I see it. I feel it, the sorrow of the dead who remain attached to a life they no longer have. I know it; I hear the sound of the blood draining away. The mind that deserts them, the brain clinging by the fingernails to the last shred of life as it runs out. Love, you say? If you only knew how much death there is in your love …
It turns out I do have a little time for reading and writing in among the essays and exams (it’s better for everyone if you don’t get too single-minded about marking, after all). So tonight I was able to finish up Maurizio de Giovanni’s I Will Have Vengeance, which Steve Donoghue kindly sent my way after he learned I had never read any of the Commissario Ricciardi mysteries. (Steve has written about the series a few times at his blog and in Open Letters Weekly.)
I enjoyed I Will Have Vengeance very much. It is an atmospheric whodunit set in Mussolini’s Italy in 1931. The case itself is a murder mystery wrapped in opera – specifically, the famous duo of Cavelleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci: de Giovanni elegantly combines his own plot with the themes and stories of the operas, and especially with the powerful emotions evoked by and in the music.
Commissario Ricciardi is an opera skeptic: “he didn’t like the theatrical representation of emotions,” we’re told. Listening to one of the novel’s many opera enthusiasts, he wonders “how opera, mere make-believe, could produce such emotion.” It’s understandable that he would resist such artificial stimulation, as he has abundant experience of real, if vicarious, suffering: the strange and somewhat risky gimmick of the series is that he sees dead people — or, rather, dying people:
He saw the dead. Not all of them, and not for long: only those who had died violently, and only for a period of time that revealed extreme emotion, the sudden energy of their final thoughts. He saw them as though in a photograph that captured the moment their lives ended, one whose contours slowly faded until they disappeared. Better yet, he saw them as in a film, like those he sometimes saw at the movies, only the same scene kept playing over and over again.
Risky, as I said, because this could easily be a trick that feels as artificial as Ricciardi believes operatic melodrama to be. But I thought de Giovanni pulled it off, partly because he makes Ricciardi’s visions interesting and often moving, and also because he emphasizes not their inexplicability but the psychic toll they take on Ricciardi, who cannot go for a walk or enjoy an espresso without some horrid violence flashing on his inward eye. De Giovanni integrates these chilling moments into his narrative with so little specific notice that I wasn’t always sure if we were seeing a death that is present — in our present, that is — or absent. Here’s an example will give you the idea, both of this device and of the bleak overall tone and imagery of the novel:
The cold wind gradually grew stronger as the tram clambered up the hill, trudging along; Ricciardi could tell from the swaying of the vegetation that was now more dense. Trees, shrubs, cultivated fields, dirt paths leading into the countryside; here and there a villa surrounded by palm trees. On either side of the road — the tramway running down the middle of it — were occasional shacks with women washing clothes and children playing outdoors. A boy with a dog and two goats tied to a rope was selling ricotta cheese and bread to a small group of bricklayers at a construction site. One of them, standing a little apart, had his head bent in an unnatural way. The Commissario looked away: one of the thousands of workplace accidents, which no one ever heard about.
Actually, I’m still not sure what he’s seeing here: is this broken man dead or living? The reality is clearer, and creepier, when Ricciardi sees a little girl outside his cafe, carrying “a bundle of rags, perhaps a doll”:
Her left arm was missing: a fragment of white bone protruded from the torn flesh, splintered like a piece of fresh wood. Her hip was staved in, her chest cavity crushed. A tram, Ricciardi thought. The girl stared at him then, all of a sudden, held out the rag doll to him: ‘This is my daughter. I feed her and bather her.’ Ricciardi set down the cup, paid, and went out. Now he would feel cold for the rest of the day.
Against the chill of all this reiterated suffering we get Ricciardi’s own effortful humanity, which in this case becomes dedicated (as it does for so many fictional detectives) to reconciling the competing demands of law and justice. There’s a glimmer of warmth, too, in his relationship (if that’s the right word) with the young woman he watches every night from his window (to her satisfaction, we discover, which saves the situation from being uncomfortably voyeuristic).
I Will Have Vengeance is the first of the Commissario Ricciardi mysteries. Though (as the translator’s note at the end spells out) de Giovanni is meticulous in his recreation of the period, the historical context is mostly just background here — the murder victim, an opera singer, is admired by Il Duce and so the higher-ups put extra pressure on the Commissario to solve the case. There are some comments about the relentless emphasis of the regime on order and conformity, which is contrasted with the city’s unruliness as well as people’s emotional turbulence. I’ll be interested to see if the later books draw us and the Commissario more deeply into the era’s troubled politics. Happily, Steve also sent me the newest one, The Bottom of Your Heart — though I wonder if I should jump straight to the seventh book or work my way up to it.
The books are published in English translations by Europa Editions, in case you think they look interesting.