Eighty-eight year-old Andrea Camilleri is Italy’s most popular author. The mention of his name ignites a fire in the hearts of his loyal fans, and unleashes a joyous swapping of favorite scenes from his famous Inspector Montalbano series. The 17th installment in the series, Angelica’s Smile, inspired by Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, will be published by Penguin this July.
“Angelica was really my first love,” says Camilleri. “I learned to read at a very young age, and in my grandfather’s copy of Orlando Furioso there were marvelous illustrations by Gustave Doré. One was of the beautiful and extraordinary Angelica smiling adoringly at her beloved. I carried the image of Angelica within me all of my life. When I began writing the Montalbano books, I thought how wonderful it would be if Montalbano—my alter ego in a certain sense—had the chance to meet this fantastic character, Angelica. You might also say that this novel was my attempt to transfer to the page what had been my youthful feelings. I wanted to give Montalbano the experience of falling in love. But of course every man falls in love in a different way.”
Camilleri, born in Sicily in 1925, has had a long and varied career, including stints as a theater and film director, a playwright, an essayist, a professor of theater studies, and a producer for Italy’s state-owned television network (RAI). His most far-reaching success, however, is the erudite and witty Salvo Montalbano, a fictional Sicilian police detective who loves eating, drinking, and wryly observing the world’s injustices just as much as he loves solving crimes.
When he introduced Montalbano in The Shape of Water in 1994, Camilleri was 69 years old. The book established the author’s international reputation. I spoke with Camilleri at his home in Rome, in a room that can only be described as a bibliophile’s dream: floor-to-ceiling books, a comfortable chair, a settee to stretch out on, and good, strong reading light.
“Yes, success came to me rather late,” says Camilleri, in a low, soothing voice. “It didn’t alter the rhythms of my life or those of my wife and family. The only thing that it did was bring a certain financial security that, as you age, you don’t mind having, and it also allowed me to give a bit more pleasure to my children and grandchildren. The other trappings of success have never entered into my life, I can assure you.
“The son of Georges Simenon [the Belgian author who wrote the Inspector Maigret series] once said that his father didn’t know how to handle success. I said to him: ‘But your father’s success came at the age of 40. I don’t know how it would have affected me had it happened when I was that age.’ Perhaps having it come late was also part of my good fortune.”
Camilleri wrote his first novel when he was in his 40s, but it was unanimously rejected. “I finished it in 1968, and it was turned down by every publisher I sent it to.”
Then, in 1978, a friend from RAI asked Camilleri for permission to use the unpublished novel as the basis for a television film. An Italian entertainment magazine reported the story, and the author was immediately approached by a vanity publisher who offered to print the book for free in exchange for an acknowledgement in the credits of the television production.
“So I got a book, and he got publicity,” says Camilleri. “For 10 years I had written no novels, but the moment I held that first book in my hand, I was ready to write another one.”
He found his ideal publisher, Palermo-based Sellerio Editore, in 1980, and over time he built up a small, faithful following for his historical novels. Then came a serendipitous bout of writer’s block.
“There were two factors that pushed me to write a detective novel. One is my way of writing. I never begin a book the way Snoopy does: ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ My novels are often inspired by a phrase I’ve read in a history book, or a snatch of conversation I hear on the street, and that’s where I start. I never know what will become chapter one. So I began asking myself if I were capable of writing a novel from the first chapter to the last, with each chapter linked to the previous one.”
With that question in the back of his mind, Camilleri found himself stalled on a book he was writing. “I read through the novel I was working on, The Brewer of Preston, and it struck me as dull. Yet I had spent so much time on it I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing it away. I knew I needed to find a solution. So, as an experiment, I decided to write a detective novel. I did it as a kind of game, a writing exercise. That’s how I came to write the first Montalbano.”
He continues, “During the period I was writing it, I was also reading The Pianist by the Spanish novelist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. The narrative structure that Montalbán gave to his book provided me with the solution to my problem. So I put the mystery aside and returned to The Brewer and was able to finish it successfully. I felt such a debt of gratitude to Montalbán that I named my protagonist [in The Shape of Water] Montalbano, which, as it happens, is also a common Sicilian surname.”
Because Camilleri had been the producer of the RAI television series based on Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels, he wanted to differentiate his protagonist as much as possible from that of the Belgian author. “Maigret is immobile in time, his character doesn’t really change. I said to myself, my detective must age with each book. Also, if we look at Maigret, the books were written during the Second World War, the rise of Nazism, and the occupation of Vichy France, but there aren’t echoes of any of these events in the novels. I wanted my protagonist to be inside the Italian reality and react to it. Therefore, over the years, Montalbano has become less easygoing and more cranky, as happens when one gets older. This awareness of the passing of time is one of the things that keeps the character alive. After writing that first detective novel, I decided to write a second one [The Terracotta Dog], which, I feel, is one of the best in the series, because I wanted to round out the character—wanted to make him live. For me, those two books summed up Montalbano, and I returned to writing other things. I didn’t think I had the narrative force to sustain a series,” Camilleri says, breaking into a wide smile.
“My reader profile up to that time had been mostly women between the ages of 50 and 70, but a few months after The Terracotta Dog was released, I was asked to present the book at a huge shop in Florence. I arrived and saw all these young people with piercings and parkas. I thought they had come to protest against me, which I didn’t mind at all because I like a bit of confrontation. Instead they sat down on the floor, listened, and, at the end, they applauded. And not only that: they asked for my autograph. I thought, if young people are coming to hear me, then my readership is really widening. After a month, I got a call from Elvira, my publisher, and she said, ‘Give me another Montalbano immediately’; and I said, ‘No.’ She continued to hound me, and I continued to say no. Then she sent a royalty check, and I began to write the third Montalbano.”
The intervening 19 years have seen Montalbano books top bestseller lists in the U.S. and Europe. They have sold millions of copies worldwide, and have been translated into 31 languages. Poet Stephen Sartarelli was chosen for the delicate job of turning Camilleri’s invented and inventive Italian, studded with Sicilian dialect, into English. The translator conveys the edgy juxtaposition of the dialect and conventional Italian within the books by substituting Cockney slang for Sicilian.
In an interview given earlier this year in Spain, where Camilleri was accepting a lifetime achievement award from the BCNegra Noir Literary Festival, he said of Montalbano: “He is terrified of retirement. What would a man like that do? Walk the dog?” Camilleri has no such fear. He laughs when he says,“I already retired a couple of decades ago after working for years at the RAI. But I will admit to being afraid of quitting writing—of trying to fill empty days.”
Camilleri’s millions of fans around the world needn’t worry. The author still gets up every day, dresses carefully—“I was never one of those who could work in pajamas”—and writes through the morning. “I respect the clock, like an employee,” he says. He has just published a new novel in Italy, and there are at least four Montalbano novels awaiting translation into English. Camilleri readers have a lot to look forward to.