Andrea Camilleri is a Sicilian-born writer (and film director), famous for his series of crime novels featuring Inspector Montalbano, a Sicilian detective from the fictitious city of Vigàta. Il Cane di Terracotta is the second book in the series. I picked the first book (La Forma dell’Acqua) last year, during a visit to Italy, and despite my mediocre reading skills in Italian, I liked it very much. On another visit to Naples earlier this year, I picked up Il Cane.
The book starts off with a well known mafia boss who decides to call it a day and turns himself in to Montalbano (who agrees to stage his arrest to make the retirement respectable). The mafia boss has information that helps the police solve a theft case involving a supermarket delivery truck, and leads them to a cave used by the mafia as an arms stash.
So far, a typical mafia crime story. But Montalbano notices the cave has a sealed secret passage that leads to a second, smaller cave. In the inner cave he he finds the bodies of a young couple, together with a statue of a terracotta dog, a bowl of water and some coins dating back to the second world war. The bodies and the objects are arranged in what appears to be a ritualistic burial setting.
This finding intrigues Montalbano, even though it is clear, fifty years since the crime was perpetrated, that whoever killed the young lovers is long dead, or at least very old. He embarks on a journey to discover why they were killed and placed in the cave. This journey is the real heart of this book, and makes the inspector learn about old traditions and buried secrets.
Reading Camilleri is not easy, given that many of the dialogues are in Sicilian dialect. Here is an example of a short exchange between Montalbano and his housemaid Adelina, who is worried about his eating habits and hygiene (p. 362):
“Vossia non mangiò ne aieri a mezzujorno né aieri sira!”
“Non avevo pititto, Adelì”
“Io m’ammazzo di travaglio a fàrricci cose ‘nguliate e vossia le sdegna!”
“Non le sdegno, ma te l’ho detto: mi faglia il pititto”
“E po’ chista casa diventò un purcile! Vossia ‘un voli ca lavo ‘n terra, ‘un voli ca lavo I robbi! Havi cinco jorna ca si teno la stissa cammisa e li stessi mutanni! Vossia feti!”
So aside from the many words I either need to look up, or guess from the context, there is also this continuous guesswork about the Italian equivalent of the Sicilian slang. Some are easy (aieri = ieri; sira = serra), but others are not so self-evident (took me a second to realise mutanni were mutande). And yet, discovering this special dialect through the machinations of Montalbano adds to the pleasure of reading.