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The Revolution of the Moon by Andrea Camilleri

Author: Paul Burke
Newspaper: Nudge Book
Date: Jun 5 2017

This novel is a delight to read, Camilleri has a style, wit and elegance that transcends genre. The Revolution of the Moon is rich in humour and pathos but equally intellectually rewarding and thought provoking. A beautifully imagined recreation of seventeenth century Sicily and a little known event that rightly deserves it’s place in history. The brief reign of donna Eleonora as Viceroy was not just forgotten but expunged because it was an uncomfortable truth that a woman could not only rule as Viceroy but in those few short days change the law for the better and demonstrate a flair for administrative affairs and an astute political awareness. Camilleri’s writing is always original, but here he is inspired by his muse to produce a fine work of fiction. In Donna Eleonora he has created a woman of substance; a heroin of intelligence, vision and resourcefulness. You can believe that may be the real donna Eleonora memorialised.

The Revolution of the Moon is in set in Sicily in 1677. Sicily is ruled by King Carlos III of Spain in the guise of his Viceroy, the marquis don Angel de Guzman, a young man of ill health. The ruling Council of local grandees seeks to manipulate the Viceroy’s weakness but when he dies he names his wife, donna Eleonora Di Mora, as his successor. The Council is forced to accept her rule until the king either confirms her position or sends a replacement from Spain. Donna Eleonora knows that the city of Palermo, ravaged in the aftermath of plague (1656) and rebellion (1647), is poverty stricken. Initially bowled over by the beautiful young woman’s charm, the councillors are soon aware that she will not be told what to do. The Grand Captain of Justice calls a secret meeting of the Council and together they plot the downfall of donna Eleanora. What follows is a battle of wills, a fight against calumny, reactionary politics and corruption on one side and an attempt to smother the birth of good governance on the other. Donna Eleonora is determined to do something to alleviate the misery of the people. The church and the city fathers (men of self interest, greedy, venal, cunning and devious) plot and scheme against the lady they consider a menace and a heretic.

From the first lines the distinctive style of Camilleri is evident. A dry wit, irreverent eye and a sense of the farcical. Yet in many ways this is a dark novel and Camilleri has a perception of character that cuts to the heart of the matter. The Revolution of the Moon is the story of a brave and intelligent woman who saw a chance to make a difference for the people of Sicily and to fight for a better system of governance. The Council, oblivious to anything that does not further their own interests and add to the coffers (fuelled by misogyny), attempts to thwart donna Eleonora at every turn. Her reforms are mocked and donna Eleonora exposed to a campaign of hate. This is a very modern tale because the lessons of history are rarely observed, the misogyny at the heart of the novel, the depth of depravity of an unfettered male elite are all exposed. What emerges is a credible portrait of the seventeenth century world, of the Royal and Papal courts and the life of Sicily, both rich and poor. There is a sense from centuries past of how the modern Sicily became the island it is today.

Camilleri has a knack for exposing hypocrisy and the falseness in people. Early in the novel, the captain of the Gloriosa is blamed by the ruling Council for the sinking of his ship. The real cause is the shoddy and cheap work of the Messina shipyard but that would mean the admiral of the fleet admitting responsibility.

What Camilleri’s characters say often has a double meaning or is ironic: ‘”What the devil is wrong with him now?” the Protonotary asked with concern’. The court physician remarks, “the councillors gave themselves over to their grief”, making a pitiful scene that touched his heart’.

In farce there is truth. The tailor beats his wife on learning of donna Eleonora’s appointment just to make sure that she understands who is in charge in his household.

Many readers will be familiar with Camilleri from the Montalbano crime novels (some reviewed here on Nudge). The Commissario deals with the dark side of modern life in Sicily (corrupt politicians and civil servants, mafia influence and murder and violent crime). Camilleri is a grand old man of Italian letters. Now in his 90s, he has published many works but it is only in recent years that his non-Montalbano novels have been published in English (three historical novels set in nineteenth century Sicily were published between 2014 and 2016). Now Europa Editions have brought out Camilleri’s 2013 novel The Revolution of the Moon and will be publishing another historical novel in December, The Sacco Gang.

I was delighted to see that this novel was translated by Stephen Sartorelli. Over the years he and Camilleri have developed a fantastic working relationship that allows the spirit of the original to shine through. Sartorelli is a poet and published author in his own right and has an obvious love of Camilleri’s work – the two were made for each other. Camilleri has always loved word play and misunderstandings arising between languages – Italian, Spanish and Sicilian – and Sartorelli captures this in English superbly.

I admit I am biased where Camilleri is concerned, if I thought that he had written the Italian telephone book I would attempt to read it! Still, I promise you a pleasurable experience reading The Revolution of the Moon. The characters are rounded and complex and as the novel unfolds the gravity of the story takes hold. By the last third I was gripped by a desperate desire to see things unfold in a certain way. I know which side I was on and I felt the tension at the denouement.

To successfully write a novel that is farcical and bawdy but deals seriously with history and says something about modern world is remarkable. Just as the starting point for Montalbano stories is often real crime this novel is well researched. I am grateful Camilleri has brought donna Eleonora to life. The real woman left Sicily a better place; establishing homes for endangered virgins and retired/discarded prostitutes, introduced a magistrate for commerce and lowered the price of bread. Thoroughly entertaining.

Paul Burke 5/5