Posts Tagged ‘The Terracota Dog’

It is time to get back to books 🙂 In the past one-and-a-half months, when I have been writing about music, I have been reading too. I finished around eight books and so I have a lot of catching up to do. I will start with the most recent reads first.

I have been on a mystery-reading-binge these days. I discovered that there were too many mystery books on my shelf which were unread. I thought that was a shame, because this is one of my favourite genres. So I thought I will make a list of them, get them down from the shelf and start reading them. I read three of them in the past few days. These are what I read.

The Man on the Boulevard by Georges Simenon

I got this book many years back when I was living in a place, where my biggest moment of the week was the Saturday evening I used to spend in the bookstore. There was just one bookstore in the city which had English books. Later two more stores opened. This bookstore had an early closing time – I think it was 7PM on Saturdays and 6PM on all other days. I was always the last guy still left in the bookstore and the guard used to come chasing after me asking me to leave. We got so used to each other after a while that this became some sort of game. After discovering that I liked hanging out at the bookstore after the closing the time, during subsequent times, the guard used to come ten minutes before closing time and point at his watch indicating that it was time for me to pay the bill. I used to point at my watch and say that there were still ten minutes left 🙂 All the guards in the bookstore became friendly with me after a while, after a few of these ‘battles’. I miss those times and am feeling nostalgic about it. Later two other bookstores opened in the city and they were open till 10PM on all days and I started frequenting them more.

Well, back to the book. I got ‘The Man on the Boulevard’ during one of my bookstore visits on a Saturday. I think I got it not from the first bookstore which used to close at 6PM but at one of the new bookstores. I had read one or two Simenon books when I was in school or in college. I remember liking them but I can’t recall their names or the plot. Though this Simenon book is slim, like most of his books, it ended up being in my shelf for years, unread and uncared for. I decided to give it some love and take it down and read it. I finished it in a day, which is something I don’t do normally – I prefer to read slowly and linger on my favourite sentences and paragraphs.

My initial impression of the book is this. The story had an interesting premise – a body is discovered in a cul-de-sac and it is that of a grocer. But when Maigret starts investigating the case, he discovers that there is more to it. It looks like the dead man has been leading a parallel life which his family is not aware of. New facts come to light which are all surprising and which don’t fit the ‘official’ personality of the dead grocer. The grocer’s wife seems to be a tyrant and the grocer’s daughter seems to have a secret herself. How things unravel and who is the real murderer form the rest of the story. On the way to unveiling the secrets, Simenon makes some interesting observations on life and people. These are all interesting aspects of the book.

On the other hand, after getting into the book with high expectations, I was also mildly disappointed. I had read somewhere that Maigret was a connoisseur of food, but there was not much evidence of it in the story. Though the book was fast-paced from one perspective, I was not really satisfied with the way the events of the story unfolded and the way the secrets were unveiled. I was also disappointed with the climax when the identity of the murderer was revealed. To be fair to Simenon, this book was published in 1953. Simenon published his first Maigret book in 1931 and the last one in 1972. So this book falls midway in Maigret forty-year career. So it is not surprising that it didn’t really reveal Maigret’s personality. Maybe it was written for readers who were already fans of Maigret. If one wants to know more about Maigret, maybe one should read one of the earlier books in the series.

The translation made me smile in some places. For example, in one place a dialogue goes like this :

Waiter : ‘Beer, sir?’

Maigret : ‘No. A half-bottle of claret.’

Claret? Really? Is that what Simenon wrote in the French original? (I am sure you already know this – a claret is a Bordeauxred wine. But only the British call it claret. There is a scene in the Bond movie ‘Diamonds are forever’ where this wine-knowledge comes in handy for Bond to identify the villains. I am pretty sure that Simenon called it a Bordeaux, in the French version of the novel).

Some of my favourite passages from the book :

The Room

The room to which she had taken them was a dining-room furnished in the rustic style. Presumably, it was also used as a sitting-room. There was an impersonal tidiness about everything which was reminiscent of a window display, or the interior of a furniture shop. Nothing had been left lying about, not even a pipe or a packet of cigarettes. There was not even a newspaper or a piece of needlework to be seen, nothing to suggest that people actually lived there.

The Two Kinds

      In the old days he had been particularly struck, even one might say romantically stirred, by the sight of those who, discouraged and defeated, had given up the struggle, being swept along willy-nilly by the great, surging tide of humanity.

      Since then, he had come to know many such people, and it was no longer them whom he most admired, but rather those just one step above them on the ladder, who were clean and decent and not in the least picturesque, and who fought day in and day out to keep their heads above water, or to nurture the illusion, or perhaps the faith, that they were alive and that life was worth living.

Wikipedia says that Georges Simenon is one of the writers who wrote during the golden age of detective fiction. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be very popular today. I think he deserves better.

The Shape of Water and The Terracota Dogtwo books by Andrea Camilleri

‘The Shape of Water’ and ‘The Terracota Dog’ were two other mystery novels that I got during the ‘golden age of book shopping’ in the same bookstore that I mentioned earlier above 🙂 I still remember why I got Andrea Camilleri’s books. The books are set in Sicily of the early 1990s. The blurb of the first book said this about Inspector Montalbano, the main character in the series – “Picking his way through a labyrinth of high-comedy corruption, delicious meals, vendetta firepower, and carefully planted false clues, Montalbano can be relied on, whatever the cost, to get to the heart of the matter”. Who can resist this description 🙂

Now, more about ‘The Shape of Water’. A leading politician is found dead in a shady place in a compromising situation. The case comes to Inspector Montalbano. The coroner certifies that the death is purely because of natural causes – ‘refreshingly unusual for Sicily’ as the blurb puts it. There is pressure applied on the inspector – from the police chief, the judge, the bishop – to close the case. But Inspector Montalbano wants to get to the bottom of the case. He wants to find out what happened. And the secrets start tumbling out one by one.

‘The Terracota Dog’ is a little bit different. There are two or three plot arcs in the beginning – there is a secret meeting with a Mafioso, there is a supermarket heist and the mysterious abandoned loot and then there is secret grotto in a mountain cave where two young lovers, dead fifty years and still embracing, are watched over by a life-size Terracota dog. Things move between these three plot arcs and then stays on the last one. The dead lovers are in a strange position with interesting objects around – it looks like a sign left by someone. It reminds one of ‘The Da Vinci Code’. There is also a reference to Umberto Eco’s work and his work in semiotics in the part of the story which covers this symbolism. What the true meaning of this sign is and who the dead lovers are and why they were killed are the mysteries that Montalbano discovers towards the end of the story.

I liked ‘The Shape of Water’ more than ‘The Terracota Dog’ because the plot and the events of the story were more focused. ‘The Terracota Dog’ borrowed some elements from ‘The Shape of the Water’ but the story wasn’t as tight. But I feel that Inspector Montalbano’s stories are not about plot, but about what they reveal about life inItaly andSicily during the early 1990s. There are notes provided by the translator Stephen Sartarelli at the end of these books, which describe some of the cultural facets of the story in more detail – like some finer points on history, language, cuisine, Italian idioms. After reading the books and the accompanying notes I felt that the books would have been a pleasure to native Italian readers because of the way they depict life inItaly, the wordplay, the humour – which the translation only hints at and the mild fragrance of which we can just get a whiff of. It is sad that things get lost in translation, but that is something we have to live with.

I liked Inspector Montalbano and his sense of humour and his concern for the underdog and the way he bends the law to help underdogs (one of his subordinates calls him a ‘communist’ because of that). Another of my favourite characters is Ingrid who plays an important part in ‘The Shape of Water’ and plays a minor part in ‘The Terracota Dog’. Another of my favourite characters is Signora Luparello, who comes in ‘The Shape of Water’ (she is the one who utters the phrase ‘the shape of water’) and who is a strong character. Unfortunately, she comes only in a few scenes in the story. There is also a comical scene in ‘The Terracota Dog’, which I liked very much, where the three women in Montalbano’s life – his girlfriend Livia, his colleague Corporal  Anna Ferrara, who loves him, and his friend Ingrid who flirts with him – are all at his bedside in the hospital with tears in their eyes and Montalbano doesn’t know what to do and closes his eyes.

Some of my favourite passages from these two books :

From ‘The Shape of Water’

Pecorilla was the foreman in charge of assigning the areas to be cleaned, and he nurtured an undisguised hatred for anyone with an education, having himself managed to finish middle school, at age forty, only thanks to Cusumano, who had a man to man talk with the teacher. Thus he manipulated things so that the hardest, most demeaning work always fell to the three university graduates in his charge.

…when they got to the Pasture, the Montelusa crime lab team was already there. They were in what Montalbano called the meditative stage, that is, five or six agents circling round and round the spot where the car stood, hands usually in their pockets or behind their backs. They looked like philosophers absorbed in deep thought, but in fact their eyes were combing the ground for clues, traces, footprints.

And now I’m going to dawdle a bit, he thought as soon as he got home. He liked the verb ‘dawdle’, tambasiare in Sicilian, which meant poking about from room to room without a precise goal, preferably doing pointless things. Which he did : he rearranged his books, put his desk in order, straightened a drawing on the wall, cleaned the gas burners on the stove. He was dawdling. He had no appetite, had not gone to the restaurant, hadn’t even opened the refrigerator to see what Adelina had prepared for him.

From ‘The Terracota Dog’

To judge from the entrance the dawn was making, it promised to be a very jiffy day – that is, blasts of angry sunlight one minute, fits of freezing rain the next, all of it seasoned with sudden gusts of wind – one of those days when someone who is sensitive to abrupt shifts in weather and suffers them in his blood and brain is likely to change opinion and direction continuously, like those sheets of tin, cut in the shape of banners and roosters, that spin every which way on rooftops with each new puff of wind.

I wish I could read Camilleri’s book in Italian. I think the reading experience would be more pleasurable then. I think, when I am in the mood, I will try to read more books in the Inspector Montalbano series.

Have you read any of these books? What do you think about them?

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