Monday, October 3, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass - Massimo Carlotto

We’re in Italy this week as part of the Crime Fiction on EuroPass Challenge and I’ve picked a writer who has been described as "one of Italy's most popular authors and a major exponent of the Mediterranean Noir novel."  I’ve never heard of the term Mediterranean Noir. I guess noir can come from all parts of the world and have some adjective tossed in front of it to distinguish it from regular old Noir which I guess is American Noir. In any case Massimo Carlotto is as dark a crime writer as you can possibly get. A moniker like the "Italian Jim Thompson," another nickname Carlotto earned that I’ve seen plastered over the internet, is an accurate description of the kind of book you’ll get should you be daring enough to dip into these Mediterranean noir waters.

I chose The Goodbye Kiss (original Italian title: Arrivederci amore, ciao) as the book to pop my Carlotto cherry. It was a brutal and savage read. Densely packed with incident and laconic in style the English translation is a bit jarring with its frequent smattering of swear words and American idioms. I was curious if the original Italian was as tough and earthy and if the translator felt it necessary to Americanize the prose because the Italian idioms lost something in translation.

The book is the story of an ex-con who fled Italy to join a terrorist group in Central America and is now planning to return to his homeland. A lengthy prologue acquaints us with his former life as a two bit crook in Italy, explains why he fled the country after a bank robbery went wrong, his joining the terrorist group and his subsequent expulsion from the group. He returns to Italy where he is exposed by the police for framing an innocent prisoner for his past bank robbery. The police reveal they know everything about his life as a terrorist in Central America, the plan for him to get off for his past crime, and they force him to turn police informer in exchange for keeping him out of prison where he most assuredly would've been killed by those inside.

 The four violent chapters relate his adventures in dealing with the police as newly christened rat, and the variety of crooks, murderers and women he uses and abuses. I confess that two chapters of this slight book (it’s only 144 pages) were enough for me. The protagonist is a repulsive misanthrope who has resigned himself to take what he can wherever he can from whoever he can and to hell with the consequences. He trusts no one. Women in particular suffer the most at his hands. They are nothing but sexual objects to him. The sex scenes are loveless brutal rapes. No one matters to him.

Here is a passage the pretty much sums up the book:

Once upon a time I wasn't like this, but things I went through transformed my life. I changed. I felt like something inside me had snapped. Maybe some asshole psychoanalyst would've said prison had destroyed my sense of balance. The relation between the guards and convicts really wasn't so different from what I set up with Flora and the widow. [...] I could find some meaning in life and imagine a future only by constantly testing myself with extreme experiences. I liked being a bad egg. And I finally had a chance to become a winner.

This was obvious to me. I got that point long before I reached that paragraph. And I got it over and over. For me the book would go nowhere. To read multiple variations on the theme of the crook who cannot reform, who realizes that life outside of a prison is no different than the life inside, that all is corruption, that life is cheap and short so damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, was not going to approach anything near a fulfilling reading experience. So I chose to close the book and leave it unfinished.

Massimo Carlotto
Carlotto has also written a series of books about Marco Burratti, an ex-con turned private eye dubbed the Alligator, who has a thirst for justice. Perhaps had I known there was an alternative to this book I would’ve selected one of the three "Alligator books" available in English translation. But that news came too late for me. This is the first and last Carlotto book I will read. If this is your kind of thing don’t let my dismissive review stop you from finding a copy and trudging through the dregs of humanity.

As for me, I need to read something funny and light now. Where is that L.C. Tyler book I put aside...?

Other Italian reads in crime and mystery fiction (most likely far better recommended than what I had to offer) can be found at Kerrie Smith's Mysteries in Paradise blog.


  1. Ouch! The next book you read cannot help but be better.

  2. I read Christianna Brand's Tour de Force - also set in Italy - but put it aside to read Carlotto's books when I remembered that I purchased it specifically for the EuroPass Challenge. Ah well. A review of my Italian consolation prize for the EuroPass Challenge will be up later tonight.

  3. Italy these days needs all the help it can get John so just as well the Brand was more fun! I always recommend the Montalbano books as good examples of traditional italian procedurals but Steve over at In Search of the Classic Mystery absolutely loathed it - and as I only read these in the original you have to wonder how much the translation affects the reading pleasure, though it sounds like this was not the most subtle of books in whatever language - bette luck next time (hopefully).


  4. I enjoyed reading Massimo Carlotto's "The Colombian Mule". Not too Noir at all!