Marco Malvaldi (b. 1974, Pisa) is a chemist and an accomplished author. Malvaldi is often called the “Camilleri of Tuscany” for the four mysteries he published with Sellerio featuring Massimo, the “barrista” and owner of the cleverly named BarLume who is forced into the role of investigator in the imaginary Tuscan seaside resort town of Pineta: La briscola in cinque (Briscola for Five Players) (2007), Il gioco delle tre carte (The Game of the Three Cards) (2008), Il re dei giochi (The King of the Games) (2010), e La carta più alta (The Highest Card) (2012). His 2011 novel Odore di chiuso (The Scent of Must) (Sellerio), a historical mystery with the famous 19th-century gastronomist Pellegrino Artusi as the protagonist, was awarded the Premio “Isola d’Elba” Raffaello Brignetti and the Premio Castiglioncello. Last year, he also published a guidebook of his native city of Pisa called Scacco alla Torre (Chess at the Tower) (Felici Editore). I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Malvaldi about the colorful characters in his mysteries and the types of language he uses to localize his writing.
You started to write your first novel, La briscola in cinque, while you’re were studying for your degree in Chemistry. What prompted you to write the novel using the dialect of Pisa?
In reality, the dialect is used only in the conversations of the elderly, the old men. My decision, more than a choice, was almost an obligation: practically the whole story is set in a provincial bar, and in bar discussions, it’s hard to find old men speaking in perfect Italian… I simply used the language that these people would’ve likely used in a similar situation.
Massimo, the mathematician-turned-“barrista” protagonist of the Pineta series, is unwillingly aided in his investigative endeavors by four delightfully sarcastic and grumpy old men, who you’ve described as a type of Greek chorus. How does the language of these old men reflect the cultural identity of Pisa?
In the first place, through doubt. My elderly are skeptical. They’re a type of collective conscience that before accepting any fact presented as true demands to verify it. The old men aren’t trusting; it’s no accident, in Pisan, that the maximum expression of trust that is verbally accorded by the old men is “pol’esse’ (Ital. può essere; Eng. it could be).” In the second place, through the complicated network of nicknames by which the old men identify some characters: in Tuscany, it’s not unusual for certain people to have a nickname that prevails over their name, almost to the point of canceling out the name itself. This is the case with the character Ochei (which in Italian is pronounced like Okay), for example. Nicknames often have patronymic value, so given that my grandfather was nicknamed “il Papa (the Pope)” (for antithesis, because he was a great blasphemer), my father was often identified as “Gino del Papa (Gino of the Pope).”
One of the old men’s favorite TV shows is that of the fortune-teller Ofelio, whose language is as rich and entertaining as theirs. Who or what inspired this fabulously garish character?
Thank you for having noticed Ofelio and given him the importance that he deserves. In Italy, almost no one has recognized him, while for me he is absolutely the most entertaining page of the book. Ofelio was born from the fusion of two people, the sorceress Gina (a fortune-teller who dealt, without asking for a cent, exclusively with problems of health and love) and the sorcerer Anubi, a bum from Livorno who went around, even on public occasions, decked out like a Pharoah. Local Italian TV shows are full of people who become famous for their apparitions, often well beyond the limits of the ridiculous, and who become almost legendary without realizing that in actuality people are making fun of them like crazy.
Last year you published Odore di chiuso, a prize-winning historical fiction mystery featuring Pellegrino Artusi, the real-life Romagnol gastronomist. What was it like to switch from the contemporary dialect of your native Pisa to the Tuscan language of the 19th century?
To write Odore di Chiuso I had to read a considerable amount of contemporary texts of the period, from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century. So when I started to hammer out the book, I was rather permeated by that language. The funniest part was without a doubt the writing of Artusi’s diaries. He used Italian in really peculiar ways, stuffing it with citations, jokes, and metaphors in a way that was unusual for the time. Scholars in Italy at the end of the 19th century were very serious and pompous, and they took themselves embarrassingly seriously. But Artusi began his first book, a brochure of literary criticism called “Commenti sopra trenta lettere di Giuseppe Giusti (Comments on Thirty Letters of Giuseppe Giusti),” with the sentence “Lettore mio, Dio ti salvi dagli sbadigli (My reader, may God save you from the yawns).”
ln your latest novel, La carta più alta, Massimo must rely on his knowledge of chemistry to solve the crime. Was it difficult to incorporate the jargon of your profession into your prose?
No, on the contrary, it was extremely fun. I’m convinced that using words from the chemical sphere that we all know or sense the meaning of, but that we don’t commonly use (like distill, crystalize, etc.) helps the reader to keep an active brain and to not underestimate the precise meaning of terms that are used.
Is it true that La carta più alta is the final novel in the Pineta series? If so, when can we hope to see the series on TV?
Probably yes, La carta più alta will be the last BarLume novel. I’m attached to these characters, and I wouldn’t want to ruin them for lack of ideas and wind up being an imitation of myself. Regarding the TV series, we’re filming it right now on the island of Elba. Massimo will be played by Filippo Timi, a highly talented theater actor.
You’ve said that in Tuscany people tend to speak in metaphors even among friends. Can you leave us with an example?
Well, to consider more rhetorical figures of speech, it’s not uncommon in Tuscany for a unpleasant person to be “as pleasing as an enema of gravel.” If one of my friends at the bar doesn’t notice that I’ve been trying to say hello to him for five minutes, and he continues to talk on his cellphone, he would be ostracized with a gay “if you were James Bond, you wouldn’t have made more than one movie.” And, if a person persists in explaining something to me that I clearly already know, I’ll say to him, “You’re not actually trying to papa to screw, are you?”
Note: I would like to thank the author for granting me an interview as vibrant as his stories and for giving us readers a fascinating and extremely entertaining window into his Tuscany. To learn more about Marco Malvaldi and his books, please visit his Facebook page and follow his blog for Sellerio called BarLumi. And don’t forget to read my post on La Briscola in Cinque!