07 April 2011

What's Wrong with the Vongolari?

The Italians. Besides being the name of Luigi Barzini’s excellent book of some years ago, to say the word “Italians” is also to say whew, who will ever understand them? Everyone has theories, but even Italians don’t understand the Italians.

Some things are easy to see: Italians are tribal. They owe loyalty first to family, last to nation. Their accidental country today is only slightly more unified than Libya and slightly more successful than Tunisia (with both of which countries Italy is historically tied). It’s easy to see the huge gap between south and north, commonplace to complain about cynical politicians and do-nothing bureaucrats. You can see all that and not begin to unravel what makes Italy, Italy.

I’ve decided to go to Rome next month to clear up the confusion. I’ll inspect any number of heavenly meals, talk Italian with a few patient natives, and let you know what the heck’s going on over there.

To prepare myself I’ve been poring over guides to Rome and reading the Italian detective novels of Andrea Camilleri, a native of Sicily now living in Rome, and Donna Leon, an American who lived in Venice for thirty years.

Both authors wrestle with modern Italy on every page, trying to explain and understand how Italians came to live in such a gorgeous and messed-up place.

In “August Heat” by Andrea Camilleri, Inspector Salvo Montalbano discovers that his suspect “happens to be the mayor’s brother-in-law” in the fictitious town of Vigata, Sicily, and gets almost all the city’s building contracts.

“And they let him do that?” the Inspector asks, as if he didn’t already know the answer. “Yes they do, because he pays his dues in equal part to both the Cuffaros and Sinagras...” the two dominant Mafia families in the area.

“So the final cost of every contract ends up being double the figure established at the outset... poor Spitaleri can’t do it any differently, otherwise he’d be operating at a loss.”

So much for the Mafia. In case a reader of these mysteries set in Sicily might imagine noble Venice relatively free of corruption, Donna Leon early in her book “A Sea of Troubles” is quick to point to another state of things.

Leon’s mystery is set on the island of Pellestrina, on the Venetian lagoon, home to a number of close-knit fishing families.

“I don’t know enough about the way things work out here,” a policeman from Venice reports, “but that’s the feeling I get: there’s too many of them and too few fish left...”

In one scene Commissario Guido Brunetti interviews a lagoon pilot whose job brings him in contact with these fishermen.

“The vongolari (clam fishermen)... “they’re hyenas. Or vultures. They suck up everything with their damned vacuum cleaner scoops, rip up the breeding beds, destroy whole colonies... The bastards dig them up right in front of Porto Marghera, and God knows what’s been pumped or dumped into the water there. I’ve seen the bastards, anchored there at night, with no lights, scooping them up, not fifty meters from the sign saying that the waters are contaminated and fishing’s forbidden.”

“But isn’t there some control, doesn’t someone check them?” Brunetti asks. “(The pilot) smiled at such innocence... there are all sorts of inspectors, Dottore, (he) answered... but that doesn’t mean anything gets inspected, or, if it does, that whatever they find gets reported.”

“Why not?” Brunetti asks, as any reasonable reader of this mystery might. “Instead of speaking... he contented himself with rubbing his thumb across the end joint of his first three fingers.”

Both Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri love the land and the people. At the same time they clearly are unsettled over things they’ve learned. The way things work in Italy makes its residents crazy, angry, or much more common, indifferent.

There is no other country in the world where things are so messed up and at the same time so beautiful. The ever-clever Italian way of life is an affront to things most Americans believe. Life in Italy is a riddle not likely to be solved no matter how many excellent books are published, no matter how many times one travels there.


“A Sea of Troubles” by Donna Leon. Penguin paperback $14. ISBN 9780143116202.

“August Heat” by Andrea Camilleri. Penguin paperback $14. ISBN 9780143114055.

Publisher web sites for Donna Leon include Grove Atlantic Press  and Random House UK 

Andrea Camilleri on the web can be found here and here and even here with an explanation of how the town of Vigata came to be invented.


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