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God's Dog, By Diego Marani; trans Judith Landry: Book review - detective novel reimagines Rome as a sinister theocratic state

 

"My name is Domingo Salazar; I was born on the feast of Saint Dominic and brought up by the Dominican Fathers. I am a policeman, I see to it that the laws of our Holy Mother Church are respected and I work for the worldwide spread of that same Church… I studied at the patriarchal monastery in Bologna and then at the Papal Police Academy in Rome, which I left with the rank of inspector in the fifth year of the reign of Pope Benedict XVIII."

This is how we are introduced to the implacable, Machiavellian protagonist of Diego Marani's new novel, the eponymous God's Dog. But do we want to spend a whole novel (however brief) in such unsympathetic company?

The author's New Finnish Grammar won literary prizes in Italy, and his second novel, The Last of the Vostyachs, was longlisted for this newspaper's Foreign Fiction Award. This book, however, is described as the author's first detective novel, but its near-future milieu also locates it in something like the SF arena.

God's Dog is set in the not-too-distant future, and Rome is now a sinister theocratic state, a religious version of Orwell's Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The much-feared papal police (among whom Salazar is a star enforcer) are armed and enjoy total autonomy; their targets are abortionists (who are seen as irredeemably evil – not a massive extrapolation from current Roman Catholic orthodoxy), while atheists are identified as terrorists and hunted down equally ruthlessly.

The cobbled streets, hospices and churches we see here are minatory places, and those who Salazar encounters live in a constant state of paranoia – as well they might, as insufficient piety can be fatal. Onto this dark universe, Marani has stitched a Chandleresque detective plot. Salazar, brandishing gun and crucifix, is on the trail of a doctor who has performed not only abortions but the equally heinous crime of euthanasia. But this is not Salazar's only assignment; he has been instructed to foil the plots of the Free Death Brigade which has plans for violent disruption at the canonisation of Pope Benedict XVIII. But will Salazar begin to question the Catholic fatwas that are his calling?

The crime genre is thronging with honest, likeable cops working within corrupt regimes (Martin Cruz Smith's Renko in an increasingly totalitarian Russia, for instance), but the writers of such novels give themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card by allowing us to sympathise with their conflicted protagonists, chafing against their brutal paymasters. Marani (in Judith Landry's able translation), however, is more audacious, granting his anti-hero a terrifying religious fervour, unquestioning of the status quo. What's more, he is an intelligent, intuitive investigator, skilled at using psychology against his victims.

Perhaps readers in theocratic Middle Eastern countries (in the unlikely event that they are to pick up a novel such as this) might see Salazar as necessarily rigorous in carrying out God's work, but for most Western readers, he will be a tough pill to swallow. Which is what makes the success of this energetic and trenchant novel all the more impressive, however reptilian its protagonist. Marani's church authorities here propose an interfaith movement called "Bible-Koranism" designed to stamp out secularism; as Salazar calmly explains this historical necessity to non-believers, the reader may hear Marani's warning voice: be aware!

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