Andrea Camilleri (b. 1925, Porto Empedocle), known as il Sommo (the Supreme One) to his fans, is nothing short of a literary phenomenon. Although he didn’t start writing in earnest until the 1990’s, he has published 89 works of fiction, historical fiction, and theater, which have sold nearly 14 million copies in Italy. But Camilleri’s astonishing success is not limited to the Italian peninsula. His books are sold in a total of thirty countries, making him one of the most widely read authors in the world.
Camilleri is best known for his mercurial character Commissario Salvo Montalbano, who returns in Una lama di luce (A Blade of Light) (Sellerio, 2012). In this 19th novel in the series, Montalbano is troubled by what appears to be a premonitory dream as he investigates the robbery and rape of a wealthy supermarket owner’s young wife. Meanwhile, suffering from loneliness, he succumbs to the charms of a beautiful gallery owner, who unwittingly involves him in a stolen art ring and intentionally threatens his longtime relationship with Livia. The story takes a tragic turn when Montalbano travels to the Sicilian countryside in search of possible arms traffickers. There in the harsh and desolate terrain he is momentarily blinded by a blade of light that forever severs a tie to his past and seals his future.
Una lama di luce, like all of Camilleri’s work, is written in a unique mixture of Italian and Sicilian. Although Camilleri calls this mixed language “un italiano bastardo (a bastard Italian),” scholars characterize it as an artistic rendering of the regional Italian of Sicily. To create his distinct regional blend, Camilleri employs authentic Sicilian, Italianized Sicilian, Sicilianized Italian and invented terms against a backdrop of neostandard Italian. For comedic effect, he also emphasize the exaggerated formality of standard Italian by altering the spelling of Italian words and using bureaucratic language.
To illustrate each of the types of language listed below, I have highlighted only one word per sentence, even though in some cases there were several possibilities to choose from.
Authentic Sicilian terms, and particularly those of the Agrigento area, are a main feature of Camilleri’s writing.
mallitta (Ital. maledetta; Eng. damned)
Terra mallitta è.
Damned land it is [It’s damned land].
cabasisi (Ital. palle; Eng. balls)
Mimì vinni mittuto fora combattimento da ’na pidata nei cabasisi.
Mimì was knocked out of combat by a kick in the balls.
ITALIANIZED SICILIAN (regional Italian of Sicily)
Perhaps the most prominent feature of Camilleri’s texts are Italianized Sicilian lexemes, some of which are authentic regional Italian terms, while others are creations of the author. Camilleri typically Italianizes Sicilian by changing the final –i of Sicilian verbs to the Italian –e ending. For masculine nouns, he changes the Sicilian final –u to the Italian –o.
tambasiare (Sic. tambasiari; Ital. muoversi senza scopo; Eng. to putter around)
Se la fissiò ’n’autra mezzorata ’n mutanne a tambasiare casa casa.
He settled in for about another half hour in his underwear to putter around the house.
ciriveddro (Sic. ciriveddru; Ital. cervello; Eng. brain)
Nenti whisky, voliva averi il ciriveddro lucito.
No whisky, he wanted to have a lucid brain [clear head].
Less prominent in Camilleri’s work are Sicilianized Italian lexemes. To Sicilianize the Italian, Camilleri sometimes changes the –o ending of Italian masculine nouns to the Sicilian –u. He also changes the final –e of Italian nouns to the Sicilian –i ending. Occasionally, he adds or changes letters in words or includes punctuation such as an apostrophe or an accent mark.
gummito (Sic. guvitu; Ital. gomito; Eng. elbow)
Urtò col gummito il posacinniri che arriniscì a pigliari a volo prima che si spaccassi ’n terra, essenno di vitro.
His elbow bumped into the ashtray that he was able to grab in midair before it broke, being made of glass, on the ground.
’mmaginazioni (Sic. maginazioni; Ital. immaginazione; Eng. immagination)
Se avissi tanta ’mmaginazioni, scriviria romanzi.
If I had that much imagination, I’d write novels.
LITERARY ITALIAN SIMILAR TO SICILIAN
One interesting feature of Camilleri’s writing is his use of literary Italian terms that are more similar to Sicilian than to standard Italian.
travagliare (Sic. travagliari; Ital. lavorare; Eng. to work)
Montalbano taliò a quelli della Scientifica che, vistuti come per sbarcari supra alla luna, travagliavano torno torno alla carcassa.
Montalbano looked at the men from the Crime Lab who, dressed as though they were about to land on the moon, were working around the body.
latro (Sic. latru; Ital. ladro; Eng. thief)
Vossia cridi all’esistenzia del latro gentilomo?
Sir, do you believe in the existence of the gentleman thief?
One of the most entertaining features of Camilleri’s texts is his tendency to invent or alter words for humorous purposes. In some cases, it seems as though he’s creating a word out of Italian terms that appears Sicilian. Most often, however, Camilleri uses this technique to represent the hilariously unsuccessful attempts of Agatino Catarella, a police agent whose first language was dialect, to speak proper standard and bureaucratic Italian.
sbrilluccicanti (Ital. brillare + lucciare; Eng. to sparkle + to twinkle, “sparinkle”)
L’occhi gli si ficiro sbrilluccicanti, si liccò le labbra.
His eyes began to “sparinkle,” he licked his lips.
aliquottero (Sic. elicottiru; Ital. elicottero; Eng. helicopter)
Stamatina essenno che il sottoscritto erasi arrecatosi all’ordini del dottori Augello in quanto che c’era l’aspittativa dell’arrivanza dell’aliquottero che apportava il signori e ministro…
This morning being that that the underscored had located himself there at the orders of Dr. Augello in as much as there was the wait for the arrival of the helicopter that was bringing the Sir Minister.
A comical staple of Camilleri’s work is the use of bureaucratic Italian to make fun of its formality and stiffness as compared to dialect, which is viewed as more personal and familiar.
contestazioni (Eng. contentions)
Sicilianized Italian: Epperciò il signori e quistori Bonetti-Alderighi aveva proclamato la mobilitazioni generali tanto della questura di Montelusa quanto del commissariato di Vigàta per blindari le strate del percorso che avrebbi dovuto fari l’alto pirsonaggio onde evitari che ai sò oricchi non arrivassiro frischi, piriti e parolazzi (in taliàno chiamati contestazioni) della popolazioni, ma sulo gli applausi di quattro morti di fami appositamenti pagati.
Italian: Perciò il signore e commissario Bonetti-Alderighi aveva proclamato la mobilitazione generale sia della questura di Montelusa che di Vigata per blindare le strade del percorso che avrebbe dovuto fare l’altro personaggio, onde evitare che alle sue orecchie arrivassero fischi, pernacchie e insulti (chiamate contestazioni in Italiano) della popolazione, ma solo gli applausi di quattro morti di fame appositamente pagati.
English: And so the Sir and Commissioner Bonetti-Alderighi had proclaimed the general mobilization both of the Montelusa Police Headquarters and the Vigàta Police Station to armor the streets of the route that the important personage would have to travel so as to prevent the whistles, farts and swearwords (called contentions in Italian) of the population from arriving to his ears, but only the applause of four duly paid bums.
Concluding Remarks: There has been a lot of discussion among scholars about Camilleri’s use of language. Some argue that he uses the above techniques to make the Sicilian in his texts more legible for Italian readers. Others contend that his language is quite simply a form of art. Whichever side you’re on in this debate, I can assure you that Camilleri’s writing will teach you more about contemporary Italian language usage than any textbook ever could, and you’ll have INFINITELY more fun in the process.
Note: I’m not the only one who has recognized the educational potential of Camilleri’s language. Several scholastic versions have been published of the thirty short stories in Un mese con Montalbano (A Month with Montalbano) (Mondadori, 1998). In 1999, Mondadori Scuola published a collection of fifteen of these stories for Italian middle school students entitled Quindici giorni con Montalbano (Fifteen Days with Montalbano), which contains instructional exercises on the Sicilian in the text. Danish publisher Aschehoug A/S published two collections of these short stories in simplified standard Italian and Sicilian for foreign students of Italian, entitled Otto giorni con Montalbano (Eight Days with Montalbano) (2001) and Nuove avventure con Montalbano (New Adventures with Montalbano) (2003).
In Translation: Una lama di luce will be translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli, who has completed 14 of the 19 novels in the series to date. Notably, Camilleri and Sartarelli were recently awarded the 2012 CWA International Dagger Award for Il campo del vasaio (The Potter’s Field), which is the 13th novel in the series.
On the Internet: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Whether you’re an academic or a pleasure reader, there is no better resource on Camilleri than the Camilleri Fans Club website. Everything you need to know about the author, including a dictionary of his Sicilian language, is available on this site (and there is a lot of valuable information about other important Sicilian and Sardinian writers too).
On Film: As with the translation of Una lama di luce, a TV movie version is forthcoming. These films are quite simply the best adaptations from novels that I have ever seen (Luca Zingaretti is Salvo Montalbano!). The good news is that there are currently 22 films (some are based on short stories featuring Montalbano) available in Italian with English subtitles, and there are many more to come!