Per mano mia. Il Natale del commissario Ricciardi

Maurizio de Giovanni (b. Napoli, 1958) began his writing career at the age of 51 after friends enrolled him as a prank in a national contest for emerging mystery novelists. A banker with no previous writing experience, de Giovanni won the contest with a short story set in 1930s Fascist Naples featuring a lonely police commissario named Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi who has the haunting ability to see the murdered dead and hear their final words. This story formed the basis for the highly successful Commissario Ricciardi series, which is perhaps best described as noir paranormale (paranormal noir).

The fifth and most recent novel in the Commissario Ricciardi series, entitled Per mano mia. Il Natale del commissario Ricciardi (By My Hand: The Christmas of Commissario Ricciardi) (Einaudi, 2011), is set in Naples in 1931. Just a few days before Christmas, Commissario Ricciardi and his partner Brigadier Raffaele Maione must investigate the brutal stabbing deaths of a functionary in the Fascist port militia and his wife in their home in Mergellina. While examining the crime scene, the images of the dead couple appear before the commissario and utter puzzling last words. Also curious is the couple’s presepe (nativity scene) from which the figurine of Joseph is missing. To solve the murders, Ricciardi and Maione turn to diverse segments of the local society, including Fascists, fishermen, a transvestite prostitute, and the Catholic clergy, in a city that itself bears a striking resemblance to a nativity scene.

The language of Per mano mia is as intriguing and engaging as the story. The novel is written in neostandard Italian mixed with the dialect and regional Italian of Naples. While the language is still current, it’s clear that de Giovanni made an effort to preserve the historical accuracy of the language of the early 1930s, particularly as it pertains to descriptions of people, food and the speech at a fish market. Also impressive is de Giovanni’s inclusion of Fascist terminology to reflect the politics and tone of the era.

The regional language featured in Per mano mia consists mainly of lexical items that refer to people and local cuisine. In general, the regional Italian of Naples is derived from Napoletano, the Neapolitan language improperly classified as a dialect. Much of the regional Italian spoken in Naples, however, is commonly used throughout the region of Campania and Southern Italy, so the origins of many words and features are difficult to identify.

The regionalisms that refer to people in the text are among the most recognizable of the Neapolitan variety owing in part to the tremendous popularity of Napoletano both in Italy and abroad.

scugnizzo (Ital. ragazzo di strada Napolitano; Eng. Neapolitan street kid)
Don Pierino fece un sorriso felice, come uno scugnizzo al quale avessero proposto un giro in pasticcieria.
(Don Pierino smiled a happy smile, like a Neapolitan street kid to whom they had proposed a trip to the bakery.)

guaglio’ (from guaglione; Ital. ragazzo; Eng. boy)
Ad un certo punto lo chiamai io: guaglio’, ma che vai cercando?
(At a certain point I called out to him: Boy, what are you looking for?)

Due to the Christmas theme of Per mano mia, references abound to holiday foods typical of Naples and the surrounding area. The dialect names of the dishes below are considered regionalisms both because they look like standard Italian and because they’re well known outside of Campania. Perhaps owing to the time period of the novel, de Giovanni typically includes the dialect name of the dish rather than its regional variant: e.g., mustacciuoli instead of the Italianized version mostaccioli. The following are a few of the traditional Christmas sweets from Naples and a savory dish from Cilento (Commissario Ricciardi’s hometown):

struffoli – deep-fried balls of dough mixed with honey and colored confetti that are piled high like a hill
roccocò – a doughnut-shaped cookie made with flour, egg, sugar, cinnamon, almonds and the rinds of citrus fruits that dates back to 1320
susamielli – cookies in the shape of an S made with flour, sugar, honey, almonds and cinnamon

scàmmaro – spaghetti with a condiment of black olives, anchovies, capers, red pepper flakes and olive oil

The Neapolitan dialect is sprinkled throughout Per mano mia like the confetti on struffoli, but nowhere is it more apparent (or entertaining) than in a scene depicting a fish market that took place annually on December 23rd on Naples’ famous Via Toledo. The phrases below reflect some of the sales tactics of the fish vendors, who emphasize, respectively, the freshness, easy preparation techniques and discounted prices of the fish in a desperate attempt to sell the last of their catch before Christmas. Apparently, the reference to both live and dead eels in the third example was an indirect method of advertising cheaper prices for the latter.

Mo’ l’ha pigliato ’a rezza frìcceca ancora!
(Ital. Adesso l’ha preso la rete si muove vivacemente ancora!
Eng. The net just caught it, it’s still thrashing about!)

Facitevíllo co’ ’o limone, ’o pesce fresco!
(Ital. Fatevelo con il limone, il pesce fresco!
Eng. Make it with lemon, fresh fish!)

So’ vive e so’ muorte, capitune verace, ’e ccore d’o Diavulo!*
(Ital. Sono vivi e sono morti, captoni veraci, le code del Diavolo!
Eng. They’re alive and they’re dead, real eels, the tails of the Devil!)
*According to the author, eels were referred to as “tails of the Devil” because of their extreme mobility. (Disturbing. That fish with lemon is sounding better and better…)

In keeping with the politics of the 1930’s, de Giovanni includes Fascist terminology in the text. Many of these terms reflect the tendency of the Fascists (who were not known for their originality) to borrow words imbued with heroic or militaristic symbolism to emphasize their grandeur and power.

balilla (The name given to boys between the ages of 8 and 14 who enrolled in Opera Nazionale Balilla, a Fascist youth paramilitary organization. This term represents the nickname given to the popular historical figure Giovan Battista Perasso, a young boy who initiated the Genovese insurrection of 1746 against the occupying Austrians by throwing a stone. Although the Genovese use the term balilla to mean ragazzo [Eng. boy], it is believed to have derived from the dialectalization of Perasso’s middle name, Battista.)
Le antiche tradizioni si mischiavano felicemente ai nuovi costumi, e donne con enormi ceste di uova in bilico sulla testa incedevano inseguite da stuoli di bambini vestiti da balilla, che andavano all’adunanza in piazza.
(The ancient traditions mixed happily with the new customs, and women with enormous baskets of eggs balanced on their heads walked solemnly followed by swarms of children dressed as Balilla, who were going to the assembly in the piazza.)

centurione (The Italianization of the Latin term centurio (Eng. centurion), which was used in ancient Rome to refer to the commander of a centuria)
Pare che lui, Emanuele, fosse un centurione della milizia portuaria, sapete, questa cosa dei fascisti che sta al porto e si occupa del movimento delle merci e del controllo della pesca.
(It seems that he, Emanuele, was a centurion of the port militia, you know, this thing of the Fascists that’s at the port and deals with the movement of goods and the control of fishing.)

Per mano mia is out of this world (and I’m not just talking about Commissario Ricciardi’s paranormal capacities). Both in terms of the language and the story, this is not your typical noir. The author’s prose is of interest not only for the historical dialect, regionalisms and Fascist terminology described above, but also for its unexpectedly refined quality that at times verges on lyrical. The story itself is rather surprising for its humanity. Commissario Ricciardi’s ability to walk among the living and the dead as well as his profound empathy for those who are suffering underscore the often tragic unfairness of life, as do the many moving subplots of the novel. Clearly, de Giovanni elevates noir to new realms—culturally and supernaturally, of course.

Note: If you’re obsessed with Christmas (like my mom), you absolutely have to read this book for the in depth description of the history, symbolism and appearance of the traditional Neapolitan nativity scene. Basically, it’s not just Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the manger. Instead, the whole story of Bethlehem is represented, from King Herod to my personal favorite, the town vinaio (winemaker) Cicci Bacco.

In Translation: If all this talk of Christmas in July has gotten you into the holiday spirit, here’s something to celebrate: The Commissario Ricciardi series has been translated into German, French and Spanish, and the English translations are almost complete! Europa Editions bought the rights to Per mano mia, so a translation should be forthcoming in 2014. In the meantime, you can start reading the first novel in the series entitled I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi, which was translated by the fabulous Anne Milano Appel.

On Facebook: In other festive news, Maurizio de Giovanni has not one but two Facebook pages! One is his personal page, while the other is the Maurizio de Giovanni Official Fan Club. After reading his books, I have no doubt you’ll join.

On Television: The best early Christmas present I’ve received this year is the news that Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio and his companion Valeria Golino bought the television rights to Per mano mia. Apparently, the novel won’t be a movie but rather a series. I can’t wait to see haunted (and haunting) crime on TV!

Personal Note: I owe a huge debt of thanks to the author for his tremendous generosity and professionalism and to Anne Milano Appel for kindly putting me in touch with him. Be sure to read my interview with de Giovanni, and definitely check out his picture. Doesn’t he just look like he was meant to write noir?!

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