Published 4.18.2017. Europa Editions: New York. Translated by Stephen Sartarelli. 208 pages.
However high-minded my pretentions as a critic, I have a growing soft spot for a certain strain of comic crime fiction produced by such popular bestselling Italian authors as Massimo Carlotto, Donna Leon, Maurizio de Giovanni, and the elder statesman of this group, Andrea Camilleri. I can’t help but burst my sides at the over-the-top macabre plotlines, bumbling bureaucrats, unrealistically beautiful female characters, and clownish don Everydudes who spout cornball lines like, “He could tell she had huge huevos rancheros,” or “We’re taking it straight up the ass here!” Ah dio mio! I find such demotic crudities almost endearing when they come mixed (as they usually do) with genuine lyrical beauty and those frequent gems of the wise-cracking art which these writers seem to specialize in.
Graphic design by Emanuele Ragnisco
Perhaps it is the humidity in Italy (Winckelmann seemed to think so), or the breathtaking audacity of their mafiosis, paparazzos, and Berlusconis, but there seems nothing more natural to the Italian crime writer than slyly mugging for the reader, as if to say, Can you believe these sons-of-bitches? And that can be balming for we on this side of the Atlantic who are now experiencing our own age of brazenness, of Trump, of EPA administrators with soundproof booths and oversized security retinues, of trillion-dollar tax breaks scrawled in the margins of a bill and voted on in the dead of night; increasingly we can believe at least in the existence of such comic supervillains, but it’s nice (and motivating) to be able to laugh at them while plotting our resistance.
Although The Revolution of the Moon, Andrea Camilleri’s recent foray into historical fiction, was written in 2013, its depiction of a kleptocratic Sicily of the mid-17th century feels strikingly relevant to our particular moment, while the novel’s main plot is an equally enjoyable feminist wish fulfillment fantasy—like Django Unchained, but with political chicanery serving in place of gratuitous gore—and transposed onto a brief, but winnningly-dramatized historical episode; and while the dialogue can sometimes sound like early modern Goodfellas, judging ribald entertainments like these for their historical accuracy or adherence to the canons of realism is silly and besides the point.
Sicily in 1677 is governed by the Spanish viceroy Don Angel de Guzmán with the assistance of his Holy Royal Council, a group of Sicilian bishops and nobles who advise him on what laws to pass and how to govern. One day the viceroy, who has rapidly ballooned into morbid obesity since his recent arrival in Sicily, suddenly stops moving while the Council is in session, presumably because he has suffered a stroke—though at that moment, no one outside the chamber is aware that the viceroy is dead. The nobles, led on by don Giustino Aliquo, prince of Ficarazzi and Grand Captain of Justice, decide now is the chance they have been waiting for for so many years to usher in every corrupt kleptocratic policy they lacked the impunity to pass during the already iniquitous reigns of don Angel and his predecessors.
And in the hour and a half that followed, the Councillors cared not only for their own little business matters, but also those of their relatives, friends, and friends of friends. Whole estates were transferred from one noble house to another by decree, unsettled inheritances ended up going places where the Testators could never have imagined they would go, people with the consciences of wolves were named administrators of Justice and Crown properties, appointed tutors of extremely rich orphan girls, put in charge of miserably failing enterprises. Last on the agenda, a large biannual subsidy, at the request of Simone Trecca, marquis of la Trigonella, was approved for a charitable institution that he had founded the previous year at his own expense.
Sound like anyone? The charitable institution, ostensibly for orphaned girls, is actually a brothel house, and Camilleri is not subtle in showing how the entire power structure of this society is set up to satisfy the whims and appetites of wealthy, powerful men. At a lower level, women are beaten by their husbands who in turn have been cheated by the system; everyone punches down.
But then there is a dramatic twist: a letter is produced with the noble seal of the late don Angel. In the event of his death, the viceroyalty should pass not to the Grand Captain of Justice (on whom it was quickly vested in the rush to plunder as word of don Angel’s death was not yet disseminated), but rather on the late viceroy’s wife, donà Eleonora de Mora, a mysterious Spanish lady whom none of them has seen before. This is announced by the protonotary, a shy court functionary with an unfortunate commitment to the letter of the law.
Not so the Grand Captain, who has just had himself named viceroy:
“This testament is completely worthless!”
“Why?” asked the bishop. “It’s written in the viceroy’s own hand, and there’s even his seal!”
“Because . . . because . . . ,” the Grand Captain began, desperately searching for any reason whatsoever for what he’d just said. But not a single one came to mind.
The Grand Captain and prince of Ficarazzi is to Sicily what Thucydides son of Melesias was in Periclean Athens and what Mitch McConnell is to present-day American politics: the leader of an uncompromising anti-progressive faction who has decided that his plutocratic ends justify any means and nothing less than total opposition is called for, no matter what the particulars are in the given situation, because any victory for the other side is a defeat for his own party. (Or as the Bard puts in the mouth of Don John, “If I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way.”) He already knows what he must say in any situation, and will come up with plausible reasons for saying it later. There ensues a dispute over the exact statutory authority that governs the line of succession, hilariously reminiscent of the scuffle over the directorship of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau just weeks ago.
But in donà Eleonora, the prince of Ficarazzi has met with an unexpectedly formidable adversary. Impossibly beautiful (since Camilleri could apparently present her no otherwise), with a touch of the exotic in how liberally her Italian is peppered with Spanish, she immediately wins some members of the court over to her side by mere charisma alone. Yet Camilleri also makes clear that the brilliance of donà Eleonora’s beauty is matched by that of her strategic acuity, and she counters the prince’s plays with her own impressive four-dimensional chess. For we are given to understand that she is no ordinary member of the nobility, but rather a woman who spends much of her time secretly mixing with the commoners, from which time she has developed a deep sympathy for the poor and the oppressed. She moves to immediately repeal the corrupt payoffs voted in by the nobles. She conducts an audit of church institutions to insure their monies are not being used for corrupt purposes (like convents that are actually brothels.) Lastly, she requests that King Carlos of Spain send a “Grand Visitor” to investigate and prosecute corruption among the Sicilian nobility. The introduction of this Robert Mueller-like figure quickly has the nobles quaking in their boots, and in yet another case of art imitating life, they meet to frantically come up with ways to obstruct, undermine, and delegitimize the prosecutorial threat. A more serious threat to donà Eleonora, meanwhile, comes from the clergy, who rally angry mobs against donà Eleonora on the pre-text that she has not buried her husband and is that most astonishing (to us) of 17th century bugbears, a witch. But donà Eleonora has a strategy for fighting back here too, one which involves progressive economic reforms and some gumshoe investigation of the church’s perennial weakness: child sex abuse. (The echoes of contemporary events in the book are many and delightful.)
It is entertaining to watch donà Eleonora outwit these greedy nobles and corrupt clergy time after time, though one gets the sense that Camilleri is giving us a perhaps over-determined picture of all of this; one can’t help having the sneaking feeling that donà Eleonora is perhaps too perfect a heroine for our times, that if we knew more about the real historical personage, she would seem less overwhelming and more relatable as a person of flaws. The author in his note to the reader does a good job of explaining how this historical episode has remained obscure until now—donà Eleonora only ruled for 27 days, or the revolution of a moon, before being overthrown by a coup—and it may be said that the author shows his artfulness in making such inspired use of such obscure material, of inventing such an engaging story out of events that might on the face of them (and to most of the historical sources Camilleri consulted) seem mundane.