Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly publication about things I’ve read

“This persistent universe game”: The conclusion of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series

 |  3653 words

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about the first eight books in Michael Dibdin’s series featuring the Venetian detective, Aurelio Zen. I argued that across those eight books Zen’s moral character deteriorated steadily till, in And Then You Die, he committed a legally unjustified homicide, shooting dead a former carabiniere who had himself been responsible for several murders and posed a clear (though not an immediate) threat to Zen’s own life. Partly for reasons of length, I skipped over the ninth and tenth books in the series and dealt cursorily with the final one, intending to come back to those books in a later post.

In the first eight books, Zen’s investigative activities are directed by a number of political masters, the most persistent of whom is known simply as “l’onorevole”. In And Then You Die, which broadly coincides with the return of Silvio Berlusconi to government, the political climate has changed somewhat. Zen, still not fully recovered from the injuries he suffered at the end of Blood Rain, meets his new boss, Brugnoli, a managerial-type “facilitator”, whose office has no chairs and who wants to do away with the fusty old ways in which the Criminalpol has been run. Brugnoli tells Zen that, as a result of the changes he’s making, Zen’s duties in future will be very similar to his old ones …

“… but without all the bother of coming into the office to deal with endless meetings, paperwork and routine drudgery. Your time and skills are too valuable to be wasted like that dottore. The whole concept is completely outmoded, a relic left over from the early industrial era, when the factory could only function if all the workers showed up when the whistle blew. Now that we can communicate instantly and securely at any time and in any place, what on earth is the point of someone like you coming in here every morning to sit at a desk taking phone calls and filing reports? …” (And Then You Die, p. 95)

Zen will be given a pay rise to Questore level, but he won’t formally have the “discredited” Fascist-era title. Zen interprets Brugnoli’s statement as meaning that he’s being sidelined again or, as he puts it “promoted out of harm’s way” (99). His friend and colleague Giorgio De Angelis remarks that they seem to want to keep him “Out of touch but under control” (p. 100). Zen affects puzzlement at this development but to the reader it seems clear that, having in the past proven useful and accommodating to the political masters of that time, he’s worth keeping around, but precisely because of his association with the former guys, it’s best that he be kept in the background till needed.

Medusa (2003)

Living quietly in Lucca with Gemma, Zen travels to Rome mainly for medical appointments, with just a routine weekly briefing for work. At one briefing Zen is handed a batch of uninteresting and undemanding cases in what he considers “a sop to his professional pride, a transparent excuse to look busy” (p. 60). (To underscore the point, he uses the word “sop” twice, on page 60 as I have just mentioned, and earlier on page 51, where he suspects that the case he is working on “had been tossed into his lap … more than anything else as a sop to give him the illusion of being gainfully employed.”)

But one of the cases he has been handed stands out. The body of a young man has been found by cavers in an old tunnel in the Dolomites. He has been dead for at least 20 years. In spite of the altitude and climate, he had been wearing light clothes without any identifying marks, and no shoes. The Carabinieri seize the body and the autopsy results from the hospital where the body had been taken, and are trying to prevent the dead man’s identity from getting out. The body has a tattoo of Medusa’s head on one arm. A wealthy Venezuelan citizen who is killed by a car bomb shortly afterwards had the same tatoo.

Zen is eventually able to establish that the body in the tunnel was that of Leonardo Ferrero. Ferrero and the man killed by the car bomb (originally Nestore Saldoni, subsequently a naturalized Venezuelan), had been two of the four members of a cell of Medusa, supposedly a Gladio-type secret organization which they had been inducted into in the 1970s. The third member, a seller of antiquarian books in Milan, had gone into hiding when he heard of the discovery of Ferrero’s body. The leader of the cell, now a colonel in the secret service, had ordered the planting of the bomb that killed Saldoni and was now frantically pursuing the bookseller whose death would afford him some measure of security.

The earlier books in the series had seen Zen perform his duties in various different parts of Italy: Perugia, Sardinia, the Vatican City, Milan, Venice, Naples, Piedmont, Sicily and Versilia. In Medusa alone, he travels almost as widely: to the tunnel in the Alto Adige where the body was found, then to the hospital in Bolzano, and afterwards to Milan, Verona, Campione (with a detour to Lugano in Switzerland), a remote restaurant near Pesaro and ultimately to the abandoned cascine of the Po Valley where he eventually unearths the Milanese bookseller and confronts the secret service colonel.

In some ways, Medusa looks like an attempt to represent the whole series in microcosm. For example, the Medusa organization has something in common with the Cabal of the third novel, in that it didn’t really exist yet had real-world effects. The cell structure was set up so that only one person, the leader, had contact with the rest of the organization, and that only through his superior officer, in this case Colonel Gaetano Comai. It was Comai’s widow that Zen had been to see in Verona, Campione and Lugano, where she jumped from her hotel window, wrongly believing that Zen was about to accuse her of the Colonel’s murder. Zen saw that there had only ever been one cell, and that its purpose had not been to stay behind to sabotage the administrative machinery following a Communist takeover, but solely to punish and then dispose of the former lover of Comai’s wife. Leonardo Ferrero, that is.

Ferrero had been ordered by Colonel Comai to divulge information about their existence and activities to a Communist journalist; then evidence of his supposed treachery was supplied to the other members of the cell, to persuade them of the need to torture and then kill him, to protect the security of the cell. When the cell leader, now himself a Colonel, Alberto Guerrazzi, broke his leg while chasing after the bookseller, Gabriele, Zen told him how mistaken he’d been.

“… Comai was almost certainly paymaster to one of the real extreme right-wing conspiratorial organizations that were operating at the time. But he knew that the real thing wouldn’t be colourful enough to attract young idiots like you, so he dreamt up this fantasy secret society complete with tattoos and passwords and induction ceremonies and bonding rituals and all the rest of it. And you fell for the hoax, and on the strength of it you have committed two murders and were planning a third.” (p. 270)

Having forced Guerrazzi to sign several blank sheets of paper at the bottom, Zen leaves Guerrazzi’s gun and ammunition where the colonel can get to them with difficulty, and then takes Gabriele back to Milan, in the expectation that the military man, facing shame, ridicule and prosecution, will do “the decent thing”.

Later, Zen gives the Communist journalist who was originally approached by Ferrero what purports to be Guerazzi’s confession, giving details of the whole sordid scheme. Zen assures the journalist that the signature is genuine and the substance accurate, but doesn’t tell him that the “confession” is nevertheless a fake.

In spite of the deception and the subterfuge, Zen feels “with an irony not untinged with pride” (pp. 278–9) that he has done his duty. His boss, Brugnoli, and the latter’s superiors in the Ministry of the Interior are delightedly enjoying the embarrassment of their rivals in the Ministry of Defence. It would almost make one wonder how this politically sensitive and potentially explosive case had ended up in Zen’s bundle of routine and mundane cases in the first place.

Back to Bologna (2005)

In the penultimate book in the series, Edgardo Ugo, once “an obscure professor of semiotics at a provincial Italian university” but now, thanks to a “series of erudite fictions” (p. 68), one of the best known and wealthiest authors in the world, describes to one of his graduate students the book he once wanted to write:

“… What I didn’t write was the second thing suggested to me by that reference work in the library at Cornell, namely Back to Boulogne, a mystery in which the detective solves nothing. For my protagonist I had in mind a certain Inspecteur Nez, playing on the French word for nose, as in ‘has a nose for’ but also ‘led by the nose’. In short, at once a deconstruction of the realistic, plot-driven novel and an hommage to Georges Simenon, the master of Robbe-Grillet and hence in a sense of us all. Any amount of atmosphere and sense of place, in other words, but no solution, just a strong final curtain line.” (p. 217)

The graduate student, Rodolfo, suggests that he might equally well dispense with the sense of place and set the novel in, for example, Ruritania, to which Professor Ugo answers that that’s already been done. Rodolfo’s riposte, “Surely the whole point is that everything’s been done” (p. 217) is met with silence from the professor.

The unwritten book that Ugo is describling is, of course, a mirror image, or at least a version, of the one in which he’s a character. Zen, too, could be said to solve nothing. In fact, his orders are to solve nothing. He’s been sent to Bologna not to investigate the murder of the billionaire owner of Bologna Football Club, who has been shot at close range and stabbed with a parmesan knife.

Brugnoli has left the Ministry of the Interior to become a consultant to a bank, and Zen is told that he’s no longer officially considered to be on sick leave. Indeed, the deputy head of the section, one Foschi, thinks it a great inconvenience that Zen is living in Lucca rather than Rome. Foschi gives him his instructions:

“Your assignment is not to take command of the investigation but to remain fully informed about progress and to report developments to me personally on a daily basis, and more frequently if necessary …” (p. 57)

This is reminiscent of the first book, Ratking, in which Zen was sent to Perugia merely to show willing, without actually doing anything. (In Perugia, he ignored his instructions and involved himself in the investigation; in Bologna, he will do as he’s been told, and keep clear.) It’s also a bit reminiscent of his time in Sicily (Blood Rain) where his job is to make sure that the civilian police are kept informed as to what the antiterrorism squad is doing. Foschi has made it clear that Zen is expected to perform a similar role in Bologna (p. 56). And, with the passage of time, it will come to resemble his sojourn in Naples (Cosi Fan Tutti) where he unintentionally and accidentally foils the plans of the bad guys, while trying to stay aloof from the criminal investigation.

But to say that the detective solves nothing is not at all to imply that the novel doesn’t have much of a plot. The crime itself isn’t very interesting or very mysterious but the interactions of the various characters who are centrally or peripherally involved are quite another matter. Professor Ugo has unthinkingly impugned the skill and integrity of a very popular chef who sings while he cooks on tv. The chef, who really is an egocentric cokehead who dislikes cooking, wants to sue for defamation but is persuaded that it would be safer and more prudent to challenge the semiotician to a televised cooking contest.

Ugo has excluded Rodolfo from his seminars and told the young man that there is no possibility that his thesis will pass. As a result, Rodolfo feels guilty about the money his widowed and impoverished father has been spending on his education. He will have to go home to Puglia, breaking up with his beautiful girlfriend, Flavia. She claims to be a Ruritanian princess but is in fact an undocumented immigrant from “the unfashionable side of the Adriatic” (p. 23). Flavia has taught herself Italian from a translation of The Prisoner of Zenda which she found lying around, being already thoroughly familiar with a translation of that work into her own language.

Rodolfo’s flatmate, Vincenzo, has stolen the gun used to shoot the owner of the football club from the private detective employed by Vincenzo’s father to report on Vincenzo’s activities. The detective, Tony Speranza, has planted a tracking device in Vincenzo’s leather jacket, which Rodolfo sometimes borrows. For such a short book (263 pages), there’s quite a lot going on at the level of plot.

Dibdin skilfully manipulates these various strands so that all but one of these characters are present at a pizzeria named La Carrozza when the gun is brandished by a character who wasn’t responsible for either of the times it was fired, though he was briefly suspected of wishing to injure Ugo.

Zen is dining at the restaurant with Bruno, a young policeman whom Zen had rescued from his “hardship posting” in Alto Adige in the previous book. Bruno, originally from Bologna, had taken to insulting the German-speaking inhabitants of the Northern region loudly and at length in Italian, knowing that, though they all understood the language, they could never admit to doing so. Zen thought it safer to have him transferred before he managed to provoke major civil disturbance, and Brugnoli had agreed. Bruno, who is delighted to be back in his home city, and grateful to Zen for using his influence, is ready to move in and arrest the main suspect when the gun is produced but Zen is less enthusiastic:

“Suit yourself,” he said. There’ll be a lot of paperwork, you can say goodbye to the rest of your evening, and in the end the Carabinieri will get all the …” (p. 254; ellipsis original)

But Bruno is not to be held back. Afterwards, Zen tells him:

“Let’s see what the DNA tests say. But if it’s blood rather than wine, as I have reason to suppose, then we’ll have stolen both the Curti and Ugo cases back from the Carabinieri, and you’ll be a sergeant next month. (pp. 256–7)

End Games (2007)

In the 11th and final book in the series, Zen has been appointed temporary chief of police for the province of Cosenza in Calabria, the permanent appointee having unfortunately shot himself in the foot shortly before he had been due to take up his duties. Zen is unhappy: he finds the countryside depressing in spite of its beauty and he hates the food — they put tomatoes in everything.

End Games is a longer book than either of the other two that I’m discussing in this post. I’ve already mentioned it briefly in my previous post about the series, and I’d like to focus on two particular elements in this one. The murder victim was an American lawyer working for a US tech company which had agreed to finance a film based on the Book of Revelations but had no intention of going through with the deal. The Americans were using the supposed need to scout for filming locations as cover for a very different search.

The CEO of the company, Jake, is extremely rich and comes across as something of an idiot. He plays computer games constantly but, thanks to his marriage to a much younger woman from a Christian fundamentalist background, he’s become aware of a different game, one that isn’t played on computers.

To be honest, even the top-end, interactive, massively multiple role-playing stuff didn’t really cut it for him any more. The stakes were too low and he was too good. Why piss aroundn within the limits of the current technology when there was this persistent universe game that had been running or thousands of years, with killer graphics, no sharding or instancing and unlimited bandwidth? Not to mention an opponent who could come up with off-the-wall moves like targeting the lawyer Martin had sent out to work with the treasure hunters in Costanza. (p. 12)

His company purports to be looking for locations using a helicopter and ground-penetrating radar. The director of the film is unaware of this and when informed says that it’s completly unnecessary, as he always chooses his own locations personally. Jake’s helicopter crew are really looking for the the tomb of Alaric, the Goth leader who plundered Rome in the early fifth century. But Jake, who is already stupendously wealthy, isn’t interested in Alaric’s treasure for material reasons. He wants to find the menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem, because his wife has persuaded him that the world cannot end before the Temple has been rebuilt, and that can’t be done without the menorah.

So when, towards the end of the book, Jake gets hold of what he believes to be the genuine menorah (though in fact it’s a forgery) he promptly dumps it at sea before “flipping a finger at the roof”.

“End times, my fucking ass!”
You couldn’t win the God game, but he had just stalled the inevitable outcome for a century or two. Life felt good and Jake aimed to enjoy it and Madrona and maybe even their goddamn kids, but it had sure been fun playing. (pp. 308–9)

Jake’s risible, delusional “game” has cost several lives including those of his ruthless fixer Martin Nguyen, and the lawyer, Pete Newman, whose bizarre murder had kicked off the plot. The Iraqi workers whom Nguyen had had standing by to excavate Alaric’s tomb once it had been found had a lucky escape. He had intended to annihilate them (and anybody else unfortunate enough to have been eating in the same restaurant) with a car bomb once the work had been completed, to ensure their silence. He had told Jake that this would neatly mirror the fates of the labourers who had been forced to build the tomb in the first place. Jake initially balked at the “harsh” loss of life but Nguyen didn’t have much difficulty in persuading him that it was necessary.

Pete Newman had originally been from the region but had changed his name and become a naturalized American in the 1960s. He was killed because his original birth certificate identified him as the son of the “Baroness” Ottavia Calopezzati, the last head of the family who had owned the local latifondo, an enormous agricultural estate run with very cheap labour. As the only employer, the landowners could keep wages as low as they liked, and the Calopezzati family had been hated and resented. Zen discovers that, ironically, Pete Newman had not been the baroness’s son at all but the child of a young servant whom the baroness had murdered so she could pass the boy off as her own.

The latifondi were broken up in the agrarian reforms of the 1950s. Dibdin (or perhaps the narrative voice) refers to the workers on these estates as “sharecroppers”. This phrase also occurs in Medusa where the Milanese bookseller Gabriele takes refuge in his family’s abandoned cascina in the Po Valley. The cascine were another form of agricultural estate that survived on cheap labour, and that didn’t outlast the reforms of the 1950s.

In Medusa and End Games, Dibdin seems to be drawing attention to two distinct models of landowning and of agricultural organization, one prevalent in the north of Italy and the other in the far south, one perhaps more efficient than the other but both reliant on low wages and both unyieldingly exploitative, as emphasized by the use of “sharecroppers” for the workers on both. That both such models survived into the second half of the 20th century may may imply that slow economic development was one factor determining the nature of the crimes that Zen was called on to investigate.

But if that’s the case, Dibdin doesn’t labour the point and there’s a lot more going on in these plots. Indeed, rereading these three books, I was struck more than once by the amount of complexity that the author manages to introduce into these short novels.

Editions: In the case of End Games I’ve used the Faber trade paperback, 2007; for the other two, I’ve used the mass market paperbacks, also from Faber, dated 2004 and 2006 respectively. Ellipses added, except in the one case where described as original.


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