When he’s not acting, directing or writing screenplays, Antonio Manzini (b. 1964, Rome) writes compelling crime fiction. His latest novel, Pista nera (Sellerio, 2013), is taking the international publishing industry by storm thanks in part to his controversial cop protagonist, Vicequestore Rocco Schiavone. And he’s just released a short story featuring Schiavone entitled “Le ferie di agosto (The August Holidays)” in the bestselling collection Ferragosto in giallo (Sellerio, 2013). This month I had the thrill of interviewing Antonio Manzini about his writing, the fascinating language of Pista nera, and the possibility of another gripping novel featuring the corrupt yet surprisingly likable Schiavone.
You work in TV, film and literature. How would you describe your relationship to language?
Words in the literary world are vehicles. They’re the only means that one has to describe a world, a sensation, a landscape, a smell. In screenplays, on the other hand, you know perfectly well that what you’re writing will be visualized, so there’s no need for the same research, the same care. They’re two very different languages. In a novel or in a story, everything depends on the words that you use, their significance and even their sound. The screenplay, instead, is a canvas on which someone else will work.
The conversation changes where dialogues are concerned. Dialogues are fundamental. Even though it’s better to use fewer dialogues in film and television, the use of everyday speech becomes essential. That’s why I often like to write by cramming the lines with dialectal neologisms. That’s how we speak in real life. Often in books the perfection of the language, I mean in the dialogues, can become tedious and distance the reader from his or her grip on the reality presented. Unless the one speaking is a university professor or a character who uses correct Italian as one of his traits.
My relationship with language is therefore schizophrenic. Like in my reading. I go from the classics to the contemporaries, from poets to essayists without a logical connection. Maybe it’s because, besides narrative stories, which for me are essential, I like to immerse myself in diverse languages hoping to capture the most words possible from my colleagues and teachers. Plus, traveling through Italy every now and then, I’m there with my ears pricked up listening to people speaking. Phrases gathered on the street are often so powerful that few writers are able to create similar ones.
What would you say is the biggest difference, linguistically speaking, between writing a movie script and writing a novel?
I believe I’ve already answered this in the previous question. The skill of the screenwriter is that of suggesting the best images to the director. In other words, in the screenplay you can, actually you must, become didactic. You can’t evoke, as in a book, or reference poetic citations. You must be ground-to-ground so that the image or the situation is clear to the person who will film the movie. Essentially, the screenplay, when it becomes a film, is translated. The book no. It’s read. It’s up to the skill of the writer to bring the reader to the world that he or she wanted to describe.
Your most recent novel, Pista nera, is set in Val d’Aosta, so French and regional Italian appears in the book. As a native Roman, did you have to research the language of this region?
Yes. A bit. And I had to ask a lot. I go to Val d’Aosta often to ski; it’s a land that I love. I didn’t, however, want to exaggerate with the Franco-Provençal locutions and create an irritating book for the Italian reader. I tried to incorporate, wherever possible, the grammatical structure of the Val d’Aostan speech and a few words, here and there. But nothing more.
Pista nera also features a few terms in romanesco. Do you have a favorite word or saying in this dialect?
There are so many. I suggest, for anyone who is interested, reading the sonnets of the great Roman poet Belli. You see, romanesco is a dialect that has almost disappeared. There are only a few thousand people who still speak it. Today in Rome the language has become bastardized, so to know the true romanesco I suggest that poet. I’ll give you an example. A very beautiful old Roman song said, “A tocchi a tocchi la campana sona, li turchi so’ sbarcati alla marina, chi c’ha le scarpe rotte l’arisola. Le mie l’ho risolate stammatina (Strike after strike the bell sounds, the Turks have landed on the shore, he who has worn shoes resoles them. I resoled mine this morning.).” Today some words like la marina, the article “li” that has become “i”, a tocchi a tocchi, stamattina are all locutions that are no longer used or have changed. Stammatina, for example, is just sta’ mattina. A Roman saying that I love is “a ffa la scena, quarche cosa se ruspa,” which means if you’re good at tricking people, you’ll gain something from it.
What do you feel is the role of dialect and regional language in contemporary Italian literature?
They have a predominant role. Many writers cram their books with dialectal words, not only in the speech of their characters but also in the descriptions of the narrative “I”. Everyone carries in his or her lexicon the experience of the region in which he or she was born and raised. There are some who do this in an obvious way, and some who hide their dialectal neologism behind Italian. But I’m convinced that dialect, the regional language, enriches Italian; it doesn’t impoverish it.
How did you choose the Hindu mantra in Pista nera?
I have a lot of books at the house on yoga and Indian religion. That one jumped out at me and seemed appropriate. It rendered the idea of a strong and almost other-worldly union. A promise much stronger than the one you make before an altar in church. And to think that the killer had already violated it!
Why does Vicequestore Schiavone’s wife, Marina, look up a word in the dictionary every evening? For purposes of the plot? Or is there some other reason?
I like to hint at Rocco’s existential difficulties through this game. The meaning of what Marina looks up isn’t immediately clear, and above all it’s not direct. But maybe, in reflecting on it, it’s a veiled message that his wife is sending him. It just needs to be interpreted.
Do you plan to write another mystery featuring Vicequestore Schiavone?
Well, yes. I want to write about him again. I kind of fell in love with this police officer sui generis, and I think that there are still a lot of things to explain.
Note: A big thank you to Antonio Manzini for a terrific interview and for just being all around hilarious in his emails. Readers, check out Manzini’s Facebook and IMDb pages and don’t miss my post on Pista nera.