Santo Piazzese (b. 1948, Palermo), a biologist at the Università di Palermo, is one of Italy’s finest mystery writers. His debut novel, I delitti di via Medina-Sidonia (The Crimes of Via Medina-Sidonia) (Sellerio, 1996), and the third novel in the series, Il soffio della valanga (The Gust of the Avalanche), have been awarded numerous literary prizes both in Italy and in France. Owing to the author’s preference for his native Palermo as the setting of his novels, his passion for jazz and the clear influence of American hard-boiled crime fiction on his writing, Piazzese’s work has been described as “noir mediterraneo (Mediterranean noir).”
In the opening pages of I delitti di via Medina-Sidonia, the reader is introduced to a Palermo enveloped by the scorching winds of an African scirocco. As Biologist Lorenzo La Marca stares out his office window in the stifling heat, he catches a glimpse of the lifeless body of his friend and ex-colleague Raffaele Montalbani, who was supposed to be living in the United States, hanging from a noose tied to a ficus tree. Not convinced it’s suicide, La Marca turns to his longtime friend Inspector Vittorio Spotorno for help. When Spotorno is forced to focus his attention on other crimes, La Marca must solve the mystery of his friend’s murder on his own. Meanwhile, another ex-colleague has been found drowned in a fountain…
Although Piazzese incorporates elements of the Sicilian dialect and the regional Italian of Sicily into I delitti di via Medina-Sidonia, it is difficult to characterize his language as regional Italian. Rather, his language is most representative of the neostandard variety of Italian, which is essentially the contemporary version of standard Italian less any regional differentiation. Notably, Piazzese includes several different kinds of neologisms typical of the neostandard in the novel; specifically, new words, existing words used in innovative ways, words created from the expanded use of prefixes and suffixes, and foreignisms.
INITIALS WRITTEN AS A WORD
Piazzese utilizes an interesting lexical feature of the neostandard: the creation of words using initials. In the following example, La Marca hears the company name “R.P.M.” as it would be pronounced in the Italian alphabet — “erre” “pi” “emme” — and assumes that it is a word that he then attempts to look up in the yellow pages:
Cercai errepiemme. Fiasco. Seguito da lampo di genio: cercai R.P.M.
(I looked for arpiem. Fiasco. Followed by a flash of genius: I looked for R.P.M.)
The author also uses hyphens to make a single noun out of a series of short sentences:
A me toccò un Ciao-Lorenzo-buona-notte-grazie che mi lasciò freddino.
(I got a Bye-Lorenzo-good-night-thanks that left me a little cold.)
In another instance, Piazzese forms a compound adjective using two existing nouns, cine (an abbreviated form of the Italian cinematografo, or cinema in English) and brivido (shudder) to convey La Marca’s mock horror and revulsion for a colleague’s necktie:
Tutto il contrario della sua cravatta, che sembrava una coltura di enterobatteri vista a microscopio a flourescenza. Molto cinebrivido.
(Completely the opposite of his tie, which seemed like a culture of enterobacteria with a flourescence microscope. Very cineshudder.)
The author also adopts the use of nominal locutions such as un tubo (a tube) and un cavolo (a cabbage) to replace the negative adverb nothing (translated as anything in English negative sentences). In this example, La Marca uses un tubo to describe the knowledge level of a student trying to seduce her way into a passing grade on an exam:
Comunque non sapeva un tubo.
(However she didn’t know a tube, i.e., anything.)
PREFIXATION AND SUFFIXATION
Piazzese’s prose is also replete with existing terms that feature the addition of prefixes such as inter-, tele-, para-, super-, euro-, mega-, mini-, post-, pluri-, bio– and suffixes including –ista (-ist), –ismo (-ism), –zione (-tion), –mento (-ment), –izzare (-ize), –ale (-al), –eria (-y):
casinista (literally confusionist, i.e., one who creates confusion or chaos)
sponsorizzare (to sponsorize, an ungrammatical verb created from the English noun sponsor)
As the borrowing of the English term sponsor indicates, Piazzese makes frequent use of foreignisms. In the following example, he uses the English look, the Spanish habanero and the French henné to describe La Marca’s love interest:
Scese, Michelle, abbronzatissima, con un look habanero da creola all’henné.
(She descended, Michelle, extremely tan, with a Habanero look like a Creole with hennaed hair.)
The author also uses foreignisms in a new syntactic role, which is a common feature of the neostandard. Here Piazzese employs the adjective personal as a noun to mean personal computer:
Per poter leggere i dischetti avrei dovuto aspettare il giorno dopo, per usare il personal che ho nella mia stanza al dipartimento.
(In order to be able to read the disks, I would have had to wait until the next day to use the personal [computer] that I have in my office at the department.)
SLANG AND WORDPLAY
Besides the various types of neologisims listed above, Piazzese employs many other key features of the neostandard including colorful slang and a variety of stylistic devices such as wordplay, as illustrated in the following examples:
Si stava sparando una flebo auricolare di Jimi Hendrix a-stelle-e-strisce.
(She was shooting an auricular phlebo of a stars-and-stripes Jimi Hendrix.)
…piazzai sul piatto un Coltrane vinilico (o un Vinile coltraniano?), e uscii sul terrazzo a meditare sulla novità.
(…I plonked a vinyl Coltrane [or a coltranian Vinyl?] on the turntable, and I went out on the terrace to meditate on the news.)
These examples reflect both the malleability and the playfulness of the neostandard, as well as the tremendous artistic talent of the author.
In Translation: As previously noted, Piazzese has won critical acclaim in France for I delitti di via Medina-Sidonia, the French title of which is Les Crimes de la via Medina-Sidonia (Fleuve Noir, 1998). The book has also been translated into German under the title Die Verbrechen in der Via Medina-Sidonia (Dumont Buchverlag, 1998) and into Brazilian Portuguese (Berlendis & Vertecchia Editores). Given the quality of the novel, I expect that there will eventually be an English language version.
On Facebook: Santo Piazzese is on Facebook thanks to his fans, who are all eagerly awaiting a fourth novel in the Lorenzo La Marca/Vittorio Spotorno series. There is currently much excitement on Piazzese’s page about Sellerio’s recent release of a short story featuring La Marca in a collection entitled Un natale in giallo (A Christmas in Yellow), the color yellow referring to the color once reserved for the jacket covers of mystery novels in Italy. This story is intriguingly titled “Come fu che cambiai marca di whiskey (How it was that I changed brands of whiskey).” Now if that doesn’t get you in the holiday spirit, I don’t know what will.