjoy the book a fair bit, but I also suspect I’d get to the series a lot sooner…

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Given the time you spent in Italy, I suspect you would find the tv series more interesting than the books. While I have only read the one book, it was for a fairly complex episode and the show contained all the dramatic parts of the book (Camilleri is not what I would call a lyrical writer so there was none of that to lose in the video version). The visuals, however, add an additional dimension and the acting from the continuing characters is outstanding. I have never been to Sicily (Capri is the only Italian island I have visited) but I found the setting added a lot to the drama. I don’t know how good your Italian is — I had no problem with the English subtitles and Mrs. KfC said she had no issue with following the Italian (in fact, one of the reasons we started with Montalbano was to help her brush up on it for a trip she is taking to Sardinia and Corsica this year).

    That is not meant to put down the book in any way. Like you, I have enough books on the shelf to keep me going — I found these episodes supplied the kind of challenging viewing that I enjoy when I want to take a break from reading. If you ever come across another Italian series called The Octopus (i.e. Mafia), it is every bit as good. In both cases, we found that the Italians manage to transfer some of their intriguing national characteristics to television in a way that was quite different from both British and American versions of similar stories.

  8. marco Says:

    (Camilleri is not what I would call a lyrical writer so there was none of that to lose in the video version).

    Well, actually one of the major selling points of his novels is the way the language shifts continually along the Italian/Sicilian axis .
    Not “lyrical” perhaps, but always enjoyable and often very funny (for example in Catarella’s speeches, whose mixing of Italian and dialect results in mangled words and hilarious malapropisms) . I’ve heard only good things about Sartarelli, but I guess effective translation of dialects remains a near-impossible task.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marco: Point taken — “lyrical” was probably the wrong word to use. Allow me a couple of clarifications:

    1. Had I more space, one of the positive things that I would have said about the book is the quality of dialogue (even if the dialect is not as good as it can be portrayed by actually speaking it) contained in it. It is in that sense that it does read like an expanded screen play — having seen the video version first, my impression was that much of the dialogue came straight from the book which is certainly a tribute to the writing.
    2. A disappointment with this book (not the author’s fault, I hasten to add) was that Catarella does not appear in it (I’m assuming from your comment that he does in others). He adds a powerful leavening effect to the more important story of conflict. In making this observation, of course, I’m indicating that I should try some of the other books since The Shape of Water is one of the more comlicated episodes as far as plot is concerned.
    3. What I meant by “lyrical” was the powerful images that the camera captures and Camilleri rarely tries to describe. The setting where Rizzo’s corpse is discovered is amazing film (I am not even sure what it is — a munitions dump, perhaps). The residences (both the opulent and the slums) add a depth to the class conflict of the story simply by being portrayed — more powerful for me than the author’s description.
    4. A brilliant aspect of the film version is that the street scenes feature virtually no pedestrians or even vehicles that aren’t directly involved in the story. Certainly that “absence” is part of the book (simply because there is no description), but its visual portrayal, which underlines the abstraction of the conflict between Montalbano and his opponents, is even more powerful.

    Again, I want to emphasize that I am not putting down the book. Overall, though, I would say this is a highly unusual case where the film adds depth to the printed version, rather than subtracting from it. which is the more normal case. My hypothesis would be that given Camilleri’s background in television and his personal knowledge of Sicily he was fully aware that that would take place.

  10. marco Says:

    I can see what you mean, both acting and visuals are excellent, and the films are usually so faithful that reading the books afterwards feels redundant.
    Of course here there’s always an adequate span of time between publication of the books and airing of the corresponding episodes.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marco: Your point about dialect and dialogue has landed with me and I am going to try the other three books I have on hand, although spaced out somewhat. I don’t speak Italian (or Sicilian), although I have to say the sound and rhythm of it after 18 episodes has its own effect.

    My impression is that Camilleri probably thought this volume would be a one-off when he wrote it, but discovered the “serial killer of a character” demanded more attention. Actually, not just Montalbano but the whole supporting cast of fellow cops, judges and so on. Which would explain why this original volume became episode four — there is more plot and less character (outside of Montalbano, of course) in this one than there is in most others.

  12. leroyhunter Says:

    This is an unread gift on my shelf, alas I’m not running in to pick it out after your review Kevin. The series as a whole is highly praised, indeed it was mentioned as one of the “10 best European crime series” by The Observer recently:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/gallery/2011/mar/13/crime-henning-mankell#/?picture=372548261&index=8

    So it seems like perseverance is rewarded.

    I must look out for The Octopus TV show, both you and Guy have mentioned it a few times now I think.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Thanks for that link — we have film versions of a number of them, but can’t say I have read any except for this volume. This whole exchange has led to some self-examination: Since I (actually, we) like European crime television so much, why don’t I read the books? And since I don’t like many movies, why this particular kind of video? My putative answer is that if I wanted to read more, I have many books lined up — I am in front of the screen precisely because I have had enough of reading for now (I’m retired, so I get to read all day). But the “bookish” side of me has not gone away, so faithful adaptations of decent crime fiction (I’d add Rebus, Morse and Foyle’s War as just a few other examples) seem the ideal alternative.

  14. marco Says:

    My impression is that Camilleri probably thought this volume would be a one-off when he wrote it, but discovered the “serial killer of a character” demanded more attention. Actually, not just Montalbano but the whole supporting cast of fellow cops, judges and so on.

    You’re absolutely right. The success of the first books was unexpected.
    I dimly remember an interview in which Camilleri claimed that the first sequels were the result of a sort of ‘friendly blackmail’.
    The publisher, Sellerio, was a very fine independent small press – Sicilian writers, Philosophy and Political writing, and an ecletic catalogue of literature in translation – Lévi-Strauss, Ghassan Khanafani,Bolaño (before he was Bolaño), Mary McCarthy, Diderot, Bonnefoy, Hildegard von Bingen etc. – and Elvira Sellerio used to visit him and casually drop things like “if you’d just give us another Montalbano, we could plan for a couple more books this year”.
    Afterwards obviously the characters grew on him. In a way it’s a pity, because one on one his non-series novels tend to be better – his masterpiece is not even a crime novel, but a Rashomon-like Historical farce told through a series of incidents and multiple viewpoints whose chapters can be read in any order.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marco: Thank you very much for this background. In some ways, it is a snapshot of what it takes to become a successful independent small press anywhere in the world: Just give us one writer who predictably sells and we can publish the really important books that don’t. :-)

    The publishing story is also a good illustration of how important regional “artisan” publishers are and the influence that they can have. When you consider that the Montalbano “industry” has expanded to the point that the fictional town’s name has become a real one, you can see that the serial influence of the character extends beyond the author.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marco: A question for you. When Mrs. KfC returns from one of her hiking trips, she usually asks “are they any good novels set there?” She is headed to Sardinia and Corsica next month — is there any fiction set there that has been translated into English?

  17. marco Says:

    Very little seems to be available in English, but I’ve discovered that Italica Press http://www.italicapress.com/index190.html
    has issued translations of two novels by Nobel Prize Winner Grazia Deledda (including Reeds in the Wind, her most famous work) as well as Sergio Atzeni’s Bakunin’s Son (a short novel in interviews). I’d recommend both.
    In the spirit of Literary twinning, I’ve decided my next book will be Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, which has suddenly surfaced from one of my piles. I see from her entry that she’s one of your favourite authors.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marco: Thanks for that research work on my behalf — I will check it out.

    The Stone Carvers is not my favorite Urquhart (that would probably be Away) but it is in the front rank. I would say that it is representative of her work.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marco: An update on my Deledda research, since she looks to be interesting (another Nobel winner who passed into commercial obscurity). Many of her works seem to have been translated and then moved into out-of-print status but are now available in reprints from the 1920s editions. I’ve pointed Mrs. KfC at The Mother, since a $3 e-book version is available. If that works, we will move on to Reeds in the Wind.

  20. Tom C Says:

    I tended to feel much the same as you that the screenplay elements were noticeable. The book didn’t seem to flow well and I ‘m afraid I lost interest before finishing it. Nice review – You sum it up perfectly in my view

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