Books: Pacy political history, Sicilian style

Written By: Mike Parker
Published: May 10, 2017 Last modified: May 10, 2017

The Revolution Of The Moon
by Andrea Camilleri
Europa Editions £10.99

Regular readers of the Inspector Montalbano novels of Andrea Camilleri will be familiar with the great Sicilian’s pungent approach to writing. A current of sometimes bitter, despairing cynicism and black humour hides an idealistic undertow on which characters like Montalbano, Fazio and Augello ride precariously, keeping their heads above water just enough to breathe.

Though it is Montalbano for whom Camilleri is best known in Britain – mainly thanks to the Italian TV adaptations broadcast on BBC4 – he is a cultural icon in Italy due to the wide range of his work. Now aged 92, he began as a scriptwriter and film and theatre director and was chair of Film Direction at the Silvio D’Amico Academy of Dramatic Arts for 20 years. Having earlier published poems and short stories, he wrote his first novel in 1978, at the age of 53, and despite a gap of 12 years along the way, has published dozens in addition to the Montalbano books, which began in 1994.

Revolution Of The Moon is the most recent of these non-crime novels, and one of the few to have been published in English. Taking as his cue his discovery of a little-known historical incident in his native Sicily, Camilleri has fashioned a brusque but compelling tale with contemporary echoes on many levels.

Set in 1677, when the island was still the property of a Spanish monarchy that has never bothered to set foot there, he imagines the circumstances surrounding the shocking emergence of a woman as its effective ruler. For when the Spanish Viceroy, Angel de Guzman, suffering inexplicable, monumental obesity, dies of a heart attack on his throne at a meeting of the Holy Royal Council, it is discovered that his will anoints his young and ethereally beautiful wife Eleanora as his successor.

The effect this has on the rabble that constitutes the Council is predictable. Corrupt, greedy, venal, rapacious and murderous, they plot with typical patriarchal contempt to undermine or remove her, but fail to come to terms with her intelligence – or her determination to avenge their treatment of her husband, whose corpse they had left in place while they enthusiastically passed laws for their own benefit.

Aided by a besotted palace doctor, don Serafino, Eleanor manages to outwit most of her enemies as she begins to put in place enlightened policies to ease the lot of the poor and provide for exploited orphans and abandoned prostitutes, but she faces a tough challenge in the person of the ruthless paedophile Bishop Turro Mendoza, one that results in a conclusion that, as Camilleri puts it, is “neither happy nor sad”.

Those expecting the kind of dense historical novel, meticulously researched, of someone like Hilary Mantel will be disappointed with The Revolution Of The Moon. This, despite its roots in near-forgotten fact, is more a flight of historical fancy, one which Camilleri uses to draw parallels with the corruption of contemporary government, the hypocrisy of the Church (with
particular reference to the decades – indeed, centuries – of sexual abuse tolerated, ignored and covered up), and the continued denial to women of their rightful place in society.

It is written, too, in relentlessly contemporary language, with no attempt to recreate archaic speech or manners. And, even by the standards of the Montalbano books, there is little descriptive prose, and no attempt to widen the narrative, or explore the character’s psyches. It is entirely plot driven, and compresses the 27 days of donna Eleanora’s rule into 230 breathless pages.

As with the Montalbano books, Camilleri is well served by his superb translator, Stephen Sartarelli, though I would have preferred him not to intersperse the English text with (untranslated) bits of Spanish – they might be intended to emphasise Eleanora’s isolation as a Spaniard among the Sicilians, but they interrupt the novel’s flow.

The Revolution Of The Moon may not be ‘literature’ of the Wolf Hall kind, but it is a brilliant read, angry and inspiring. Credit to the publisher for giving us something of Camilleri that takes us beyond the trials of our friend Salvo.

About Mike Parker

Mike Parker is Literary Editor and Production Editor of Tribune