Santo Piazzese (b. 1948, Palermo) is internationally renowned as one of the masters of “noir mediterraneo (Mediterranean noir),” a hard-boiled detective fiction revisited that explores the relationship between crime and globalization in Mediterranean cities. Piazzese is unique among the authors who write this genre in that he relies on his training as a biologist to dissect the complex dynamics of his native Palermo. Another striking aspect of Piazzese’s work is that his depictions of the city vary according to the perspectives of his protagonists, a feature which is most evident in three novels republished by Sellerio in 2009 as the Trilogia di Palermo (Palermo Trilogy): I delitti di via Medina-Sidonia (The Crimes of Via Medina-Sidonia) (1996), La doppia vita di M. Laurent (The Double Life of M. Laurent) (1998), and Il soffio della valanga (The Gust of the Avalanche) (2002). I recently had the honor of interviewing Piazzese about the effects of his scientific career on his writing, the fascinating language of his characters and the complicated linguistic situation in Palermo.
You’ve used the now famous phrase “I’m a biologist given to writing” to describe yourself. How would you say that your work as a biologist has contributed to your language as a writer of noir?
The profession influences the language of one who practices it, because every profession possesses its own universe of reference, even linguistically. But, above all, it induces a way of thinking that has a high grade of specificity. If someone who practices a given profession is also a writer, it’s inevitable that his or her writing would also show the effects of it. When I began the draft of my first novel, I already had about twenty years of experience as a researcher in the field of biology. I think this refined in me a capacity for analysis and synthesis that isn’t only typical of someone who works in my specific sector but that characterizes the whole world of scientific research. This has progressively influenced my way of writing. In a diversified and linguistically varied country, like Italy, one has to add localistic specificity to this aspect. My personal writing is therefore a legitimate daughter of the union between my profession and the strong typification of the Italian that we speak in Palermo, a city in which differences in slang survive even from one neighborhood to another. When I was a little boy, it was often possible to identify the neighborhood of origin of someone by how he spoke. Now it’s very difficult because in the last decades there have been notable crossed flows that have caused a redistribution of Palermitans in the urban area. This has produced a strong loss of identity in the individual neighborhoods and in the city itself.
Your character Lorenzo La Marca is a biologist at the University of Palermo like you. You’ve said that La Marca’s language is what people speak in his university scientific environment. But La Marca is known for “the vice of the oxymoron” and other wordplay that, frankly, one doesn’t expect from scientists. Where does La Marca’s linguistic playfulness come from?
It comes from the linguistic playfulness of his author, that is, yours truly. I have always like playing with words, especially in the area of nonsense. Anyhow, it’s good to expect everything from scientists: in my experience, they’re much more endowed with a sense of humor with respect to the humanists, even if, personally, I believe the distinction between scientific culture and humanistic culture is anachronistic; in the majority of the cases it’s a form of self-segregation. One who believes he belongs to one of the two “universes” claims the supremacy of the one over the other but ends up projecting around himself his own borders. In regard to the vice of the oxymoron, this belongs to La Marca as much as to me, and I practice it often with almost subliminal modalities. It fascinates me because it’s the fulminating synthesis between opposites, almost a perfect negation of preconstituted Truths and a hymn to constructive skepticism. Let it be said with a dutiful thread of irony, otherwise it seems like we’re talking about Maximum Systems.
La Marca doesn’t seem like the type to be in favor of globalization, and yet he speaks a neostandard Italian full of foreignisms. How do you define La Marca’s relationship with foreign languages (for example, French and American)?
Anyone who works in research in the field of the experimental sciences can’t do without English, which is the universal language of scientific literature. This is also true for La Marca, who however, in most cases, uses it ironically. In reality, the Anglicisms, more or less distorted, appear primarily in I delitti di via Medina-Sidonia, because in the novel one of the key-figures is Darline, the American girl that La Marca welcomes into his home and with whom he has a brief and intense relationship. In La doppia vita di M. Laurent they are less frequent. In Il soffio della valanga there is almost no trace of them, mainly because the protagonist is Inspector Spotorno, who belongs to another “universe” and who is quite a different person from La Marca. Owing to reasons of character and profession, the linguistic playfulness of his biologist friend is lacking in him. The same is true for the Gallicisms, which are almost always associated with the person of Michelle Laurent, the sentimental backfire of La Marca, and with her father, monsieur Laurent.
In Il soffio della valanga, Inspector Vittorio Spotorno (an old friend of La Marca’s) becomes the protagonist. Owing to Spotorno’s profession, dialect is more present in this book than in previous ones. You’ve described this dialect as “the dialect of the Palermitan middle class,” as opposed to the “inland language.” In your opinion, what’s the difference between the two?
The issue is a bit more complex. The Palermitan middle class almost no longer speaks pure dialect but a Sicilianized Italian above all in the structure of the discourse. Here’s an example: the Sicilian dialect does not have the future tense, which is already an indication of the expectations of a people who in the millennia have suffered defeats of every sort. Not having a “verbal” future means not believing in a “factual” future. The future tense is expressed either by using the present indicative or verbs “of obligation.” This is a simple layer of the present or, worse, a destiny. This use is maintained when one speaks in Italian. Palermitan youth, of the lower middle class and up, are instead establishing a type of slang in constant evolution, in which the practice of translating words and expressions typical of the Palermitan dialect into a kind of para-Italian is common. For example, if they want to benevolently insult one of their peers they say “Sei una neglia (You’re a fog),” which doesn’t mean anything in Italian. “Neglia” is the Italianizzation of “niagghia,” which in Palermitan means “nebbia (fog)” (in a region with a radiant sun, fog isn’t viewed romantically as in the north). In the Palermitan dialect one would say “Si ‘na niagghia (You’re a fog).” The pure Palermitan dialect, which often becomes slang, generally, persists in the less elevated classes; but it’s experiencing a certain decline, becoming increasingly bastardized and impoverished. Another interesting aspect is that often, when a person, we’ll say “of the people” addresses an individual of the “middle class,” he strives to speak in Italian as a form of courtesy. The situation in the inland regions is different, but even in historically important cities like Agrigento, where the good middle class still speaks today a very refined dialect, rich in nuances and words that a Palermitan or a Catanian would not understand. Words of Arabic, Spanish, French and even Greek origin, despite the more than two millennia that have passed since the end of the Helenic colonization.
Is there a difference between when you employ dialect in your writing and when you use it in your personal life?
Yes, it’s the same difference that exists between the written language and the spoken one in all of the languages of the world and in every era. What can be in common between the two moments is the “background noise,” the essence, the spirit, the color. Anyhow, I rarely use pure dialect in writing, and I limit it almost exclusively to the dialogues, which are the literary places in which the spoken language prevails.
Mystery and noir are genres that investigate not merely a crime but also the society in which the crime occurs. What would you say that your investigations have revealed about the language of Palermo?
Again, I think little. Almost nothing. I’m certainly not the first nor the only Palermitan writer. On the contrary, especially in the past few years in Palermo there has been a flowering of new writers, so much so as to induce some to speak of a Palermitan school, especially in noir. I don’t believe in the schools, rather I think that it’s a good thing that there aren’t any and that there aren’t confraternities and clans of writers. I’ve always maintained that even if a Palermitan school existed, it would be a school of differences: the contemporary Palermitan writers constitute an archipelago whose islands are lacking in reciprocal connections. And this, I think, is not at all a bad thing. Therefore, the language of Palermo, that is the voice of the city, is also in writing a language of differences.
Note: Santo Piazzese does not have a website, nor is he on Facebook (I’m assuming he’s a reluctant technology user like La Marca, who now carries a cell phone but refuses to acknowledge it as such, calling it instead a “telefono di tasca [pocket telephone]).” Although Piazzese’s fans have created a Facebook page in his name, the best source of information about the author is, interestingly enough, the Camilleri Fans Club website (the creators of this site should seriously win an award). And don’t forget to read my post on I delitti di via Medina-Sidonia. This is one of those books that make me wish everyone could read Italian.
Photo: The above photo is courtesy of the author, who calls it “I tre asini (The Three Asses).” This picture makes me want to buy all of his books all over again.