Thursday, August 6, 2015

“But where the hell did we make a mistake?” - Andrea Camilleri's silly, smutty Sciascia novel

The Brewer of Preston is a 1995 Andrea Camilleri novel that is not part of his long-running, 23-volume (as of now) Inspector Montalbano mystery series.  It is set in the same town, except 120 years earlier, and it does feature a police inspector who is indistinguishable from Montalbano, although at this point there was no series but just a single Montalbano novel.  Anyway, The Brewer of Preston is not a mystery novel, not really, although it has a detective novel subplot.  More of a comic parody that turns sour, by which I mean a standard portrait of life in Sicily.

A Florentine official decides that the hostile (this is 1875, just a few years after unification) populace of his Sicilian town needs more culture , so he rams an opera down their angry throats.  The opera is a real one – in fact the historical incident is real, discovered by Camilleri in The Report on the Social and Economic Conditions of Sicily (1875-1876) – although why a 19th century Italian opera composer thought a story about an English brewer was a good idea is beyond me. 

“And we’re supposed to inaugurate our new Vigàta theatre with an opera by this mediocrity just because our distinguished prefect is besotted with him?” asked Headmaster Cozzo, menacingly touching the back pocket in which he kept his revolver.

“Oh Jesus, blessed Jesus,” said the canon.  “Mozart alone is a funeral, so we can well imagine what a bad copy of a bad original is like!”  (17)

Camilleri notes that “[m]erely mentioning the name of Mozart, inexplicably despised by Sicilians, was like uttering a curse or blasphemy” (16).  This is why I read, to learn about other cultures.

In real history, the result was unrest and arrests.  In the novel, quite a bit more.  Arson, riots, murders. Mafia business.  Sex – Camilleri’s non-Montalbano novels are kind of smutty.

The paragraph where Headmaster Cozzo’s pistol goes off is a fine thing.  “The bullet – happy to be free after decades of confinement – treated itself to a flight itinerary that would have driven a ballistics expert mad” (191).  If you say on p. 17 that there is a pistol in the Headmaster’s pocket, by p. 191 it absolutely must go off.

The story is told out of sequence, the chapters in an order that Camilleri calls a “suggestion” (236).  The last chapter, for example, is Chapter I of a book by one of the characters.   The first sentence of each and every chapter is a reference to the first sentence of some other book.  Melville, Schnitzler, Gadda, Sterne, Calvino, etc. Thankfully the translator, Stephen Sartarelli, identifies them all; who in the devil remembers the first line of Man’s Fate, or any of the rest of it, for that matter?

There is a lot of goofing around with fiction, is what I am saying.  A good bit of goofing around more generally.  But as each subplot moves to the end, it curdles.  The detective story goes wrong, the political story collapses, and even the bit about a local mafioso becomes bitter.

Arelio, meanwhile, was helping Cocò back on his feet, since he couldn’t manage on his own, doubled over and moaning as he was.  None of the people looking on made any sign of wanting to help.

“But where the hell did we make a mistake?” Arelio asked himself aloud.

He had no answer; nor did the idlers around him, who resumed idling, nor the passersby, who passed on by.  (210)

Many characters could ask that question by the end of the novel.  This is why I wanted to write about Leonardo Sciascia.  Camilleri has actually written a sillier, smuttier Sciascia novel, a good copy of a good original.  Perhaps because of the imperatives of a series, or perhaps because Sicily really has improved, Camilleri’s detective novels cannot give expression to a full Sciascia-like pessimism.  But back in 1875, away from Montalbano, he is free.


  1. " why a 19th century Italian opera composer thought a story about an English brewer was a good idea is beyond me. "

    There's Donizetti's Emilia di Liverpool (also known as L'eremitaggio di Liverpool), set partly in a hermitage in Liverpool, partly in the nearby mountains, as a companion piece. At least The Brewer of Preston has a geographically convincing job...
    Who wrote the original opera, by the way?

  2. Emilia di Liverpool! That is great.

    Luigi Ricci is the composer of The Brewer of Preston. He was a Neapolitan knockoff of Donizetti. Maybe that is why he thought he needed an "English" opera - he was inspired by Emilia di Liverpool.

  3. I was not aware of this anomaly in Camilleri's work, but have very much enjoyed the six or seven books I've read so far in the series.

    Sicily has really improved since Sciascia's hey-day, from what I understand. Er, well, relatively speaking.

  4. The move from Verga to Sciascia to Camilleri is evidence for the existence of progress.

    Mia moglie has read the other non-Montalbano Camilleri that is in English (although she read it in German), Hunting Season, which is also set in 19th century Vigàta, and says it is similarly farcical and smutty, although maybe it does not make the smae swerve towards Sciascia as this one.

  5. Luigi Ricci has my respect. His operas were quite successful. Besides, he fell in love with identical twins, and wrote an opera for them, which is like something out of Roussel.

  6. Ricci composed an opera for identical twins? That is wonderful.