A few months ago, my editor at Oxford University Press and I were talking about favorite authors of mystery fiction. I recommended John Dunning, whose novel The Sign of the Book I wrote about a few days ago. I mentioned to her that I especially like to read novels that are set in places I’ve visited or will be visiting. Knowing that I’d been to Sweden on a lecture tour, she recommended Swedish author Henning Mankell (b. 1948). She also suggested Michael Dibdin (1947-2007), creator of the Aurelio Zen series set in Italy.
I paid a visit to my local Barnes and Noble and selected one book by each author, Mankel’s Before the Frost and Dibdin’s Medusa. Before the Frost is a Kurt and Linda Wallander novel, set in Sweden. I dove into it right away and liked it well enough. My records indicate that I started it November 19, 2007 and ended December 11. Maybe I’ll write about it later.
For the Fourth of July weekend just ended, I read Medusa—mostly during odd moments when the women in my life (my wife and two daughters) were shopping or doing other things when my absence goes unnoticed. Medusa isn’t the first in the Aurelio Zen series, but that didn’t matter. The jacket cover, together with some travel experience, convinced me it was the place to start.
Two summers ago I traveled by train from Florence to Venice, then from Venice through Verona and north to the Brenner pass in the Italian alps. I spent one night in Bolzano, Italy on my way to Salzburg. The hotel, situated opposite the rail station, was a family-run outfit with a storied history. I learned from the manager’s daughter that her grandfather had moved there from Austria before World War 2. A smaller version of the hotel had been his livelihood. During the war, the main floor of the building was commandeered by Italian military forces while the family was permitted to live upstairs. The building was restored to hotel status and expanded during the years following the war.
At the end of the war, the international boundary in the extreme north of modern-day Italy was disputed. This dispute was settled at the Yalta Conference, the result of bargaining by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. The region differs dramatically, both geographically and socially, from the rest of Italy. It’s called the Südalpen, German for “the southern alps.” Italian is learned, but Austrian German is preferred and more commonly spoken by the people living in the area. I didn’t know most of this until my visit, and I was glad that I had casually decided to layover in Bolzano (Bozen, in German). (For a pleasing description of the peculiar culture of Bolzano, see the Washington Post article “Bolzano: German or Italian? Yes,” by Robert V. Comuto.)
The back cover of Medusa states that the story takes place in the Italian Alps. That, together with the author’s reputation with my friend, led me to buy the book. Aurelio Zen investigates a cold-case crime and, as it happens, follows the same route by train that I had taken in 2006. The conditions were nearly perfect for a satisfying read. They would have been only slightly better if I had discovered the book about the time I was entering Austria from the south on my earlier journey.
The story begins with the discovery of a comparatively well-preserved corpse by mountain climbers high in the Alps bordering Switzerland. Three different government agencies take an interest in the mystery surrounding its discovery and the cause of death. Aurelio Zen is a police investigator with the Ministry of the Interior. His assignment is to solve the original crime while also discovering the nature of the interest taken by the Ministry of Defense. Zen goes to Bolzano to observe the body and interview the coroner who had conducted the autopsy. But the body had already been taken into custody, as it were, by military officials. The reader knows there’s a cover-up even before Zen begins to suspect it.
The plot is narrated with suitable complexity. Each section of the novel is narrated in the third person, with an omniscient perspective used for some main character in that section. Different things are going on in different places, all at the same time. So there is movement from one scenario to another to keep the reader up to speed throughout the complex progression of the whole novel. Dibdin manages the tangle adroitly.
Medusa succeeds on the level of sophisticated mystery fiction. It also reveals disparate attitudes about Italian life, or what is frequently referred to as the mysteri d’Italia. Some stereotypes are reinforced. For example, government stability in Italy is oxymoronic, and beneath the Italian facade of joyful contentment is a latent malaise that troubles the general population. There is corruption and intrigue, and hence distrust, at every turn. This is, from Zen’s point of view, “‘Italia Lite’: the new culture of empty slogans, insincere smiles and hollow promises overlaying the authentic adversarial asperity of public life” (50).
Italian words and phrases are sprinkled throughout, sharpening the reader’s sense of being in Italy. Telecomando (for remote control), belissimo, carabiniere (something like classic keystone cops, I gather, but with a military bearing), capo (a respectful form of addressing one’s superior without being too formal?); servizio, disfatta storica, magistratura, Dottore (which is what it sounds like, but used with potentially mischievous connotations), and Pronto! (a typical form of answering the phone, which apparently can be said in a tone suggesting a declaration of war—see page 73).
Some American readers may stumble over Dibdin’s use of British diction. For example, there are no flashlights in the story, but there are plenty of “torches.” “Petrol pumps” (51) are not shoes worn by women working oil derricks. I’ve never heard an American use the word “tetchy” (66). One potentially useful word is now at my disposal, though: “pollard” as a noun and “pollard” as a verb (see page 68).
There are occasional references to historical events, some of them grand, like the Versailles conference, others relatively obscure, for instance, “the bomb of 2 August 1980” (65).
Those with culinary aspirations learn that, to be worth eating, minestrone must be accompanied by fresh vegetables and high-quality olive oil and Parmesan; otherwise, a person of cultivated taste should order lentil soup with chunks of smoked bacon (45). (I would have opted for the lentil soup, in any case.)
Descriptions of place and strings of dialog are often artfully crafted. I enjoyed coming across such constructions as:
- “. . . the only sound was the whine of the unpredictable squally breeze with fistfuls of sleet in its folds” (42);
- “The wormholes pervading the body politic remained, but the worms had never been identified, still less charged or convicted” (65);
- “. . . he recalled his childish fascination with this physical oxymoron: water flowing over water” (76);
- “Whatever the outcome, it could not be worse than living in a state of perpetual uncertainty and inchoate terror” (78; maybe hell is quite literally like that?).
And how could I not appreciate Zen’s exasperation when he declares to his chief,
- “We can’t disprove it, because they haven’t given us anything to disprove” (85)?
I’ve yet to hear a more apt description that noxious deviation that nevertheless has to be called “architecture”:
- “the abusivo building boom of the sixties and seventies.”
Here is a clever paragraph contrasting scientific theory and religious belief:
- “He [Gabriele Passarini] remembered having read somewhere that the difference between a theory and a belief rested not on proof but on the possibility of disproof. No matter how many observations appeared to corroborate the theory of relativity, for example, it could never conclusively be proved to be true. Its scientific respectability rested on the fact that it could instantly be proven false should contradictory evidence come to light. The same did not apply to the idea that God had created the world in six days and then faked the fossil record to suggest otherwise, which is why this amounted to nothing more than a belief. As did his fears about his own safety, he now realized.” (69-70)
and what must have been an irresistible sentence about the medieval church:
- “The church would have banned [Halloween], . . . or at least fulminated against it.” (72)
There are other ruminations of interest. Gabriele speculates that the world used to be “hard but benign,” but now it was “soft and malevolent” (71). Zen waxes philosophical about children today, in comparison with children of a bygone era (82).
I believe I have rarely come across the word “fireworks” while reading a novel. It wouldn’t be strange if I did, unless it happened, quite unexpectedly, on the 4th of July—as it did the other day when I came to page 75. This is just one of those little inconsequential coincidences of life that seem to happen in my experience with uncanny frequency.
In addition to a larger vocabulary of Italian words, and the addition of one English word, I’ve acquired from Aurelio Zen a new trick for assisting a long-winded speaker to get to the point. Just say, politely, of course, “Yes, yes. And the upshot?” That alone is worth the price of the book.
I also learned that Giovanni Agnelli was “the creator of Fiat”—perhaps you see why the four words in italics struck me as oxymoronic when I came across them on page 92. (Finding out who started the Italian motor company is not worth the price of the book, since I don’t expect to be on any of those game shows that test your mastery of trivia.)
This novel was published in 2003, so it can’t have been intentional that the passage at the top of page 93 almost exactly parallels the campaign strategy of a chief contender for the upcoming election of a new President. But then, what politician really is “a new kind of politician”?
I recommend the book, and I’m game to try another Dibdin. Next time maybe Dark Specter, not one of Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen installments. The publisher’s description says that “a dogged Seattle detective and a horribly bereaved survivor are about to come face-to-face with their perpetrator—a man named Los, a self-styled prophet who has the power to make his followers travel thousands of miles to kill for him.” Seattle is one of my favorite cities, and the Great Northwest is my favorite region among the places I’ve visited or lived.
By now you’re thinking, “Yes, yes. And what’s the upshot?” Just this—if you ever find yourself traveling by train between Venice and Florence and between Venice, Verano, and Bolzano, I suggest taking this novel, Medusa, along with you. You’ll enjoy it, and your trip will be more meaningful than if you studied the pages of a travel guide.