The Malta Independent 13 August 2022, Saturday

A top-notch detective story

Mark A. Sammut Sassi Sunday, 31 July 2022, 07:00 Last update: about 13 days ago

Book review: Aleks Farrugia, Camerata! SKS (2021), 336 pp.

Even though the story is set in the 1930s, Aleks Farrugia’s Camerata! is not a historical novel: the author is too liberal with historical accuracy, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. So it’s a realistic story set in the 1930s in a parallel universe, so to speak.

It’s the story of 35-year-old Police Inspector Salvu Camilleri who, half way through the journey of his life, as it were, finally manages to exorcise a few demons. Or so it would seem on the surface, as deep down, by the end of the novel, the reader is left with the impression that this unfortunate man is assailed by far too many demons for any exorcism really to succeed.

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It’s the story of an Inspector who has to find his way out of a labyrinth-cage of murders, executions by hanging of innocent men, good girls who ply the oldest trade, well-connected bosses of the underworld, Kubrick-like orgies of the rich and powerful, easy women who thirst for him sexually and emotionally, and Fascist plans to invade Malta. All this while facing the dead-ends caused by his wrath and, frankly, an average IQ. Yes, it seems Inspector Camilleri only solves cases either because he is good-looking or because brainier people owe him favours.

I’ll be blunt. I don’t subscribe to the Weltanschauung and philosophy underlying the novel. Nor do I agree with the historical interpretations suggested by the author. But I’ll still claim that this is an excellent novel. It’s Literature, with a capital “L”. Perhaps Oscar Wilde was right after all: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.” And Mr Farrugia’s is extremely well-written. The themes it explores (and seems to subscribe to) are nihilism, atheism, materialism, Freudian extremism... you name it. And yet, it’s a darn well-written book. It throbs with a pulse reminiscent of old-school hard-rock ostinato rhythms... an unforgiving pulse that drives the story from beginning to end like a killing machine, with a relentlessness that only professional writers muster.

Mr Farrugias characters follow only their basic instincts. Almost blindly. They seem to bypass their reason, unable to take a single decision that measures up to a code of morality. These aren’t like Golding’s Lord of the Flies boys. These are adults who behave like centaurs who lack the upper human part, animals who seek their self-interest outside a system of good and evil. They seek their gratification and pleasure while trying at all costs to avoid pain, but they're only good at the former and utter failures at the latter. There’s no order in their lives, their moral compass is either absent or permanently broken. Most of them hail from the underclass, others from the spoilt fringes of the rich and powerful classes. They live in a moral desert, where there are no Christian oases – they are either bitches or sons thereof.

Indeed, Camerata! is a post-Christian novel. The characters’ vices are matter-of-factly described, without a hint of satire, but with no hint of possible moral improvement being implied either. The protagonist does seem crudely to crave for psychological catharsis, but he fails to reach it as his thinking – like everybody’s thinking in this novel – is focussed only on materialism. Not a single character aspires to a higher order of things. The characters' inability to transcend materialism keeps them gaoled in their predicament.

Mr Farrugia’s is not a Maltese novel: it’s European, an embodiment of Goethe’s idea of “world literature”. In the sense that Mr Farrugia has written a contemporary European novel in Maltese, but he could have written it in Italian, Spanish, or French. Its “spirit” is not provincial: its European. Or even Western, if we also consider American literature.

It’s an extremely good novel, bubbling with film potential. Perhaps, given the frequency of cinematic tropes, it was written with that objective in mind. But if a second edition is ever issued, Mr Farrugia needs to weave the intertexual references more meaningfully. At least for a dull reader like this reviewer, who didn’t actually get their true usefulness to the economy of the narrative. And, more significantly, to the articulation of the authors philosophy if one sets out to dabble in intertexuality, then one has to convey one’s thoughts on where one’s work is situated within the genre.

There are obvious references to Andrea Camilleri in Mr Farrugia’s novel. Salvu Camilleri is to Andrea Camilleri what Salvo Montalbano is to Vásquez Montalbán, the creator of Pepe Carvalho, the bizarre detective from Barcellona. Mr Farrugia claims he has never read Montalbán. And yet, the similarities with Carvalho are striking… the prostitute, the love for food… even the noir style. Reading Camerata! is like reading Montalbán in Maltese – you get the same vibes. If Mr Farrugia has really never read Montalbán, then there must be a common source – a “Q” source if you like – from which these authors drink.

There’s no true love in this novel: whatever passes for love is but an expression of passion, lust, or self-indulgence. The description of love is so dry, so barren, that it moved me to tears on four occasions. I couldn’t help but pity the characters who repeatedly miss to experience love by a whisker – this is how good a writer Mr Farrugia is. I suspect his knowledge of psychoanalysis came in handy. Salvu Camilleri is a troubled man, replete with flaws that seem to evade redemption, unable to find order in his life – and yet, these frailties make him so endearingly human that, like the other characters in the novel, one finds him attractive. Inspector Camilleri is obviously an anti-hero, but Mr Farrugia’s writing ability overcomes the obstacles inherent in such a depiction. Despite the dark outlook and despicable take on morality, Mr Farrugia manages to move the reader. Beneath all the rubble left after the incessant blitz of Evil, there’s a throbbing humanity, almost unaware of itself, almost oblivious to the fact that it is not only flesh but also soul. This unawareness is so sincerely conveyed that it moves you. Even when squirming in the dirt of its depravity, humanity touches you.

Despite its nihilism and immorality, despite the bonanza of profanity and the persisting immaturity of its characters, this is a very well-written novel. Except that the proof-reader deserves three life sentences for the dog’s breakfast he made of his job. Since when is sema feminine? Didn’t the proof-reader ever hear the expression sema ikħal nir? And since when is munzelli the plural of munzell? If we say pniezel, why doesn’t this outlaw of a proof-reader allow mniezel? Why does xagħar alternate between feminine and masculine in this novel? Lock the proof-reader away in a damp cell and throw away the key! 

Then of course, there is the complicity of the linguistic powers-that-be that have decided to banish any semblance of precision by obliterating the distinction between x’imkien (somewhere) and xi mkien (some place). In their efforts to simplify the writing of Maltese, they have destroyed the possibility for finer minds to make distinctions that troglodytes won’t (and need not) understand. How I wish Inspector Salvu Camilleri could in his characteristic way bully these misguided academics into understanding that Maltese is not just for teenagers to get their O-Level! There are others who want to use it too but find it increasingly difficult because the soi-disant savants are slowly asphyxiating it!

Anyway, enough ranting.

This is an excellent novel, a great read. Just don’t succumb to its pernicious Weltanschauung. The world is a vale of tears, no doubt about that, but it’s also a better place than Mr Farrugia would have us believe.

Bottom line: five stars. Read it.

* * * * * 

Mr Farrugia’s philosophical detective novel spurred me to try my hand at fiction-writing. So, in the sweltering heat of a June afternoon in the Sicilian hinterland, I put pen to paper and sketched a very short detective story. I ask for the indulgence of this paper’s readers. 

“Schoolmates”

 

Genetics had bestowed upon Inspector Søren Farrugia a handsome face and broad square shoulders. The former he inherited from his Danish mother; the latter from his father, who descended, through his mother’s line, from the famous Inspector of the 1930s Salvu Camilleri, whose own father had been hanged for “shooting the Governor”.

Every morning at dawn, Inspector Farrugia would go for a jog always along the same route and then stop at Bendu Muscat’s eatery for a strong coffee, a blue sports drink, and a quick glimpse at the papers.

That autumn morning, as he skimmed through what passed for news, a man he didn’t know joined him at his table.

“Morning Søren!”

Farrugia did not recognise him and gave him a quizzical look.

“We were at school together, but haven’t seen each other since then…”

Still Farrugia could not put a name to the face. He couldn’t even remember the face.

“Do you see that fat bloke over there, at that table behind you?” Farrugia had to turn 180 degrees to see the weight-challenged individual. The self-professed former schoolmate had pointed his finger in the general direction of an obese man, slightly older than them, sitting at the far end of the eatery, happily munching away at a pastizz as a cat would devour a mouse. “He’s happy. He’s struck gold today. He’s just received a phone call telling him they gave him the permit he’s long been hoping for…”

Farrugia squinted and finally recognised the obese man: a small-time businessman of sorts who lived in the area. His face and his mannerisms were feline but he was not what you would call a fat cat. Let’s say he was just a fat kitten.

“But he’s not the only one who’s had a lucky strike today,” said the supposed schoolmate. “Somebody ceded a promise of sale agreement a few months ago, subject to permits, and today he can go for the final contract to collect his bounty. Our fat friend over there is the seller.”

By the time Inspector Farrugia had stopped observing the obese businessman and turned round to look at his interlocutor again, the little bird had opened its wings and flitted away.

 * * *

At the Station, the Inspector instructed his sergeant to tail, plainclothes, the obese businessman, and report back. That evening, the sergeant confirmed the self-professed schoolmate’s story: the obese businessman had indeed been to a notary’s.

“Who else was there?”

“That Luteru fellow, who’s close to Minister – ”

“Yeah, I know the man,” snapped the Inspector. “Listen, call the businessman in. I want to have a word with him.”

Later that same evening, the obese man met the Inspector for an interview at the Station.

* * *

First thing next morning, somebody from HR at HQ called to inform Inspector Farrugia that his boss would like to talk to him over a cup of coffee. Nothing serious, nor official, no rush. But he would greatly appreciate it if the Inspector could make it within the hour.

The Inspector’s boss – who was not obese but merely a heavyweight – welcomed Farrugia and, offering him an armchair to sit in, asked his secretary whether she would be so kind as to bring them two coffees, hot, black, and no sugar. He disdained self-pampering and aspired to higher levels of asceticism, for himself and his underlings.

“My dear Søren, tell me: have you found the love of your life?”

“I’m still single, Sir, yes,” replied the Inspector without batting an eye.

“Ah Søren, if only you had a wife and kids. Family changes the way you see the world. Why don’t you tie the knot, Søren? Why not find a sweet girl, woo her, marry her, and settle down? Then a couple of kids, the perfect nest, and no more hassle?”

“Hassle, Sir?”

“Yes, Søren, hassle. For yourself, and those who have your well-being at heart.”

“I don’t understand, Sir.”

“I know, Søren, I know. That’s why I invited you here this morning. You know, it would greatly help your career if you were to marry. You’d have a wife who’d help you see things in their proper perspective. She would tell you about the wisdom of not playing with fire. She would tell you to avoid burning your fingers, or perhaps even more.”

“Sir?”

The secretary came in with the two coffees, bowing at the boss and throwing a shining smile at the Inspector. As she left them, she left a trail of sweet perfume behind her.

“You see, Inspector. Somebody like my secretary. Young. Beautiful. Fertile. She seems to like you. Take her out, you’ve got my blessing. Woo her. Marry her. Make children with her. Ah, but I see there’s a blank stare in your eyes. She’s not your type, I can see that. Okay, relax, take it slowly, you’re still young, that’s your fault. But do find a girl, do settle down, if you want you can even marry. You’re like a son to me, Søren.”

The boss went on with his paternal (and patriarchal?) advice under the impression that the Inspector would come round to his point of view and understand.

But Søren Farrugia was genetically predisposed not to understand. So much so that, upon getting back to the Station, he instructed the sergeant to invite the Luteru fellow – the Minister’s sidekick – for an interview that evening.

 

* * *

The following morning (another cold and misty autumn day), while jogging along his usual route, the Inspector was blocked by three gorillas on the corner of Triq il-Kommendatur Filomeni and Sqaq il-Ħorr. Their faces with covered with scarves and they wore hoods, but the Inspector still recognised the “L O V E” tattoo on the knuckles of one of them, and opened his eyes, in great shock, to the significance of what was happening to him.

Both Triq il-Kommendatur Filomeni and Sqaq il-Ħorr were empty, and the three henchmen beat the living daylights out of the Inspector, leaving him half-dead on the pavement.

Dazed by the pain in his abdomen – they had probably broken a rib or two and the spleen and damaged a couple of vital organs – Søren Farrugia started to laugh, harder and louder, and even if the pain grew with the laughter, he could not contain the hilarity nor restrain himself, as, often times, laughter and tears are interchangeable* * *

But then, as he lay writhing in pain on the ground, a young woman called Angelica, who had secretly and profoundly fancied him when they were at school together, happened to pass by and, upon hearing his hysterical laughter, approached him coyly. Witnessing the great misery he lay in, she tended to him as best as she could.

He looked into her eyes and, immersed in the boundlessness condensed in her gaze, promised her there and then that he would marry her. She reminded him so much of that Asian princess he had seen in Romantic paintings of two lovers under a tree on which the woman had carved both their names.

And it suddenly dawned on him that his boss was right, completely right.

“Screw them,” he whispered to himself, as he let himself go in Angelica’s warm and tender embrace, while they waited for an ambulance to come.

 

Piazza Armerina

June 2022

 

 

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