The Best of 2007 posted a few days ago, it’s time to honour that other, less pleasant end of year tradition – the obituary. 2007 saw the sudden death of Michael Dibdin, creator of Aurelio Zen, and a mainstay of my reading list for the last 10 years. 59, he died after a short illness. End Games appropriately titled then but with no indication that Dibdin foresaw that, for him, it really would be. A new Zen novel
iswas always something to look forward to even if the series itself could sometimes be a little pitchy. It started on a high with Ratking in 1988, which won the CWA Gold Dagger. I discovered the series at Book 5 A Long Finish and promptly set about reading from the beginning. The books have been pre-ordered since then and devoured on publication date since .. except for End Games which had to wait until I could handle it.
Zen has been temporarily assigned to Calabria. It’s a routine assignment until an American, scouting for film locations, voluntarily climbs a moutainous path, dressed as a corpse, to the place of his execution. The secrets lie in the semi-feudal but not-too-distant past; an Italy rarely seen by outsiders; the reality, not the tourist dream; one which continues to exert threat and menace on all – even 9-year old boys. The movie makers descending on the region provide both contrast and comparison to the Italian thugs. The film funder has made his millions at a certain company based in Redmond. A modern-man. His vocabulary idiomatic through and through and the source of great entertainment. On reading during a long flight:
… by then he was so bored that he’d read the whole freaking thing from start to finish. Linear reading! In treeware format! It was just too weird.
And so is he. A modern e-mogul, yet bound by superstitions and beliefs as baffling as those of the Italians. He can also match their brutality when need be.
Zen, the lynchpin of the series – married in this novel, communicating with his wife only in 15-minute telephone conversations (and it’s a happy relationship!) None of the cloying cosiness of Donna Leon’s Brunetti in Dibdin’s pages. Nor has there ever been, although Zen has developed throughout the series. The irritations of living with his aging mother in the early novels, his real and surprising grief when she died, a complex love life, assassination attempts and recovery – all have scarred him but perhaps nothing more so than the corruption of Italian society. But Zen is a man of vocation – “this stupid, meaningless, utterly compromised job” that he tries to do as best he can. The result is the weary and charmless anti-hero of End Games, a man who has become impatient for results and impervious of local custom. Results he gets but not quite the configuration that satisfies his paymasters. It would be interesting to know where Dibdin was going to take him next … both careerwise and geographically.
For to journey through the 11 Zen novels is to journey throughout the length and breadth of Italy: Venice, Bologna, Rome, the vineyards of Piedmont, Cosenza, Sicily …. The locations brought to life in Dibdin’s precise prose with dirty linen washed well and truly. Laughs along the way also: biting satire (see Back to Bologna for a roasting of celebrity chefs) or quite simply the precociousness of human nature. Only Zen in Southern Italy could despise the abundance of pasta with tomato sauce …..