Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Reviewed by Gill Davies
In addition to the Inspector Montalbano novels, best known to English readers from the TV adaptations in the BBC4 Saturday night crime slot, Andrea Camilleri has also written historical crime fiction. The Sect of Angels, first published in Italian in 2011, is set in Sicily in the early 1900s. Here Camilleri turns to events that took place in an ordinary little town involving church, state, and the mafia. From the beginning the novel mocks the feuds and internecine squabbles of small-town Sicily. There are eight churches in Palizzolo, seven of which cater for the wealthier populace,
divvied up between the nobility and landowners on the basis of mutual antipathies and sympathies, familial relations acknowledged or denied, longstanding resentments and quarrels dating back to the time of Carlos Quinto, and civil suits hailing from the age of Frederick II of Swabia, and carried on even after the Unification of Italy, as well as undying hatreds and changing attachments.
The satirical tone is aimed at the absurdities of ignorant but wealthy landowners and local officials; the rumours and panics that spread through gossip and spying on your neighbours; and the desperate need to preserve respectability and “honour”. But quite soon it appears that the churches don’t just foster rivalry and snobbery. The priests (and some members of the congregations) of seven of the eight churches are guilty of something darker. Only the eighth church, with an old priest and a peasant congregation, is exempt from the revelations to come.
In an end-note, Camilleri indicates that much of the novel is closely modelled on the real-life revelations of sexual abuse by a group of priests and the attempts by a local lawyer to uncover the secrets and bring the guilty men to justice. It is a perfect story for a crime novel, with the lawyer acting as an amateur investigator, helping the police and being thwarted along the way by the vested interests of local worthies and the Catholic church. Matteo Teresi is a man of principle, using fees from richer clients to subsidise his work with the poor and exploited. He also publishes a newspaper that exposes injustice and corruption. As a result, he is preached against and deliberately excluded from the centres of power and influence in the town. When he suspects something sinister lies behind the pregnancies of several young women – and indeed the efforts by their “respectable” parents to conceal this – he starts to uncover a very nasty secret.
Unsurprisingly – so this isn’t a spoiler – the lawyer’s crusade ends in tears. And the poisonous networks of church and gentry prevail. That is after all what we expect from satire. The pace and tone are unlike the police procedural or traditional detective novel. There is not much suspense but instead a sly unpeeling of layers of nastiness until we are slapped in the face by the realisation that there isn’t going to be a triumphant denouement. This is essentially a moral tale that might have been told by Swift or Voltaire. It is short, with little description of setting or character, and relying on grotesques and caricatures to expose the comedy of small town life. It is thus different from much of contemporary crime writing that often concentrates on psychological and sociological explanations. The story is largely told through dialogue and is often very funny, in a bleak way. The translation (so far as I can tell) keeps the flavour of the original with the Sicilian dialect underpinning an inward-turned society. It is aimed at an American readership and often goes for a tough-guy vernacular.
If they have to arrest you, they’re gonna arrest you. All of you. An I won’t lift a finger. I don’t want any trouble. You break something, you fix it yourselves. What need was there for all six of you to trudge over there to that wretch’s home? One of you woulda been enough. You have a look at whatever there is to look at, you take whatever there is to take, and you leave everything just the way it was. Nice and neat. But since you’re all stupid young shits, you broke all the eggs… What the hell were you looking for? Wait! Don’t tell me! Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know. That’s your goddam business, not mine…. Now get the hell outta here, all of you.
What’s brilliant about this is the fact that the speaker is not a gangster or a bent copper, but a bishop talking to some errant priests. It’s a tone of voice that exposes the dark heart of this novel and underlines the corruption and hypocrisy at the centre of its plot. When bishops and priests not only behave like criminals but are actively in league with them to preserve their outward sanctity, you know you aren’t reading an escapist Mediterranean mystery.
This is an original and entertaining novel. But I have some reservations. The sexual abuse of children and young women by men in positions of power is often at the centre of crime writing now. I have a concern that that may itself be a kind of exploitation. In this case, I sometimes felt uncomfortable with Camilleri’s use of comedy to deal with the subject. There is no sympathy or emotional identification with the victims who can at times seem as absurd as the priests who rape and deceive them. And is it sufficient to show the men as idiotic and absurd? Is that an adequate representation of their crime? Maybe I am taking this too seriously, but I did feel that the tone was a little odd for the subject matter, even acknowledging that this how satire works.
Andrea Camilleri, The Sect of Angels, translated by Stephen Sartarelli (Europa, 2019 ). 987-609455132, 205pp., paperback.