This was a wonderful book, on several levels. It is set in Florence and Sardinia in the weeks before and after Christmas, 1965. Piras, Bordelli’s young colleague and the son of inspector Bordelli’s war comrade Gavino, is in Sardinia with his parents, recovering from serious injuries. Bordelli is in Florence, investigating the murder of a vicious loan shark that Bordelli had been keeping his eye on for some time.
While Piras is in Sardinia an old friend of the family apparently commits suicide. Piras soon realizes, however, that something is fishy: the gunshell is missing.
So the two stories are told in parallel. Bordelli, for his part, is faced with a moral dilemma. To bring the loan shark’s killer to “justice” would be no justice at all. Nonetheless, he follows his instincts and scraps of evidence and finds the killer. Piras has little to go on in his case, but makes the most of what he has, and through good luck and observation also identifies the murderer of his friend.
The story is full of the memories of those who lived and fought in Italy in the closing two years of WWII. Bordelli returns again and again to that awful time; the friends and comrades lost; the terrible suffering; the disgrace of Nazi occupation and fascist collaboration. Vichi does a great job of highlighting the contrast between the memories and experience of those who lived in the fascist period and the young caught up in the new world of the 1960s. Bordelli (and, we suspect, Vichi) feels the full weight of his 55 years, unable to fully understand the changes that are taking place around him. He’s by no means a dinosaur, though he is treated as one by the twenty year olds that he meets during his investigation. But neither can he embrace, let alone be part of, the changes that are unfolding.
Vichi does a really smart thing in the middle of the novel. Bordelli gives a Christmas eve dinner party for three of his friends, plus his old friend, the thief Botta. After dinner Bordelli suggests that everyone should tell a story, which they do. They are uniformly sad stories about their experiences in the war and afterward. This sets the stage for a Christmas day story told at the Piras’ parents’ home, which puts Piras on the trail of the murderer. Besides moving the plot forward, this device of the storytelling adds depth to each of the characters, and gives us a much better sense of the time.
Bordelli is full of regret and longing, mostly for the women who have left him. He daydreams constantly about his lost loves, as well as about his years as a partisan fighter. His main pleasure in life seems to be eating with his friend, Totó, the cook at a local restaurant, and spending time with Rosa, an ex-prostitute. He mostly lives for his work, which he seems to mostly enjoy, despite the terrible things he has seen as a murder investigator. He wonders from time to time what purpose life, or his life, serves, but mostly he just lives his life like the rest of us.
The translation by the ever dependable Stephen Sartarelli is excellent. The story would stand on its own, but the top-notch translation really helped it come alive.