Name: Salvo Montalbano
Occupation: Commissario di Polizia (Police Inspector)
Creator: Andrea Camilleri
Location: Vigata [see footnote 1 for more details]
Language spoken: Italian with a Sicilian accent, sprinkled with a generous dose of Sicilian words
Typical expression: Montalbano sono, i.e., this is Montalbano, pronounced when he answers the phone or knocks on someone's door. It is a typical trait of the Sicilian language to place the verb at the end in this sentence, which in Italian would be Sono Montalbano.
A number of people have heard me sing the praise of Camilleri's novels, so I thought I would expand a bit the scope of my blog and write a post about my beloved Montalbano. He is Sicilian and speaks the language. He is not a cook, but a food lover, who drinks only espresso for breakfast, but then sits down to eat his lunch and his dinner: no sandwich grabbed in a rush for him! Readers know what Montalbano gets at the restaurant and what his housekeeper Adelina leaves in the oven or in the fridge for him to eat at the end of his long working days. They also know about his eternal fiancée Livia, who lives far away, and about his collaborators, from his second in command, Mimì Augello, to efficient Fazio, to funny Catarella, all deeply devoted to Montalbano and loyal to him even when he is in a bad mood or they don't understand what he is up to.
Montalbano's stories are a tribute to Sicily, its colorful language, its amazing food, its warm-hearted people and its often rugged landscape. There is the Mafia behind some of the murders in the novels, but also modern criminal activities, like organ trafficking. Camilleri has a delicacy of touch that makes each character alive and profoundly human.
Concentrating on the food on his plate and ultimately in his mouth is a way for Montalbano to clear his mind, to leave space for his mental processes to run their course. A recurring scene is Montalbano going to his home on the beach, setting the table and eating what Adelina has made for him (sometimes supplementing it with aulive, passuluna and a piece of caciocavallo (green and black olives and a typical southern Italian dream of a cheese). Sharing a meal with a person (a victim, a suspect, a witness) allows Montalbano to study him or her across the dining table. He often bases his likes and dislikes on the person's relationship with food. He also has deep respect and affection for good cooks and celebrates them in the best possible way: by eating everything they prepare with appreciation and gratitude. A not uncommon side effect of such meals is the need to take a nap, gli occhi a pampineddra (about to close) being the unmistakable sign of the impending journey in the land of dreams.
Both the language and the food show clear signs of the multicultural heritage Sicily owes to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the Sicilian words and expressions Camilleri uses were foreign to me and I deciphered them based on their context, much like I used to do when I started reading English novels in college. Now those words and expressions are old friends, but they have not lost their shine: I still love to pronounce them in my mind (not being Sicilian, my rendition is very approximate) and savor them, like the dishes Montalbano empties during his meals. Some of those dishes are famous outside Sicily (like pasta alla Norma), while others have more local currency (like pappanozza, made with onions and potatoes boiled for a long time, then placed in a bowl and mashed with the back of a fork until they are well mixed, seasoned with olive oil, vinegar, salt and freshly ground black pepper).
To see a beloved book character embodied in an actor is often a bit of a disappointment, but when Camilleri's stories were made into TV movies everybody agreed that Luca Zingaretti played his role beautifully (though in my eyes he is a handsomer version of Montalbano).
1Andrea Camilleri was born in Porto Empedocle (Agrigento, Sicily). In 2003, after obtaining Camilleri's permission, the city has changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata. The Vigata of the movies is Scicli (Ragusa, Sicily).
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the Montalbano audio file [mp3].
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