TLS The Times
A Sicilian brew
An 1876 parliamentary inquiry into how Sicily, "freed" from the Bourbons in 1860
was adapting to the italian regime has been a treasure trove for the playwright
and novelist Andrea Camilleri. Il Birraio di Preston is his third novel based on
incidents noted in the inquiry. This time Camilleri's starting point is a
report from the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta, which concluded that the
townsfolk had become less hostile to the representatives of the Piedmontese
king after the removal of an unpopolar Florentine prefetto.
The prefetto's final faux pas had been the selection of a particulary silly
opera - Il Birraio di Preston by Luigi Ricci - to inagurate the small provincial
town's new opera house. No one knew the reasons for his choice, but the people
resented it as an imposition ("He wanted to force music on us barbarians of this
town! And with our money to boot!"), and the audience at the gala night
behaved so rudely that, at one stage, "mounted horse guards and armed
had to be called in to prevent a riot.
Camilleri develops this tantalizing anecdote into a rich village comedy told
in twenty-four instalments that follow no chronological order.
As the story is pieced toghether we learn that the prefetto, here named Bortuzzi, sparks off a village feud with his decision to unearth Ricci's opera
(which he associates, wrongly as we shall learn, with the youthful courting
of his wife). In the day leading up to the performance the town's carpenter -
a highly respected music expert - who has publicy expressed his contempt for
the work, is gaoled on a trumped-up charge of theft arranged by Don Meme', a
mafioso who helps the idiotic Bortuzzi to keep the town under controllo. However, the
carpenter's son is owed a debt of gratitude from another "uomo
d'onore", whose friends in the Mafia are more powerful than Don Meme' himself.
Shortly after the rowdy opening night, a Roman agitator - ostesibly a
Republican - teams up with the Mafia and sets fire to the opera house.
Three casualties ensue: the village doctor. who is shot by a soldier who
mistakes him for a delinquent, and an asphyxiated pair of illicit lovers.
Their earlier coup de foudre in church. with a wordless exchange of glances
and gestures. is an enjoyable Boccacccesque comedy in itself.
The final chapter, numbered Chapter one, contains an "official" version of the
incidents written some forty years later by a witness who was a child at the
time. His clumsy, bureaucratic style contrasts with the liveliness of the main
narrator, whose prose is peppered with spicy Sicilian words, probably
unfamiliar to most readers but easily understandable for their sheer
onomatopoeic force. At a superficial glance, Camilleri's piecemeal style is
reminiscent of Carlo Gadda's Joycean attempts to create a new language from
a counterpoint of voices and idioms, but Camilleri is less ambitous: he
simpy wants us to share his enjoyment of the Sicilian language.
At the same time, he conveys a sense of the governament official's foreignness
throught the prefetto's Tuscan and the questore's Milanese accents.
True to type, the thuggish Roman speaks a particularly offensive and vulgar
form of that dialect.
Ultimately the villagers triumph, and the carpenter's vindication is exacted
in the traditional Sicilian way which is as bloody as it is independent of
prefetti and questori.