An Aurelio Zen Novel
Michael Dibdin's overburdened Italian police inspector has been transferred to Naples, where the rule of law is so lax that a police station may double as a brothel. But this time, having alienated superiors with his impolitic zealousness in every previous posting, Zen is determined not to make waves.
Too bad an American sailor (who may be neither American nor a sailor) knifes one of his opposite numbers in Naples's harbor, and some local garbage collectors have taken to moonlighting in homicide. And when Zen becomes embroiled in a romantic intrigue involving love-sick gangsters and prostitutes who pass themselves off as Albanian refugees, all Naples comes to resemble the set of the Mozart opera of the same title. Bawdy, suspenseful, and splendidly farcical, the result is an irresistible offering from a maestro of mystery.
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June 29, 1998
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Excerpt from Cosi Fan Tutti by Michael Dibdin
La scena si finge in Napoli
If there had been anyone about in Via Greco on the morning in question, this is what they would have seen.
The sun had just cleared the roof-line of the five-storey buildings on Via Martucci, and in the space of a few seconds its sharply angled brilliance transformed the scene like theatre lighting revealing a stage set. Each object, however mundane, was picked out by the soft yet intense glare, and invested with a glamorous air of significance and portent.
The spectators, had there been any, would no doubt have scrutinized each object thus revealed, trying to decide on its role in the spectacle about to unfold. That tree at the corner of the two streets, for example, casting a crisp shadow across the pitted black paving slabs-was it just decorative, mere scene-setting, or was it destined to play a crucial part in the drama, to become a virtual character in its own right, perhaps as the site of the famous Act Two duet of seduction and surrender familiar to every music lover?
Similarly, the buildings so insistently yet tenderly picked out by the steadily growing light-are they simply characteristic infill, or will each have become individually familiar, by the time the curtain finally falls, as a source of threat or refuge? The entrances look practicable, yet the facades themselves might easily be painted flats, over-compensating for their two-dimensionality with a fussy show of detail.
Other aspects of the scene seem less problematic. Those clustered rubbish bins, for example, surely hint at the agenda of this supposedly 'radical' new production. Like the ranks of cars stacked two and even three deep in Via Greco, turning it into a car park with only a slender central aisle left free for traffic, these clearly represent a message from the director to the effect that this is Naples now, a nexus of politico-socio-economic realities very different from the picturesquely generalized setting which the composer and his librettist had in mind, providing a refreshing contemporary slant on the frankly rather trite contrivances of the original concept-although the music is divine, of course.
But despite all these cunning touches, a bare stage can hold only a limited amount of interest in the absence of any human participants to provide some dramatic point. And here, after what seems in retrospect a perfectly judged delay, they come.
However, it is immediately clear that these are merely extras, a sort of mobile extension of the set who will fill in with some optional business the director has dreamt up before the action proper begins. In keeping with the tone of gritty realism already established, they are dressed as garbage collectors, in blue overalls, stout gloves and boots. Following a large orange truck marked Comune di Napoli, they make their way steadily down Via Strozzi, emptying the stacked bins and plastic bags of refuse, before turning right into the smaller side-street.
But now at long last one of the principals enters, not through one of the doorways but from a ramp cleverly hidden between two sections of the backdrop representing a modem apartment building to the left of Via Greco, up on the rise opposite the high wall of tufa, above which stand the gardens of an imposing villa higher up the hillside.
Despite his evident star status, he is unprepossessing in appearance. The air is mild, even at this early hour, but he is bundled up in an expensive-looking overcoat, leather gloves and a tartan scarf. In one hand he carries an executive briefcase, in the other a set of keys. He strides towards the ranks of parked cars, actuating an electronic device attached to the key-chain. One of the vehicles-a silver-grey Alfa Romeo-responds with flashing indicator lights and a series of enthusiastic beeps.
And now something strange happens, something as uncanny and yet effortless as a modulation into some remote key. To reach his car, the man must pass the orange truck heading towards the communal garbage skip outside the apartment building from which he has just emerged. As he does so, he finds his way obstructed by two of the crew who are walking alongside the truck in the narrow alley left free between the parked cars.
Rather than step into one of the spaces between the cars, the man keeps forging ahead, forcing the two blue-overalled workmen to give way to him. This they do, as though acknowledging the aura of power the man has about him, marking him as someone to be deferred to, not to be crossed. One of them moves to one side, between the silver-grey Alfa and its neighbouring vehicle, a battle-scarred Fiat Uno. The other drops back, apparently waiting for the truck to pass so that he can fall in behind it and leave the way clear.
And this is where the strange thing happens. For as the male principal passes the first blue-overalled supernumerary, the latter turns around holding an object which must have been concealed in one of the many pockets of his costume. It appears to be a rolled-up newspaper, no doubt L'Unit? or Il Manifesto or some such publication devoted to the aspirations and struggles of the proletariat, thus tying neatly into the director's jejune rethink. In an oddly elegant gesture, the workman waves the newspaper at the man in the overcoat, as though swatting a fly circling his head. At the same moment, although without any obvious sense of cause and effect, the latter tumbles forward as if he had tripped on the raised edge of one of the black paving slabs-always a hazard, even in this relatively well-to-do area of the city.
Luckily the other workman, now level with the rear of the still moving truck, is just in time to catch the falling man, thus preventing him from doing himself any serious injury. The gesture seems at first to indicate a compromise in the directorial line already established-the essential goodness of people everywhere, despite the ideological gulfs that appear to divide them-which half the audience fears and the other half secretly hopes will spill over into what the latter will applaud as human warmth and the former dismiss as feeble sentimentality.
As if to confirm this hypothesis, the first workman now tosses aside his newspaper, which hits the paving stones with a sharp metallic ring, and bends to grasp the victim's feet. Without a word, the two lift him clear of the ground, holding him suspended limply in mid-air by his shoulders and calves. By now the truck, in its inexorable progress, has passed them. With a single preliminary swing they heave the inert body up and over the tail-gate, where it disappears from view.
While the first workman retrieves the wrench which was wrapped in the newspaper, his colleague presses a green button protruding from a box mounted on the rear of the truck. With a loud roaring noise, the massive ram begins to descend. The top and sides are dirty and dull, but the curved blade has been polished by constant abrasion to an attractive silvery sheen. The ram moves steadily down into the body of the truck, the racket of its powerful machinery completely obliterating any sounds which might otherwise be audible.
At this point there is a welcome touch of comedy as the man's feet appear above the tail-gate of the garbage truck. Clad in highly polished brogues and red-and-black chequered socks below which a length of bare white leg is just visible, they proceed to execute a furious little dance, jerking this way and that like puppets at a Punch and Judy show-possibly a knowing allusion to the commedia dell'arte, which of course originated in this city.
The ram has meanwhile come to a halt in a series of shudders which shake the whole truck. One of the workmen runs over and activates another button on the raised console, reversing the mechanism for a moment while his colleague stuffs the upstart limbs down and out of sight. Then the ram continues its interrupted descent, this time completing its destined trajectory, scooping in all the rubbish which has been deposited there and crushing it into a compact mass, the individual components barely distinguishable one from another.
The blue-overalled workmen climb aboard the platform at the rear of the orange truck and wave to the driver, who immediately accelerates away, ignoring the overflowing skip standing outside the modern apartment block from which the man in the overcoat emerged earlier. The vehicle roars down the gently sloping street and disappears around the corner to the left. For a few moments its engine can be heard faintly in the distance, then all is still again.
If there had been anyone about in Via Greco on the morning in question, this is what they would have seen. And in fact several people were about: an old man shaving by the light from his window to save electricity, a single mother who had been up all night with her colicky baby, a child of ten taking in washing on a flat roof high above the street, a vagrant who slept in one of the parked cars by arrangement with the owner. But oddly enough none of them ever mentioned the extraordinary events they had just witnessed to the police or the newspapers, or even to their families, with the exception of Signora Pacca, the insomniac mother, who told the whole story in a low voice to her father that night over dinner. He smiled and nodded and muttered 'Really?' and 'Amazing!' from time to time. But Signor Pacca was stone deaf, and there was no one else in the room.
For the rest, no one breathed a word about what they had seen, although the affair soon became a matter of national notoriety. As if by unspoken agreement, they all acted as though they were opera-goers who, arriving fashionably late, had missed the overture.
La causa ? amore
The man leaning against the counter smiled in a distant, almost supercilious way. He did not say anything.
'Mamma put you up to this, didn't she?' demanded the older of the sisters with a knowing look.
The man raised his eyebrows expressively.
'She has naturally mentioned her concern. Repeatedly and on numerous occasions, for that matter. But hers is not mine.'
'Then what is?' the younger sister returned swiftly.
Instead of replying, the man raised his hand to summon the barman.
'I think I could stand another coffee. How about you two? The pastries here are supposed to be the best in town.'
'I really couldn't.'
'I shouldn't, really . . .'
The man smiled again.
'Exactly what your lovers will say when a suitable opportunity presents itself, according to your mother.'
He turned to the barman.
'Two sfogliatelle for the ladies, and another coffee for me.'
The older sister fixed him with an intense glare. She was tall for a Neapolitan, but with the characteristic sallow skin, glowing dark eyes and very fine black hair, which she wore short. Her features were sharply delineated, especially the firm, decisive mouth and the long straight nose.
'I don't care whether this was your idea, Dottor Zembla, or mamma's,' she declared. 'In either case, it is a transparent attempt, as vain as it is despicable, to undermine the feelings which Gesualdo and I cherish for one another, feelings such as persons of your generation are no longer capable of and whose strength and purity you cannot therefore be expected to understand. If I wished to be vulgar, I might suggest that it is precisely your inability to feel such emotions yourself which has generated the envy and rancour which lie behind this sordid attempt to discredit our poor lovers.'
Aurelio Zen shook his head.
'You are too ingenious, Signorina Orestina. My interest in this matter is entirely mercenary.'
'Pronti, dottore!' cried the barman, setting the coffee and the two scallop-shaped pastries on the marble counter.
'How does money come into it?' asked the younger woman, glancing down at the plate before her. Her appearance was softer and less formidable than her sister's, her hair longer and lighter, her flesh paler and plumper.
'Whose money?' Orestina enquired pointedly.
Zen sipped the scalding coffee, served in a cup preheated by boiling run-off from the espresso machine.
'Your mother's,' he said.
'Let me explain to you her way of thinking . . .'
'We know that only too well,' returned the younger woman. 'She thinks that Sabatino and Gesualdo are thugs, criminals, gangsters, drug dealers, and Heaven knows what else!'
'Oh certainly, Signorina Filomena! That goes without saying. But where your mother and I differ is that she doesn't believe that they are really in love with you. Not only have you chosen to bestow your beauty, brains and breeding on these worthless individuals-I paraphrase your mother's rhetoric here-but, even worse, they are only diverting themselves with you, and will move on to new conquests as soon as they have got what they want.'
'That's a horrible thing to say!' cried Filomena, her green eyes watering. 'Sabatino is always very sweet and respectful to me and he really cares about my feelings. Mamma has no right to say that he doesn't love me. She's just jealous, that's all.'
'Gesualdo's only crime is that his parents were poor and lived in the wrong part of town,' her sister protested. 'It's simply shameful of mamma to condemn him for that. He's the finest, truest, kindest, straightest man I've ever met, and worth any number of the snobby, snotty, spoilt brats she would like to marry us off to!'
Aurelio Zen drained his coffee and reached towards his pocket, then paused, frowning. He shook his fingers as though to relieve a cramp.
'My analysis of the situation exactly,' he replied. 'Which is why it's doubly unfortunate that you are unwilling to put their fidelity to the test. As it is, your mother and I may have to wait a long time to see which of us has won.'
'Won?' snapped Orestina. 'Won what?'
'Are you saying that you and mamma have made a bet on our future happiness?' demanded her sister. 'How dare you do such a thing? As though our lives were a horse race or a football match!'
Aurelio Zen shrugged.
'All I wanted to do was to prove your mother wrong. But since you won't cooperate . . .'
Filomena lunged forward impulsively and grabbed one of the sfogliatelle.
'And why should we cooperate?' she demanded. 'What's in it for us?'
'A trip to London, for a start.'