Inspector Montalbano and The Terra-Cotta Dog

The Terra-Cotta DogAndrea Camilleri’s The Terra-Cotta Dog starts out like any other good detective novel. The Sicilian sleuth Salvo Montalbano staged the “arrest” of a notorious Mafiosi, who was said to have strangled his own brother to death, as a face-saving cover for his surrender. Things take a turn for the mysterious with the robbery of supermarket where the loot was suspiciously abandoned.

The mob, seemingly omniscient and one step ahead of the police all of the time, remains untouchable throughout the novel. Instead, Montalbano follows a rousing chain of events that eventually leads to his unearthing the remains of a crime unsolved for fifty years – hidden inside a mountain cave and guarded by a life-sized terra-cotta dog.

While we meet elements which are more or less usual in crime fiction – businessmen with underworld connections, rivalry between police departments, etc, Camilleri also gives a peculiar flavor to the story. Inspector Montalbano’s obsessive quest to solve this mystery also gives us not a few encounters with Italian history:

“Those were terrible times. The British and Americans were bombing us every day. In one thirty-six-hour period I counted ten bombing raids. Very few people were left in town, most had been evacuated, and we were living in the shelters that had been dug into the hill of marl above the city… The enemy aircraft had three targets: the power station, the port with its warships and merchant ships, and the antiaircraft and naval batteries along the ridge of the hill. When it was the Britis overhead, things went better than with the Americans.”

Montalbano was impatient. He wanted the man to get to the point-the dog, that is-but didn’t feel like interrupting his digressions.

“Went better in what sense, Mr. Burruano? It was still bombs they were dropping.”

Lost within some memory, Burruano had fallen silent, and so Headmaster Burgio spoke for him.

“The British, how shall I say, played more fairly. When they dropped their bombs they tried to hit only military targets, whereas the Americans dropped them helter-skelter, come what may.” (p. 160-161)

The book also offers a bunch of eccentric characters, the best example of which is this reclusive ex-monk who lives in a rundown house in the countryside with a room “literally crammed with books, not only on the shelves but stacked on the floor in piles that stretched nearly to the lofty ceiling and remained standing by means of some impossible equilibrium.” He suckles milk from a baby bottle, cites Umberto Eco’s Treatise on General Semiotics and is an expert on early Christian and medieval death rituals.

Now I don’t want to reveal more. One of the pleasures of reading this kind of book is precisely the act of following its strange twists and uncovering the mystery behind it. Of course, that doesn’t prevent me from sharing some tidbits about Camilleri’s hero. Inspector Montalbano is a totally lovable man who makes the novel a humorous read.

He loves pasta (and discusses them a lot). He has funny episodes with the women in his life. He doesn’t get along with his colleagues that well, treats them like shit, and prefers to take things on his own hands. He quivers and mumbles incomprehensibly when facing the press, and fears his pending promotion like the devil.

But what I will remember Montalbano as the inspector who “hated books that talked about the Mafia, murder, and Mafia victims” but talks of Sciascia and Pirandello, reads Faulkner, buys the book of a literary prize winner, and namedrop the alias of Curzio Malaparte in a scuffle.

Book Addicts, who was good enough to recommend this gem to me, tells us that Andrea Camilleri is considered as “one of Italy’s greatest 20th and 21st century writers.” The Terra-Cotta Dog made for a totally satisfying first book read for the new year. It is highly recommended. ■

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5 Comments

  1. i’d just promised to send a copy of a le clézio for mr recabar of ‘going against the current’. i guess you’ll have an updated ‘wish list’ for 2010, working my way forward on your blog still, but if there’s something i can find that’s not readily available there, i can include it for you, if you wish. the earliest send date will be march-april as it will go along with stuff i’ll padala with people who’ll be taking their vacation sa pinas. not sure i’ll make it this yr myself, just hoping.
    it will be my way of providing interaction. in the blog world, some people blog, some read blogs, i belong to the latter category, so aside from my silly comments, i won’t be able to interact the way you do with your fellow bloggers. do pls just drop a hint. i’d be grateful for a chance to give something back in return for being much entertained (beyond my level, in fact) by your blog.

    1. wow, i wish more people are as generous as you. as for me, i’m somewhat uncomfortable with the thought of getting something from someone i barely know and who barely know me. so i’m hoping you won’t seriously bother about sending whatever…

      [lots of books are not readily available here though:
      (1) Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures,
      the english translation of (2) François Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States,
      (3) Juan Goytisolo’s The Marx Family Saga,
      (4) Gilbert Adair’s The Death of the Author,
      the english translation of (5) Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge,
      (6) Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious,
      and the paperback of (6) Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, among others… will try to think more about this and publish a separate blog entry]

      i’m glad to know that my blog entertained you. thanks for leaving comments :)

  2. p.s. above was supposed to be posted under the next entry. am really not very handy, i should probably just stick to drawing hunting scenes on cave walls, lol.

  3. thanks for ur reaction, really wud be my privilege, rare to find someone so young, as another has already commented on your blog, with such serious interests. no big deal, won’t promise anything concrete, bookshops are my favorite haunt but for less serious material, and there are two brtish bookshops in town, they usually accommodate clients’ requests (ha ha, just remembering that accommodate is an often misspelled word, wondering if i’m spelling it correctly but can’t be bothered to check) by ordering books that are not on the shelves. to be honest, ur list would give me ideas for my own family members as well who, fond as i am of them, are quite on the way to illiteracy, ha ha ha, so you see, man is never truly completely altruistic. so i’ll get 2 copies of whatever i find & send of one to you. i can only send it to upv. as you said, we don’t know each other, but i’ve attended upv, hope that makes for something we have in common. i’ve had assistance from ‘strangers’ myself, people whom i won’t ever find again, like total strangers paying my fare when the bus driver can’t change my bill, perhaps i’m just passing on the deed to someone else.
    found out on ur blog your father is a columnist at the sunstar, one of the regional phil papers that i try to consult online. i guess that’s where your literary gene comes from.
    pls don’t take offence at the ‘high-brow’ comment, i understand your social sentiments, & wish indeed that the philippines would find its own identity as a more egalitarian society instead of merely aping Uncle Sam, where wealth and superiority over others is ‘the dream’. in fact, on the run-up to the elections of the present US president, one brit paper ran the editorial asking why an intelligent person would find fulfillment in running for the ‘highest office’. the writer reflected that members of minority groups in other societies would not necesarily see high political positions as a means of proving themselves, because they do indeed get respect without having to go to the whole process of enriching themselves or climbing up the ladder. like a lot of pinoys abroad, if not most, i work as a laborer, but thankfully, so far, see no reason to move up the socio-economic ladder by fair means or foul just to prove my worth as a person. people do not deny their humble origins hereabouts, thankfully, because they don’t feel that it necessarily works against them.
    will update you on the above list. thx for your blog and carry on :-).

    1. that’s (honestly) nice to hear. but i’m not sure if titles 1, 2, 6, and 7 (w/c are a bit theoretical) would be appropriate for your family (who in your own words “are quite on the way to illiteracy”)… don’t worry, i’m not offended about the “high-brow” comment. i just find it amusing. :)

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