Andrea Camilleri: Once upon a time in Sicily

Andrea Camilleri's food-mad sleuth is Italy's most famous cop, and one of the nation's leading cultural exports. Peter Popham meets his creator in Rome
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The Independent Culture

Salvo Montalbano, Italy's most popular fictional detective, is notorious for his filthy temper, but in the latest novel in Andrea Camilleri's series he outdoes himself. Somewhere in the south Sicilian countryside is a luxuriantly twisted Saracen olive tree to which the detective likes to repair when he has things on his mind. He goes to find the tree again in The Scent of the Night (translated by Stephen Sartarelli; Picador, £12.99), but this time not to meditate on a case. At a trattoria he has just sunk a litre of "very dense red wine" to wash down a dish of "burning pirciati" - a fiercely spiced pasta dish. He discovers as he leaves the restaurant that he is completely drunk, and narrowly avoids crashing his car several times in the aftermath. He seeks out the comforting tree in order to sober up.

But his tree has been torn out of the ground to make way for a new villa, still under construction. In his fury, he scales the villa's gate, finds a sledgehammer and smashes all the windows. Colourful cement statuettes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are lined up beside the house, waiting to be distributed around the garden: he pulverises them with the hammer. Then, with a can of green spray paint, he writes "ASSHOLE" in big block letters on all four walls. He drives home completely sober.

The detective as drunken vandal is a new one, even for a detective as unconventional as Montalbano. During our conversation in Rome, I ask Camilleri: who exactly is this man? "He's my father more than anyone else," the author says, "above all in his behaviour. It was my wife who realised this, after the first four or five books - it hadn't occurred to me. The only thing he has in common with me, besides a love of eating, is the reality of his human relationships.

"Let me tell you a personal story to give you an idea of how much of my father has passed on to Montalbano. My father was a real Fascist, one of the true believers. Then one day in 1938, a school friend of mine called Marcello Pera came to me and said goodbye. He said, 'Tomorrow I'm not coming to school.' I said 'Why not, Marcello?' 'Because I'm a Jew.' What it meant to be Jewish hit me like a bolt from the blue... So I went home to my supper and I said to my dad: 'You know my friend Marcello Pera? He can't come to school any more because he's Jewish.' My father hit the roof, saying 'That bastard,' referring to Mussolini - and he was a squadrista, a hard-line Fascist. 'The Jews are just like us,' he roared. That was my father. And I've always tried to make Montalbano critical about the behaviour and orders of his bosses, the imbecility of power."

Born and raised in Sicily, Italy's most successful writer lives in a dignified block of period flats, a palazzo signorile, in the fashionable Prati district of Rome. He was 70 when he published his first Montalbano mystery, after a distinguished career as theatre director, literary novelist and teacher. At 81, he shows no signs of retiring. He rises at six and settles down to work in his small study, a Dell laptop on the desk, the walls crowded with prints of Picasso and other modernist paintings, a pack of Marlboros within easy reach. The flintlock pistol that resides on the sideboard and the large image, on the back of the door, of a gangster pulling a gun from his inside pocket are the only hints of a darker underside to this world of modest elegance and solitary toil.

"No, I don't find writing hard," he tells me. "Above all, it's a pleasure: if I don't enjoy myself, I don't write. If I see while I'm writing a page that the page is not breathing, that it's difficult to write, I let it go. The pages must flow swiftly, and then one goes back to rework them."

Camilleri has made Montalbano famous around the world: more than 10 million copies of the books have been sold. Montalbano is a brilliant cop, of course, but for most addicts it is the volcanic character of the hero and the comedy of his relationships - with his caustic girlfriend Livia, based hundreds of miles away in Genoa but always jetting in at the worst moment, with his lecherous subordinate and drinking companion Mimi Augello, and with his much-abused stomach - that keep them coming back for more.

Although Camilleri has lived in Rome for 49 years, all his writing is set in the island of his birth. Until recently he returned every year for extended visits. "My wife would say, would you like to go to Sicily for a spell? and I would say, certainly, and we went to Sicily for a spell, for 15 days. Then my first daughter would turn up with her husband and the grandchildren, and then my wife would say let's stay another week... It ended up that we stayed two months because of all the children and grandchildren and other people passing through.

"Unfortunately, last year the illnesses of age prevented me from going for more than five days, and this year I haven't managed to go at all. So what's happening is that I am forgetting my Sicilian because we don't speak it at home. Thank God, I have two or three friends and I get on the phone to them and they remind me what it sounds like, so I can still manage it. Because if you don't hear it spoken, it's a problem."

Reading Montalbano is an immersion in all things Sicilian, but one factor is conspicuously inconspicuous: the Mafia. Readers new to Camilleri may suppose that brutal mafiosi lurk behind every plot line, but it's not the case. "The Mafia is always present in my novels, because one would have to be a hypocrite not to include them," Camilleri says, "but I have never wanted to make the Mafia the protagonist. That's what I've always said, and the Mafia have rebuked me for it.

"In literature and the cinema, more often than not, the figure of the gangster creates a relationship of total fascination. I don't believe the Mafia are worthy of this. Let's leave the literature on the Mafia as the ungrammatical report of an under-commissioner of police and the reasoning of a judge at the conclusion of a trial. That is their true literature and that's the way it should remain."

Does Camilleri know how a Montalbano book is going to end when he starts it? "No! Up to a certain point it's clear, but beyond it's not. It's like when you do an accurate shot at billiards: you have a good idea of where the balls are going to end up, but the shot has to be a good one, otherwise the ball won't run well.

"Novels on the whole look after themselves," he thinks. "Often it happens that they try to seize control. They start to wander off on their own orbit. At that point, you have to decide whether it's better to call a halt or to follow it. "

But if Camilleri doesn't mind seeing the characters in his books bouncing around like billiard balls, he takes a firmer line on the series itself. In fact, he has already written the final two Montalbano books. "The day before yesterday I finished the latest Montalbano and sent it down to [his Sicilian publisher] Elvina Sellerio in Palermo," he says. "I think this will be the third to last, because the final two have already been written. I wrote the final one because at a certain point it occurred to me that I should get on with it at once before Alzheimer's strikes, and I did so."

The Montalbano books are "police procedurals" and faithful to the genre's disciplines, but Camilleri, who is distantly related to Luigi Pirandello, also enjoys playing with them. At the climax of the new novel, Montalbano suddenly finds himself living out a short story by William Faulkner. In one Montalbano short story, the events get so gruesome that the detective telephones the author in disgust to tell him he is pulling out of it.

From time to time, in other words, Montalbano awakes from the tormented dream that is his life and discovers that he is just a figment in Camilleri's mind. But for the finale of the final book, the author has reserved a more gruesome fate for his inspector. The Montalbano stories have become staggeringly successful on Italian television, and finally the ubiquitousness of the television detective gets the better of his progenitor.

"He has an end befitting a character in a book," Camilleri explains. "He has a final duel with the author, from which he leaves inevitably defeated. Montalbano finds he has a double, represented by the incredible success of Montalbano the television personality. At a certain point he arrives to undertake an investigation, and he hears people saying, 'Inspector Montalbano has arrived.' And somebody asks, 'but is it the one from television?' And this drives him mad with rage..."

Biography: Andrea Camilleri

Andrea Camilleri was born in Porto Empedocle, Sicily, in 1925. After studying drama in Rome, he directed plays for theatre and television, specialising in Pirandello and Beckett, and produced many cultural programmes. He published his first novel, The Way Things Go, in 1978, followed by four others up to The Hunting Season in 1992. In 1994 came the first Inspector Montalbano novel, The Shape of Water. The Sicily-set detective series acquired huge popularity, in print and then via TV versions. The Montalbano books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide; The Scent of the Night, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, this week becomes the sixth in the series to be published in the UK by Picador. Camilleri lives with his wife in Rome.