Archive for January, 2010

Donna Leon (2009) – About Face

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

By the time I got to page 3, I was smiling.  Police commissario Brunetti’s wife Paola declares he is “really very much like Henry James.”  He considers the information.


‘Does that mean I’m really meant to be a writer, too?’  How nice it would be if she answered yes.


She dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand …, ‘It makes you interesting to live with, though.’


Better than being a writer, Brunetti thought as he followed after her.


And the smiles just kept coming.  On page 4, Brunetti makes a mock-disparaging remark about the command-performance dinner party Paola’s parents have invited them to.


Paola stopped in her tracks….  She gave him a variation on the Look, her only recourse in his moments of verbal excess.


‘Sì, tesoro?’ he asked in his sweetest voice.


‘Let’s just stand here while you use up all of your humorous remarks about my parents’ place in society, and when you’ve calmed down, we’ll go upstairs … and you will behave like a reasonably civilized person at dinner.  How does that sound to you?’


Brunetti nodded.  ‘I like it, especially the part about “reasonably civilized”.’


Her smile was radiant.  ‘I thought you would, dear.’


I was hooked.  The writing is casually delightful, filled with the pleasure of making words evoke and illuminate the small and large joys of everyday life.  Odd, but not unpleasant, to focus in on pleasant little sparkles in a murder mystery.  Perhaps it’s a way to maintain one’s humanity.


Many of the highlights of the text for me have little to do with the murder plot.  I like the scene (pp.62-3) in which Guido and Paola’s daughter, Chiara, complains in high adolescent dudgeon about pollution levels reported to be above the “legal limits”.  Chiara rants and rages for half a page or so, working herself up to a final rhetorical flourish along the lines of: What do they expect us to do?  Stop breathing?


Afterwards, Brunetti reflects on his feelings in response to Chiara’s heartfelt little tempest.


Brunetti had loved this child from the … moment Paola told him she was pregnant with their second child.  All of that love stood between Brunetti and the temptation to tell her that they lived in a country where nothing much ever happened to anyone who broke the law.


Shortly thereafter, Paola and Guido are talking about Chiara’s jeremiad.


‘I’m glad you didn’t toss oil … on Chiara’s enthusiasm.’


‘It didn’t seem to me,” Brunetti replied, ‘as if she needed any encouragement….  I’m glad that she’s so angry.’


‘Me, too,’ said Paola, ‘though I suppose we’d better disguise our approval.’




The proper category for About Face is police procedural, but it reads rather like a novel whose protagonist happens to be a policeman.  That is praise indeed. 


Characterization is often problematical in books that aspire to be Literature.  Too often it seems that authors write characters they don’t really know and force them into doing whatever is necessary to move the plot along, including making stilted speeches explaining their putative motivations–as if that could take the place of personality. 


I don’t think Leon aspires for About Face to be anything other than a Good Read—but then, a Good Read is what makes Literature, not the other way around; so About Face qualifies as literature in my book (so to speak).  Characters relate realistically to one another and we care what happens to them.  I haven’t read any other books in the series, so all of the characters are new to me.  But, remarkably, characters who must have long been familiar to regular readers come across as real individuals, not just reminders of people one is supposed to remember from previous episodes.  The author knows them so well that who they are is clear from what they do.  Let’s tick them off: Guido Brunetti; his wife, Paola; their children Raffi and Chiara; Paola’s parents; Signorina Elettra; patrolman Alvise; Griffoni, Pucetti; Vianello; Scarpa; and, not least, Vice-Questore Patta.  This is not a long book.  That’s quite an accomplishment.  Add to that the characters presumably new to this installment: carabiniere Guarino, Signorina Landi, Cataldo, Franca Marinello, Antonio Tessera, Vasco and more.  I’m impressed.  Sure, Cataldo and Tessera are stock characters, and Patta is an affectionate caricature rather than a character, but they are all deftly sketched and they come alive—for me, anyway.




The Questura is not like the standard-issue police precinct of American police procedurals.  Signorina Elettra wears designer clothes to the office; commissaria Griffoni has a major fur coat.  These are not your ordinary, hard-working women from Brooklyn or Queens.


The plot is nicely crafted.  I was saddened by the news of Guarino’s murder mostly because he was an interesting character and I would have liked to find out more about him.  I don’t fault the author for killing him off.  It was a bit unexpected but not implausible.  The major coincidence (one of which a mystery writer is, of course, entitled to introduce without apology) is the connection that runs Brunetti – Paola – Paola’s parents – Cataldo – Franca – Tessera – Ranzato – Guarino.  A rather long chain, each link of which does not strain credulity, although the whole thing draws down on the author’s coincidence account.  Nonetheless, to the author’s credit, the account never becomes overdrawn.


The central element of the story is Franca Marinello, she of the appalling facelift that the title of the book alludes to.  Franca is a remarkable character: a woman whose easy familiarity with the Latin classics captivates Brunetti (also a Latin classics buff).  When we (and Brunetti) meet her, we see that she is witty, charming, and able to enjoy Brunetti’s gentle repartee.  But her face makes her something of an enigma.  At one point, her dinner table conversation with Brunetti takes a surprising turn (p.12):


            [Franca]           ‘It’s Cicero I like best on politics.’


            [Brunetti]          ‘Why?’


            [Franca]           ‘Because he’s such a good hater.’


What?  What?  Because he’s such a good hater?  What’s going on here?  From this brief exchange, we learn that there is more to Franca than meets the eye.  We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s there and we wonder about it.  The exchange didn’t really stick with me the first time I read the book, but it jumped out at me when I re-read the dinner party scene to refresh my memory.  As we learn later, Franca is a good hater, too.


The crux of the plot is Franca Marinello’s explanation of why she allowed herself to be blackmailed by Tessera.  Is it plausible?  Do we believe it?  The author addresses the problem in an interesting way: she has Brunetti talk it over with his wife, Paola, who bridles emphatically when Brunetti asks (p.268), “Would a woman let something like that go on for two years?”  Paola objects both to the form of the question—“would a woman…”—and to Brunetti’s seeming insensitivity to the fact that Tessera was a clear and present threat to both Franca and Cataldo.


Paola also objects to the question “Do you believe that she felt she had do sacrifice herself to keep her husband’s illusions about himself intact?”  Paola’s response (I hope I’m summarizing this accurately) is that the situation was essentially an ongoing rape, and one should not rush to criticize the decisions of a woman being raped.  Society (at least our society) recognizes that being raped is not a moral failing; the woman’s moral judgment is not involved.  The core question is whether the situation was indeed an ongoing rape.  Paola is clear that the answer is yes.  “Well, I’d give her a medal,” Paola declares.


It’s a conundrum.  Whether the logic is correct or not, it just doesn’t feel right to charge Franca with a crime; and that gut feeling validates the dénouement.  It’s difficult (but not necessarily pointless—even though I won’t try to do it) to pin down exactly what is being balanced against what and how the sides of the logical argument are to be weighed in order to justify the obviously desirable outcome.  That is what it is to be human and humane.  To struggle to figure out the right thing to do and then to do it.

Alexis Wright (2006) – Carpentaria

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Up until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about Australian literature.  Then, a brief article in the Financial Times appeared surveying recent works by Australian writers, drawing particular attention to Carpentaria by Alexis Wright (2006).  From the Internet I learned that Carpentaria is a book about the Aboriginal experience in Australia.  The author is herself Aboriginal, “a member of the Waanyi nation” (says the jacket blurb).


I have to confess that on that information I was, frankly disposed not to bother with the book.  I have not been particularly impressed with the writings produced by first this, then that, then yet another oppressed ethnic or socially defined group describing how difficult and unfair it is (was) to grow up (live) in (alongside) a society predisposed to discount, exploit, and disdain members of the group.  Not that it wasn’t difficult and unfair—I have no doubt that it was and is—but rather that (standing Tolstoy’s remark about happy and unhappy families on its head) all oppressed peoples document and complain about their experiences in the same way—only the identities of the peoples and the names they are called as part of their oppression seem to change from one Searing Indictment to the next.


However, there was something in reviews of Carpenteria—a puzzled reaction to the novel’s voice and a sense that the reviewers had been challenged by its content and had come away with real, if unanticipated, literary satisfaction.  When multiple reviewers puzzle, it is generally a reaction to either noteworthy literature or utter nonsense.  I didn’t want to miss out if it turned out to be the former and I could always put the book down if it was the latter.  I decided to give the book a chance.


Daniel Lord Smail, in his 2007 book On Deep History and the Brain, suggests that the history of art and culture is the discernible manifestation of an ongoing human quest for psychotropic self-medication—the collective result of individuals seeking and discovering sources of novel feelings and experiences that the human brain creates in response to unfamiliar stimuli.  In effect, art and culture coalesce around things that keep us from being bored—that make us think and feel in unaccustomed ways.  But the art and culture of the past are never sufficient (been there, done that), so art and culture continue to evolve.  Carpentaria fits right in by not fitting in.


Carpentaria, read from the vantage point of one unfamiliar with all but the barest outlines of Australian history (namely me) conjures up a totally alien world that is at the same time accessible through the universally human individuals (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, alike) who populate it.  The novel evokes the imaginary Queensland coastal town of Desperance—with its two populations, “Uptown” (the whites) and “Pricklebush” (the Aboriginals)—as scrupulously observed by a cultured and sophisticated, Aboriginal, omniscient, third-person narrator from outside of the events described.  The narrative voice is challenging in that it does not hew to a strict temporal progression of incidents, but rather flies through and circles around a story as if its elements were floating together in a cloud, available for observation and elaboration at will, exposing slightly different appearances depending on the narrator’s path through the cloud. The author’s remark on the underlying storytelling tradition is that “stories lasted months on end, and if you did not visit [the home of the storyteller] often, you would never know how the story ended.”  (p.476)   Nevertheless, the novel’s episodes cohere.  This is not willful, in-your-face messing with the reader’s mind.  Stories emerge expeditiously enough.  One simply has to allow the author to tell the tale as best it seemeth her, and she holds up her end of the bargain, delivering a rich portrait of a time, a place, and two peoples. 


Oh, me of little faith!  Shortly after I wrote the preceding paragraph, a quarter of the way through the book, I started getting really lost—in spite of my fine words about the charms of the untraditional narrative voice.  Then, pow!  This slow-moving tortoise-paced novel became a page-turner, complete with guys shooting from a helicopter.  Who’da thunk it?  I zoomed through the next quarter of the book.  From there on, I wanted to know how things would end.  I wanted to know what would happen to the characters and how they would change in response.  There were still some challenging passages when I was unsure of who was real and who was imaginary, but I enjoyed working it out and found the overall experience satisfying. 


Wright wields a deft pen.  She describes small-town backbiting:


Up and down … people went, chucking around their suspicions about each other and casting aspersions around nilly-pilly with their hostile staring about what other people might be thinking, and cutting up the air into thin little ribbons. (p.132) 


The central character, Normal Phantom, recalls his estrangement from his son, Will:


Norm still pictured him packing and firing his words like bullets, “You are wrong, man.  You want to take a reality check on the situation, man.”  Norm remembered those words, very insulting, new words around these parts.  He frequently had a chance to think about what Will said, so much so he often used his son’s handful of words on others, to be impressive in an argument.  (p.231-2)


Norm remembers his wife, Angel Day, who was none too faithful and one day ran away with an unlikely rival.  Norm’s official reaction was, good riddance.


He was shocked to see a secret intimacy residing within her.  He had never before seen this face from her childhood transcending through the travesties of their life together….  She walked with a tranquility and a beauty that was her normal face, but which she had carefully folded up and stored away, saved only now for stolen occasions of when she was completely alone.  (p.242)


How people fail to intervene to stop incitements to violence:


Without saying a word, because the meek do not speak, they went heave-ho, in favour of chucking out madness.  Everyone who was not talking animal madness like they were hearing was quiet.  Instead, they said, without saying a single word, if it was going to be like that—okay then.  No one would bother speaking anymore.


What in this novel is real, what is hallucination, what are dreams, what are ravings, what is didactic storytelling integral to an Aboriginal world-view?  It is sometimes hard to tell. But I was glad I didn’t abandon my reading midstream.  Looking back, I think I understand most of the story—it’s a tragedy and a triumph acted out against a background of white Australian prejudice, incomprehension, and incomprehensibility.  If I have to relate it to something in the American psyche, I will say that the world described is a cross between what happened with the American Indian and what happened with American Blacks.  Carpentaria’s characters are quite alien and at the same time fully human.  I cared what happened to them.  That, of course, is the test of real literary art.  This is a novel that requires work to understand—and thus a novel not for those who like their literary experience to be served up in good stolid Victorian narrative style—but if you are up for a rewarding return on a mind-bending investment, I highly recommend Carpentaria.