Pietro Fenoglio has his rituals, particularly surrounding coffee (whether prepared at home or consumed in a bar) but also in the conduct of his job as a marshal of the Carabinieri in the southern Italian city of Bari, which overlooks the Adriatic Sea. In Carofiglio’s novel — the second in a new series featuring Fenoglio, but the first to be translated into English courtesy of Howard Curtis — the marshal’s rituals stand in stark contrast with the rituals of the mafia organizations of Puglia (the region of which Bari is the capital) and the realities of a mafia war and a kidnapping. The interplay of the police and criminal rites and of the abyss against which they protect reveals much about the inner workings of Italian criminal organizations, about recent Italian history, and about rituals in a much broader, philosophical sense, particularly seen in Fenoglio’s struggles to maintain order in his professional and even his personal life: his wife has recently left him, seeking time to rethink their relationship.
The events of the novel, set in 1992, are bracketed by two interrogations and by two events that marked for Italians a turning point in their nation’s history: the murders of the two most prominent anti-mafia judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Carofiglio himself has been an anti-mafia prosecutor, as well as the author of an acclaimed series of crime novels featuring lawyer Guido Guerrieri, in addition to several stand-alone novels (the series and two of the stand-alones have also been published in English). The national shock of the two prominent murders serves to ground Carofiglio’s story, about a local crime organization and actual events that occurred in Bari in the ’90s, in the context of the larger, better-known mafias of Sicily, Naples, and Calabria.
The novel begins with a desperate young man’s attempt to rob a cafe-bar, introducing us to the social milieu of Bari and to the marshal, who happens to be in the bar at the time and intervenes to protect the bar’s cashier. The encounter reveals Fenoglio’s empathy, even with criminals, and his ethical standards. Though tempted to simply let the would-be thief off, he charges him in accordance with the law:
Fenoglio had a strong desire to let him go. He would have liked to tell the carabiniere at the wheel: stop and give me the keys to the handcuffs. Free the boy […] and throw him out of the car. He had never liked arresting people, and he found the very idea of prison quite disturbing. But that’s not something you broadcast when you’re a marshal in the Carabinieri.
Afterward, his superior officer, newly assigned to Bari, asks Fenoglio for a summary of the surprising mafia war which has started up in the region. No one can understand why there has been a sudden violent dispute within the organization headed by Nicola Grimaldi, also known as “Blondie” or “Three Cylinders” (everyone in the crime organization has at least one nickname). Vito Lopez, Grimaldi’s top lieutenant, has disappeared, along with his family, and everyone assumes that Lopez is dead. A further violent encounter between members of the gang is described in evocative terms:
[T]hirty-two cartridges […] had been fired almost simultaneously […] like a hard-edged mass of lethal metal. A web in which you couldn’t help but become entangled. The question wasn’t who had fired the shot that had reached its target; the question was who had participated in weaving that web.
The war reaches a culmination with the news that Grimaldi’s son has been kidnapped, an event that surprises everyone. Who would dare kidnap the child of a mafia boss?
The investigation of the kidnapping is complicated by the tradition of omertà, or silence, that pervades the mafia and everyone affected by the criminal enterprise. No one, least of all Grimaldi or his wife, will admit that kidnapping has even happened, much less that a ransom has been demanded. But everyone assumes that Lopez, if still alive, is behind the crime.
When Lopez suddenly appears and offers to turn himself in to the Carabinieri, through an acquaintance on the force, he becomes the subject of an interview that takes up most of the central third of the novel. The interview is fascinating in several ways. First, Lopez is an interesting character, called “The Butcher” not for the murders he has certainly committed, but for his middle-class background, unusual for a mafioso (his father owned an established butcher shop). Lopez’s testimony also reveals the inner structure of the local mafia, which is based on the larger and older organizations in Naples (the Camorra) and especially Calabria (the ’Ndranghèta). The organization has strict rituals, reminiscent of Masonic orders, with complex levels of initiation and hierarchy, laid out by the witness in considerable detail. The quasi-religious quality of the order can be seen in this passage:
[F]or the proper conduct of an affiliation or a promotion, a baptized place is necessary. When I say “baptized” I mean it must be a place expressly and stably equipped for affiliations in a ceremony of baptism, or else a different place but one that has first to be subjected to a kind of purification.
The rituals seem to prop up the alternate reality that the mafia requires for its stability and power. Just as Fenoglio needs his rituals of culture and law to struggle against chaos, Grimaldi’s organization (and the other more established mafias) need a ritually enforced “province of meaning” to maintain their grasp on the daily lives of their own members and the civilians they control and terrorize.
The description of the mafia hierarchy and the violation of norms seen in the kidnapping cause Fenoglio to consider the ordering, normative process in the criminal enterprise and his own profession: “Investigations, too, are an attempt to construct order, to find a meaning. The risk, though, is that the need to be rational makes us lose sight of the most common characteristic of many crimes: their lack of meaning, their dizzying, inscrutable banality.” The marshal also frequently remarks on the strict hierarchy within the Carabinieri, dictating the language used among the officers and lower ranks and even where they sit in an automobile. He remarks to the prosecutor that “[m]any of your colleagues, and almost all my superiors, love the rituals which ensure that other people acknowledge their authority.”
The language of the interview is also revealing. We see not the literal testimony of the accused, but the text as transformed into a legalism: “[H]is words were then transformed into the somewhat surreal language of a legal transcript.” The language of the Mafioso has been transformed almost ritually into the language of the police and the courts, in preparation for a trial rather than in discovery of a truth. Fenoglio resorts to an essay by Italo Calvino to explain to a colleague the artificiality and fragility of the relationship of language and reality or truth (his philosophical musings are frequent, and, according to the narrator, “digression into philosophical speculation was the most obvious sign of his frustration as a detective”).
One outcome of the translation of the verbal testimony into the typed statement is that the story is more comprehensible than it would be in the local dialect of the region and the slang of the mafia, but Carofiglio is also insisting on the importance of the order implicit in the shift in language: an order that he sees as vital to the sometimes tenuous maintenance of civilized, humane intercourse in Italy (and beyond).
The alternative to a humane order is demonstrated in the discovery of the kidnapped boy at the bottom of a well, following an anonymous tip. The death offers an insight into what lies beneath our carefully constructed, ritually reinforced reality: “[E]very semblance of meaning in the world collapses like the proverbial house of cards. The death of a child opens wide an abyss of pain and madness so deep you can’t see the bottom.” The death also mirrors in part a cause of the rift in Fenoglio’s own marriage: he has discovered that he is unable to have children, a fact his wife finds difficult to accept.
The interrogation of Lopez is just winding up when Fenoglio and the others involved in the case receive the news that Falcone has been murdered in Sicily. The impact of that event on the police and the country are emphasized in a melancholy conversation that Fenoglio has with prosecutor Gemma D’Angelo (also involved in the interrogation of Lopez) after the announcement of the death.
The novel shifts from the interrogation to the investigation of the kidnapping, a crime with which Lopez denies any involvement, though it is his fear of reprisals from the boy’s father, his own boss, that motivated his seeking police protection. Through a series of meetings with uncooperative witnesses and reluctant informants, Fenoglio moves slowly toward some understanding of what has happened, but it is finally an insight from one of the officers under his command that provides the clue that opens the case. What is revealed shakes the whole structure of both the criminal and the law enforcement organizations and strains Fenoglio’s ethical standard and ritualized decency.
The conclusion of the novel is marked by the end of the investigation but also by the car bombing that killed Borsellino in Palermo, an event that provokes a shift in Fenoglio’s personal life as well. The complex structure of Carofiglio’s narrative, with multiple structural and social parallels at the local and national level, contrasting criminal and civil worlds, and personal events in the lives of the characters, serves to reinforce the emphasis of the novel on the crucial role of structure in human life. But it is ultimately the ethical and sometimes contemplative Fenoglio who holds the whole novel together. His humanity holds out hope for some respite from the violence and corruption that lie behind all the story’s events. As he himself says of his role, what he does (and who he is) “gives meaning to chaos.”
Glenn Harper is the former editor of Sculpture magazine and reviews crime fiction at internationalnoir.blogspot.com.