I have just finished a prize winning Manuel Vázquez Montalbán detective novel with Pepe Carvalho as its central character, The South Seas. I was also a devotee of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series (who was named in honour of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán). And of course Jean-Claude Izzo has been a revelation.
What all the novels have in common are middle aged men who love food, live by the sea, and have vaguely (or not so vaguely) left-wing politics. But there are distinct differences too: you read Montalbán for the intensity of its post-Franco politics. His Carvalho is pretty unlikeable: he is incorruptible and cynical- which are great, but he also dislikes women even as he fucks them. Izzo’s Fabio Montale loves women – and not just when he is bedding them. He loves older women, and younger women, and everything in between, and likes to listen to them and talk poetry and politics to them. Montale is also incorruptible, but there is hope coursing through his arteries, even as they are hardening with cynicism and despair at the interpenetration of the apparatuses of governance, the racist parties and the Mafiosi. Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano is mostly put upon by his distant girlfriend, and he is the least political of the three, though he is also incorruptible. He is also the wiliest of all three where Carvalho is the most violent. Montale just cleans up after everyone else’s violence.
But of the three, Izzo’s books are most about the place in which they take place. No doubt Camillieri’s writing about Sicily makes you want to go Porto Empedeocle. It is a beautiful tourist destination and one can feel the sunshine, the warmth of the sea in August. The best writings of Montalbán gives a flavour of the gritty ghettos of Barcelona (which you wouldn’t want to visit). But the city of Barcelona, the port, even the neighbourhood in which Carvalho lives don’t come alive, don’t have a discernible geography. Or a smell, sound, temperature. But Izzo’s book creates the most fulsomely imagined city. His Marseille stinks like rotten fish, its port is being devoured by tourist cruises and its economic base is shifting. You can feel the heat of the afternoon, the dampness of the air, the din of multiple languages being spoken. His Marseille has a real geography; his books map the rise and fall of the communities, trace the movement of languages, goods, people, migrants, and criminals. You can read his books to get a sense of how the city breathes, where it lies on the land, how it moves.
And a last word on food. On this, Camillieri makes your mouth water; but Montalbán gives you the recipes. Izzo is more spare. He names his dishes and restaurants and bars but you won’t salivate the way you do thinking of eating the food Camillieri describes. But that also may be because I am partial to Sicilian food.