Thursday, 3 February 2011

Zen And Portrayals Of Italy

Back in July 2009, I noted how our perceptions of times, towns and countries are often shaped by detective stories set in them.  At the time, the English-language series of the Swedish 'Wallander' detective stories, strarring Kenneth Branagh, had just been released and I discussed how British views of Sweden were now seen through that lens:  Since then, I have gone on to watch both the Swedish adaptations of the Wallander novels starring Krister Henrikson (released 2005-6 and 2009-10) and then a couple of the Swedish TV-movie adaptations starring Rolf Lassgård (released 1995-2007).  As a consequence, I have a very clear view of now how I view southern Sweden both physically and in terms of society: bleaker than that portrayed in the British adaptation.  Along the way, I have picked up quite a few Swedish phrases and can swear pretty effectively in the language.

I have only ever read one Kurt Wallander story, 'Sidetracked' (published in English 2002), the fifth novel of the series and the most successful in the UK.  However, when we turn to the Aurelio Zen novels by the late Michael Dibdin, I have read far more.  The first three Zen novels have recently been adapted by the BBC for British television, starring Rufus Sewell as the Italian police detective.  Dibdin wrote eleven Zen novels (1988-2007).  He died in 2007, days after his 60th birthday.  He wrote seven other novels, including 'The Last Sherlock Holmes Story' (1978), his first novel, which established him as a serious author.  Dibdin's novels can be bleak.  The novel 'Dirty Tricks' (1991), set among language school staff in Oxford, shows up how powerless the average decent person in the UK is, compared to the nasty, more powerful ones out there.  'The Dying of the Light' (1993) is also gloomy, being set in a nursing home for the elderly. 'Thanksgiving' (2000), which I own but have not yet read, is a kind of post-mortem between a widower and his late wife's first husband. 

In some ways, Dibdin, in his non-Zen novels, has a kind of contemporary Gothic feel, most notably in 'The Tryst' (1989) which has fantastical elements.  These remind me of Christopher Priest's novels of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.  Dibdin also makes effective use of the unreliable narrator, most spectacularly in 'A Rich Full Death'  (1986) set in 19th century Italy.  Perhaps the link between these works and the Zen stories is the futility of the efforts of an individual when facing much stronger forces in society, especially when such forces are not particularly visible.  In the Zen novels there is sometimes also a black humour tone.  I think this is unnecessary and, for me spoils, the novel as a detective story.  Possibly the worst case is 'Cosi Fan Tutti' (1996), modelled on the plot of the opera, so, consequently very distorted, weak and with illogical occurrences.  I have been told such occurrences are common in opera stories, but really jar in a crime novel.  I have been told 'Back to Bologna' (2005) also has black humour, but I have yet to read it.

I came to Dibdin's work in the early 1990s after reading the works of Leonardo Sciascia.  Sciascia was a Sicillian writer who produced a number of detective stories set in Italy.  Unlike traditional detective stories, there was often no restoration of the status quo ante. Typically, even if the perpetrator was detected, they escaped punishment due to their connections within Italian society with the government or the Catholic Church.  In one story the detective ends up coming off the worse than the criminal.  Around that time, I also read the detective stories of Josef Skvorecky, which, being mainly set in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule, could have a similar outcome.  This uncertainty around whether the detective would solve the crime, or be allowed to arrest the criminal, appealed to me after having read too many detective novels in which this was never in doubt.

Dibdin's Zen novels were set in contemporary Italy and, as with Sciascia's work, readers are very aware that 'justice' has to function in a society in which influence is usually more powerful than the process of law or even any sense of natural justice. Throughout the novels, though Zen is able to uncover the truth, he battles to actually have the correct arrest carried out and for the details of the case not simply to be brushed under the carpet.  To someone unfamiliar with Italy, it appears that, in fact, a lot of crime results from friction between various power blocs within Italian society, including the government, political parties, the civil service, various police forces (Italy has the highest per capita police strength in the EU), wealthy families, criminal families and the Catholic Church.  As a detective, Zen is not simply fighting to uncover the truth of an incident but, also, to then reveal that in a context in which at least one powerful group is interested in it not being revealed.  This contrasts to most detective novels and, instead, puts the Zen novels alongside the kind of 'conspiracy theory' novels and movies of the USA.

The novels take the reader around Italy: 'Ratking' (1988) is set in Umbria; 'Vendetta' (1990) on Sardinia; 'Cabal' (1992) in Rome; 'Dead Lagoon' (1994) in Zen's home city of Venice; 'Cosi Fan Tutti' in Naples; 'A Long Finish' (1998) in Piedmont; 'Blood Rain' (1999) in Sicily; 'And Then You Die' (2002) in Tuscany; 'Medusa' (2003) in Alto Adige; 'Back To Bologna' is self-explanatory for location and 'End Games' (2007) is set in Calabria.  This tour is aided by the fact that, at the end of 'Ratking', Zen is promoted, as a result of a throwaway comment to a civil servant.  He is made a Vice-Questor in the Polizia di Stato based in Rome, and effectively works like the equivalent of an FBI agent in the USA, being sent to any region where he is needed.  Each region is well portrayed, so the image we receive of Italy is of a beautiful country, but one in which you cannot act without coming up against conflicting vested interests.

This portrayal has been carried forward by the recent television series.  Rather than gallivanting around Italy, in the series, the stories play out in short driving distance of Rome.  They were produced in the order: 'Vendetta', 'Cabal', 'Ratking' and featured ongoing story elements not appearing in the novels.  Rather than living in Venice, Zen's mother, who he lives with, is located in Rome.  Zen has a relationship with a secretary in the novels, but this does not start at the beginning of the sequence, as it does in the television series with Tania Moretti.  In the novels, Zen starts off being in his mid-40s; we know his father served with the Italian forces that fought with the Germans in the USSR and supposedly never returned.  There are implications he is related to a man he meets, as a result of his father surviving the war and bigamously marrying a Polish woman.  These facts suggest that Zen, in the novels, would have been conceived between 1941-3 (when Italians were fighting with the German Army in the USSR or slightly before this date), making him around 45 when 'Ratking' is set and 64 by the time of 'End Games'.  Not unusually, Dibdin probably envisaged his detective as much the same age as himself.

In the television series Zen is far younger, not yet 40 in 2010, and, so, it is his grandfather who fought in the war.  It is interesting, though, to note, that despite the passage of time since the late 1980s, many of the issues the television Zen faces are identical to those that the novel Zen faced earlier.  The technology may be more convenient and some more Mafia be imprisoned, but nothing much else about Italian society seems to have changed, probably a sentiment Dibdin would have recognised.

The style of the television series, however, references far further back than 1988.  It seems to be right out of 'La Dolce Vita' (1960) and '8½' (1963) with Zen and his colleagues in classic-cut tight suits and his love interest Tania Moretti in almost a uniform of silk blouses and a tight, knee-length pencil skirt.  (I was also reminded, ironically, of the BBC French language course 'Suivez La Piste' which though first released in 1968 has the early 1960s styling in the photos.  It is a detective story to help Britons learn French and the audio is now accessible online.)  Zen wears designer sunglasses and drives an Alfa Romeo, but these have a timeless quality and are black and sleek rather than showy. Anyone who has encountered pretty prosperous Italians in the 2000s knows that all of these clothes are far too under-ostentatious for a country where it seems compulsory to exhibit wealth whatever context you are working in, especially in Rome.  The series, despite being alert to current technology and issues such as immigration from Eastern Europe, intentionally seems to hark back to an older Italy of the mid-20th century in which things were far less gaudy.  Zen is gallant but also an vigorous lover; he is independent and intelligent but still lives with his mother; he is serious about his work but still turns out dressed as if he was on a catwalk.

Marcello Mastroianni
as Marcello Rubini in
'La Dolce Vita' (1960)

Rufus Sewel as Aurelio Zen in 'Zen' (2011)
demonstrating many of the characteristics
of Mastroianni's character

Zen of the novels is certainly shabbier than the television Zen and he is less in control of events too.  He is more reluctant than the television Zen to take advantage of the favours that are offered by politicians.  In the novels, Zen's promotion is almost inadvertent when he makes a flippant remark that is taken seriously.  The Zen of the novels certainly would not have asked politicians for a colleague to be removed to Sicily or for a free luxury flat in central Rome for his girlfriend, the way the television Zen has used.  Perhaps, it was felt that to leave him uncorrupted by the corruption at the heart of the Italian state would not have been seen as feasible to the television audience.  I do not think, however, that Dibdin would have been disappointed by how, in the series, interest groups, particularly a minister of an undisclosed department, probably meant to be the Department of Public Security, and his factotum, manipulate the cases Zen is assigned.

Overall, the style of the television series is as if someone has distilled what they see as the essence of Italian sophistication and made it the baseline for the hero of the series.  The reference to the past is indicated very much by the style of the opening credits which seem to be very intentionally early 1960s style.  The panelled, single coloured images and a theme tune which very much reminded me of the 'Maigret' television series (1992-3) that was set in the mid-1950s.  British audiences (and German ones as the series was made in collaboration with ZDF) are likely to have their views of Italy reconfirmed by 'Zen', after all, the antics of Silvio Berlusconi make any corruption there seem feasible.  However, they will also wallow in a nostalgia for a kind of sleeker, less bloated Italy of style and sophistication which is not really apparent today.  So, I guess, that is the respect in which the status quo ante is restored in the series.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

The Italian police systems has a lot more ranks than those of other states, notably in contrast to those of the UK. However, it seems that Zen is portrayed from the start as holding a pretty high rank. He is referred to as a Comissario in the television series which would be equivalent to a Chief Superintendent in the UK system, though he seems to work more as an Inspector in the UK would.

In the books and at the end of the third television episode, he is promoted to (acting in the on television, permanent in the books) Vice-Questor which is like a Commander in the UK Metropolitan Police or Assistant Chief Constable outside London. This is very senior rank with only 124 officers of that rank in all constabularies (excluding London)in the UK.

I do not know enough about the Italian police service to know if the stories reflect operational practice in Italy. However, it does add to the feel in the books, that Zen's role is more on par with that of a special agent from the FBI in the USA, sent into cases which are particularly difficult, and whilst having the seniority to get things done at a local level, also gets involved 'hands on' in the way that a detective of such a senior rank would not be anticipated to be involved in other circumstances.