Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio: a book group discussion

July 16, 2015 at 9:02 pm (Book clubs, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

temporary-perfections_1024x1024  This past Tuesday evening, as my contribution to the ‘international year’ of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group, I chose to present Temporary Perfections, the fourth entry in Gianrico Carofiglio’s Guido Guerrrieri series.

I began by passing around two maps of Italy. The first shows the twenty regions of which the country is comprised; the second gives the precise location of Bari, the city in which Guido lives and has his law practice.

RegionsofItaly

 

Bari

Next, I recommended Jane Kramer’s recent New Yorker profile of Italy’s new young and dynamic prime minister, Matteo Renzi. Having begun public life as mayor of  Florence, Renzi  declares: “This year, I will change Italy or change jobs.” When Angela Merkel admitted that she’d only been to Florence once, he invited her to visit his native city as his guest. The visit – dubbed by the media as a “charm offensive” -went exceedingly well:

It has to be said that Merkel flew home to Berlin looking uncommonly reassured that Italy wasn’t Greece.

Matteo_Renzi_2

Matteo Renzi

Next, we zeroed in on Bari, where most of the novel’s key events transpire.

Collage_Bari

Bari, in Italy’s Apulia region

Bari is the capital city of Apulia (or Puglia), the region which encompasses the boot heel of the Italian land mass. (See the maps above.):

Until recently, the southern region of Apulia was often dismissed as the run-down heel of Italy, an undeveloped Spanish-Greek-Italian coastal crossroads of parched landscapes and poverty, its glorious food, wine and architecture known only to hardy adventurers. But under the leadership since 2005 of its charismatic, gay, Berlusconi-busting governor, Nichi Vendola, Apulia has emerged as an attractive, solar-energy-driven destination of choice for green businesses, music festivals and tourism. It even has its own Mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita – smaller than the organised crime outfits of its southern neighbours Sicily and Naples, but lethal nonetheless. And, for nearly a decade Apulia has had its own celebrity crime writer, Gianrico Carofiglio.

From a review of Temporary Perfections written by Rosie Goldsmith and appearing in The New Statesman

A trullo plays an important part in the novel. 11705174_10153924568888912_1887971549878056278_n   Trulli are quaint little structures formerly used as storehouses or shelters  for farm laborers. They are unique to the region of Apulia. (Those located in the town of Alborabello have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.)

Before getting to our novel, I wanted to address briefly the subject of Italian crime fiction. In a 2009 article in Italica Magazine, Nicoletta Di Ciolla comments on the proliferation of Italian mysteries currently being written in the noir idiom:

The increasing success enjoyed in Italy by the noir genre–evidenced by a variety of indicators including volume of sales, permanence in the best–(and long–) sellers lists, creation of specialised series and/or publishing houses–has been accompanied over the past decade by a concomitant singular phenomenon: the emergence of a new category of writer that could be named ‘the law professional turned noir practitioner’. Senior police officers (Giuttari, Matrone, Di Cara), judges (Cannevale, De Cataldo, Cacopardo, Mannuzzu, Carofiglio, Von Borries) and lawyers (Filasto), whilst fully engaged in the exercise of their principal activities as custodians and upholders of the law, have also become the newest breed of Italian noir authors…. Their novels, often making use of the array of statutory genre conventions that typically include crime(s) and investigation(s), are however different from most, or perceived by readers as such, because of the position of authority from which their discourses are uttered. The “passionate and large public” that, according to Carlo Lucarelli, finds in some writers accurate interpreters of the social dynamics of contemporary Italy, will trust in the knowledge and vision of authors who experience and navigate the dysfunctions of the system in their working life and trust them to shed light on–if not to make sense of–the inconsistencies of Italian society.

Carofiglio has a short – very short – story in the collection entitled Rome Noir.  51yS+YPYgDL  This volume is a good place to go if you’re searching for other Italian crime writers. (The Akashic Noir series spotlights numerous locales, with more to come.)

Carol recently pointed out to me that there’s a piece in the Spring/Summer issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine entitled “Mediterranean Nouveau-Noir.”  Nancy-Stephanie Stone begins her article with this observation: “There’s an evolving area of European crime fiction known as Mediterranean Noir that may challenge  the Nordic hold on mystery readers.”

She goes on to discuss such French writers as Jean-Claude Izzo, Patrick Manchette, and Pierre Lemaitre. Among the Italians are Maurizio De Giovanni and Massimo Carlotto. (Although I’ve glanced through a couple of titles by Manchette, Izzo, and De Giovanni, I’ve not yet read any of the aforementioned authors.)

At the conclusion, Stone offers this comment:

These French and Italian crime stories present pictures at odds with the Air France and Alitalia travel posters that introduced and enticed visitors to the Mediterranean.

My guess is, that’s probably an understatement.

On Tuesday evening, I recommended an article in an October 2013 issue of Library Journal entitled “Crime Italian Style.” Author David Keymer offers up lengthy annotations of eight novels of crime in Italy – titles which he deems “first-rate.” (One of his selections is a book that I loved: The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofigio.

And speaking of Carofiglio: he was born in Bari in 1961. He was a lawyer and judge before starting a career as a novelist. For a period in the 1990s, he specialized in the prosecution of members of Mafia. This was not an undertaking for the faint of heart:

I had some difficult years. Between 1993 and 1998, I went around with an armed escort, in an armored car, because in those days I was involved with some very dangerous criminal organizations.

[From a 2005 interview with Bloomberg News]

Carofiglio notes that he and others achieved some notable successes during that time, bringing a number of significant malefactors to justice. He adds: “Today, Mafia organizations exist, are dangerous and operational, but, fortunately, they’ve abandoned the frontal clash (with the state), and this reduces the risk for magistrates and policemen who work on these things.”

Gianrico Carofiglio is currently serving in Italy’s senate. He is married and has two children. (If one of his goals is to keep his private life private, I’d say he’s doing an excellent job.)

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

I provided some information on the Italian criminal justice system and policing in Italy. Both topics are covered nicely by Wikipedia.

In addition to the Guido Guerrieri series, Gianrico Carofiglio has wriiten two standalones, The Silence of the Waves, mentioned above, and The Past Is Another Country. He has also collaborated with his brother Francesco on a work entitled La Casa Nel Bosco (The House in the Woods).

Francesco Carofiglio and Gianrico Carofiglio

Francesco Carofiglio and Gianrico Carofiglio

The Guido Guerrieri series currently consists of five novels. I only recently discovered that a fifth novel, The Rule of Balance, has already been published in Italy. It came out in November of last year; as of this writing, it has not appeared here and may not yet have been translated into English.

We began our discussion of Temporary Perfections with an assessment of the narrator and protagonist, Guido Guerrrieri. His tendency toward self-deprecation was duly noted by us – first positively, then not so much. Genie and Frank felt it wore thin after a while; I believe others agreed with them. Oddly enough, I did too. It was only one of the several ways in which I felt somewhat let down by the experience of rereading this novel. (In my notes, I wrote that after a while, all that self-abasement began to seem perversely like a kind of reverse egotism.)

Guerrieri’s sense of humor did garner some well deserved praise. And we all appreciated Carofiglio’s sensitive, compassionate portrayal of Antonio Ferraro, a man driven to the extremity of grief and anxiety over his daughter Manuela’s disappearance. This is what goes through Guerrieri’s mind  as he sits face to face with this person:

As I looked at him, the words of an old song…floated into my mind: “Do you by any chance know a girl from Rome whose face looks like a collapsing dam?” The face of Signore Ferraro, furniture salesman and desperate father, looked like a collapsing dam.

Guerrieri has been asked by his friend Sabino Fornelli to assist in the search for Manuela. He demurs at first. He is, after all, an attorney and not trained in investigative techniques. But absent some kind of definitive breakthrough, the police are preparing to close the case. The Ferraros and Fornelli see Guido as their last hope. Reluctantly, he agrees to provide whatever assistance he can in the quest for the missing young woman.

I think that despite his tendency to indulge in long bouts of nostalgia, plus certain other reservations, generally speaking the character of Guido Guerrieri found favor with this group of readers. That is, until Caterina Pontrandolfi enters the mix. She’s one of Manuela’s closest friends. Among others, Guido will need to interview her in order to move his investigation forward.

I’m tempted to refer to Caterina as a “beautiful seductress.” Certainly she knows how to use her endowments most effectively. She proceeds to manipulate Guido, using the oldest tricks in the book. Eventually, almost inevitably, he succumbs, all the while berating himself for doing so. (Among other things, he’s old enough to be her father.)

As this aspect of the plot unfolds, Guido sacrifices in some measure the reader’s good will. At least, this was the reaction I detected on the part of our group. (In some cases, ‘detecting’ was not needed. Pauline was clear about her growing aversion to both characters.) In her review of this novel, the author of the blog Petrona voices the same reservations.

I asked how people felt about the novel’s plot. Frank zeroed in on a plot point involving a cell phone in which the author had not played fair with the reader. I agreed with him; I had not picked up on that. Unfortunately, I can’t recall any other specifics of that part of the discussion – I think my brain was getting tired by then – but I will say that for myself, I found the plot singularly weak, insufficiently inventive, and lacking in momentum. In addition, it meandered in and out of focus, partly due to the aforementioned digressions supplied by Guido himself.

This assessment stands in rather stark contrast to my initial reaction to the novel  when I first reviewed it in 2011. What accounts for this change? It’s hard to say. Marge and I agree, though, that in regard to books we select for discussion, this change of perception occurs from time to time.

This is not to say I’m dismissing Temporary Perfections out of hand. There were still aspects of the book that I appreciated the second time around. I enjoyed the literary references with which Carofiglio salts his narrative. Auguste Dupin appears, as does Sherlock Holmes. And there’s this lovely homage to memory, and to Proust:

It’s not like memories dissolve and disappear. They’re all still there, hidden under a thin crust of consciousness. Even the memories we thought we’d lost forever. Sometimes they remain under the surface for an entire lifetime. Other times, something happens that makes them reappear.

A madeleine dipped in tea, or a huge dog with melancholy eyes that offers you his throat to be stroked, for example.

I’ve by no means covered our entire discussion, or indeed everything I have to say about the book. I am, however, running out of steam, so I’d like to sign off shortly. But, speaking of memory, I’m just now recalling that someone said toward the end that her view of the novel had changed as a result of our discussion. Not surprising, given what terrific talkers and thinkers the Suspects are.

Next up for our group is another volume with much to say about the workings of memory: Suspended Sentences, a beautiful and poignant collection of three novellas written by Patrick Modiano of France, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Modiano  Genie will be the presenter.

 

4 Comments

  1. Carol said,

    Obviously I was too quiet and shy during the meeting :0) but I did enjoy the book and continue to like it. The group’s opinion was not as universally negative as this account seems to indicate. (See, I’m not always “gracious”:0) )

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for this, Carol; I appreciate it!

  2. southernfrances said,

    It was I, Frances, who said I came to appreciate, if not enjoy to the fullest,
    aspects of Temporary Perfections, Roberta. As is sometimes the case, by taking a close multi-lensed look at a problem read, one comes away with a general appreciation the author’s effort. I enjoyed all the classical references. Stumbling upon nodes to Proust, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock, and Auguste Dupin made me smile. Overall, I appreciate Carofiglio’s writing skills and intellectual gifts. Some of the descriptive bits were breathtaking lovely. However, I neither liked nor connected with the protagonist, Guido. I did not enjoy the meandering first person wanderings through a mind I never felt any affinity for. I did not enjoy being in his head. I don’t know how the other offerings in the series paint this character. Maybe this was just Guido in one case but not his persona throughout the series.

    The group wondered how an accomplished attorney being taken in by such a young, probably sociopathic, femme fatale, Catalina. We felt that at his age and with his life experience he should have known better. One of us mentioned bonking him on his head to wake him up. Some felt this thread of the mystery was a weak central plot device upon which to hang a mystery that sought to convey a serious message about choice and consequences.

    Conversely, our group discussed with delight several peripheral characters that we felt were attempts to pepper positive, virtuous counterpoints to the dark, devouring domains of human depravity depicted in this book. We enjoyed the erudite cabbie (give me more of this guy) and the heart of gold, lady of the night who offered Guido great conversation and food in an unexpected Mecca, a secluded night club, set amongst a maze of dark deserted streets and buildings. Go figure.

    My take away mental image of this mystery is one of Guido walking around in dark, deserted areas of a city trying to discharge confusion and clear his mind. Stick to punching a bag and surfing, Guido.

    A slaughterhouse being resurrected as a Library? Several of us were confused by that. Had to mention that library. I do agree with the author’s recurring message, books with worthy ideas can lead to clarity and transformation. Flip that coin and the opposite is true, as well.

    Finally, I think a dark novella or story story format might have been a better frame upon which to weave this particular study of personal and societal darkness and light.

    Thank you, Roberta, for another excellent presentation and discussion.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Frances, thanks so much for taking the time to craft these thoughtful and insightful comments. I especially like this sentence: “Conversely, our group discussed with delight several peripheral characters that we felt were attempts to pepper positive, virtuous counterpoints to the dark, devouring domains of human depravity depicted in this book.” You write beautifully.
      These observations deserve more careful scrutiny than I’m capable of at the moment. Let me just say now that I very much appreciate the trouble you took to write this. I have the deepest respect for your warmth and your intellect.

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