Sunday, November 1, 2015

And Then You Die, by Michael Dibdin

I'd been moaning (again, still) about never having travelled in Italy and regretting it. My ever so sensible friend Markku suggested I start shopping for airline tickets and just plan the damned trip already, but where would I begin? There's just too much to see and do and eat. "Well then," he said, "just stay home and read Michael Dibdin."

Michael Dibdin is the English author of the Aurelio Zen mystery novels, all set in Italy, and Markku promised no better armchair travel could be had.  Dubious, I downloaded the 12 books. Although I like to read series in order, whether or not they're stand-alone, I somehow managed to start with And Then You Die, which is number eight. The advice to stay home and read Dibdin is up there with "don't forget Florence" or "check out the Vatican".

Early in the book, Zen stretches himself out on a lounger at a beach, which Dibdin describes as "the dense expanse of tan granules".  That phrase alone is better than the best gelato I can imagine, and I savoured it for minutes. As Zen scans his surroundings, he notices that "what men there were had a decidedly supernumerary air about them..."  I had to look that one up:  "in excess of the normal or requisite number; not wanted or needed; redundant".  Is it too much? No, it strikes me as just the right word for the job, not the almost right word that Mark Twain fretted about.  ("The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - 'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.")

Zen is reclining on the lounger belonging to the villa in which he's hiding out after a failed attempt to kill him. He's assumed the identity of the villa owner's long absent brother. He's really not in a position to woo a woman, but she is eye-catching...
The majority of the bikinis in Versilia were being worn by women who didn't seem to realize or care that they had reached a point in life when any men around were more likely to be mentally dressing them than the reverse. The exception was Gemma, if that was indeed her name. There was no reason to suppose that it wasn't, but ever since I'incidente Zen had been living in a world where people's names, assuming they bothered to offer one, were at best generic flags of convenience, polite formulae designed to ease social contacts, of no significance or substance in themselves. But of course Gemma belonged not to that world...
As he's a critical witness in their case against the criminal thugs, Aurelio's bosses decide he should be sent out of Italy for safekeeping, but he is resolutely opposed to the idea. When he hears that they're shipping him to the United States, he goes apoplectic.
Il bel paese could offer the traveller every conceivable variety of landscape, climate, natural beauties and cultural treasures. Why waste a lot of time going to some foreign country where they used funny money, spoke some barbaric dialect, and couldn't be relied upon to make a decent cup of coffee, still less know how to cook pasta properly? It was-a stupid idea, however you looked at it. And if the foreign country in question was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, it became quite literally insane.
Zen's rule of thumb in these matters was very simple. In theory, at least, he was prepared to at least consider going to any country which had formed part of the Roman Empire. If it had also been part of the political or trading empire of the Venetian Republic, so much the better. Egypt, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, the Balkans, Austria, Bavaria, France, Iberia, North Africa - even England, at a pinch - he could contemplate as a hypothetical destination. Beyond those limits, he just didn't see the point. The Romans had been brutal bastards, but they were no fools. If they hadn't bothered to conquer Sweden or Poland; there was probably a good reason. And they certainly hadn't been to America. Maybe they didn't know it was there. Or perhaps they'd heard rumours, but just didn't care enough to investigate further. Either way, Zen was inclined to trust their judgement.
He is outnumbered and outranked, however, so once on the jet, he tries to see the bright side of the situation.
He flipped through the magazine, pausing to skim an article about the city he was bound for. Apparently it had originally impenetrable mysteries, double-dealing, back-stabbing and underhand intrigues been settled by the Spanish, who named it El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. There was a translation in Italian, 'The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels', and photographs of an old stone monastery gleaming white in the sunlight. Maybe Los Angeles wouldn't be so bad after all, he thought. It sounded like a pleasant, old-fashioned sort of place, and at least the people would all be Catholics. Although by no means a committed believer, Zen preferred to be surrounded by his own sort. Protestants were an enigma to him, all high ideals one minute and ruthless expediency the next. You knew where you were in a Catholic culture: up to your neck in lies, evasions, of every kind. With which comforting thought he lowered the blind again and dozed off.
Eventually back in Italy, he finally arranges a dinner date at Gemma's villa, but before she can serve the antipasto, the bad guy arrives. She and Zen prevail, and he ends up dead on the dining room floor. They concoct a plan to dispose of the body over a glass or two of wine, and then she whips up some penne, because they certainly can't be carting a corpse about on empty stomachs.

Most excellent armchair travel material, this book, but also blithe and elegant. Thanks, Markku!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a riveting read! Will put this on my wishlist.


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