Sunday, September 12, 2010

Carlotto’s Bandit Love & Sofer’s Septembers

Massimo Carlotto’s noirish Bandit LoveL’amore del bandito in the original Italian – is a fast-moving detective novel with sociopolitical themes. Marco Buratti (a.k.a. The Alligator), an ex-con and unlicensed investigator, narrates; Antony Shugaar’s translation gives him a dry sense of humor. The book opens with the kidnapping of a belly dancer, the girlfriend of Buratti’s smuggler friend Beniamino Rossini. Rossini is heartbroken. To oversimplify: Burrati, Rossini, and Max La Memoria, who co-owns a bar with Burrati, look for her. They also look into the theft of 44 kilos of narcotics that had been stored at a lab, apparently for analysis.

Carlotto’s spare prose enables him to work plenty of characters – such as a cocaine-dependent call girl who proves helpful to Burrati in multiple ways – and plot twists into 180 pages. I found Carlotto’s approach to characterization refreshing: his combination of bits of back story and a few habits creates people who seem real but doesn’t stall the story with TMI. Max, for example, loves to cook, and the Alligator loves the blues and Calvados. The book made me thirsty for Calvados and hungry for gnocchi, and I will take Max’s advice and never roll oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes in prosciutto.

These guys may be violent but they’re also softies, and they observe special moral codes in a book containing ample doses of seediness, corruption, and New European organized crime. Carlotto intentionally places his characters in situations that reflect 21st-century news and reality. He discusses the strategy for his Alligator series (of which Bandit Love is not the first) in an article on the Europa Editions site; it initially appeared in a Greek magazine, then in Mystery Readers Journal. Carlotto concludes:

“People today feel betrayed; they no longer believe the truths handed to them by a State that has proved itself dishonest. And in this literary genre they find a source of truth and information. Naturally, the literary quality of each individual novel is immensely important. It is not enough to plot an important story; one must also know how to write it.”

I’m sure Carlotto’s own experiences contribute to his desire and ability to write crime novels that address social issues: I also read The Fugitive, his memoir of life on the run after being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Carlotto describes, with surprising humor, his elaborate disguises, life in Mexico, loneliness, and the horrible effects of fugitive life on his health. The Alligator hides out, too, and his loneliness – and description of friendships – felt especially genuine because I knew Carlotto had survived far, far worse. Bandit Love reads quickly, but it left me with a surprisingly strong melancholy feeling… just what I like from noir. I’m looking forward to reading more of Carlotto’s novels.

Also… Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz, a novel about Iran after the overthrow of the Shah, left me less satisfied, though I’d looked forward to it thanks to positive reviews and an interest in Iran. Sofer shifts her book’s action between members of a family: Isaac, a jeweler who has built a considerable business and is arrested at the start of the book; his wife Farnaz, who waits for him to come home; their young daughter Shirin, who begins to understand political danger and does something very brave; and their son Parviz, who lives in Brooklyn and begins working for his Hasidic landlord after rent money from Iran stops coming.

Much of the book felt familiar – I’ve read a lot about political repression in the Soviet Union – but the novel never quite jelled for me. I’m not quite sure why, though it’s easy to say that poor Parviz felt literally and literarily marooned in Brooklyn… but a convenient device for Sofer to convey the family’s relationship (and future?) with its Jewish heritage. Farnaz felt real but she seemed more linked to comforts and possessions than ideas, so her chapters felt a little empty. I thought Shirin, who keeps big secrets and has difficulty adjusting to the new Iranian reality, overshadowed everyone else. I wish Sofer had given her more ink.

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Disclosure: Thank you to Europa Editions for giving me copies of Mossimo Carlotto’s books at Book Expo America, where I enjoyed speaking with Europa about their translations. Bandit Love will be released on September 28, and The Fugitive was published in 2007.

Up next: I don’t know…


  1. i agree with you about SHIRAZ. I wanted to love it but didn't. I think she made some of her characters, like Farnaz, not really that likable. I loved Shirin too; it's been forever since I read it but it definitely got a mixed response in my former synagogue library community with some people enjoying the exotic setting and others not resonating with it as much.

  2. Thank you for mentioning your reactions to Shiraz, Marie. I'm glad I'm not alone -- it must have been fun to discuss the book with the synagogue library group! I love reading about places I've never visited (e.g. Iran), but the settings in Shiraz -- other than the dusty basement where Shirin does her thing -- never quite came alive for me. I still keep having a strange, nagging feeling that something was missing...