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The Sect of Angels by Andrea Camilleri

Author: Paul Burke
Newspaper: NB Magazine
Date: Apr 29 2019

“[the ceiling]…which had been frescoed by Angelino Vasalicò, a carriage painter and local celebrity, and dubbed ‘better than the Sistine Chapel!’ by the mayor, Nicolò Calanro.”

The Sect of Angels, like Camilleri’s earlier novels The Revolution of the Moon and The Sacco Gang, is an historical allegory set in Sicily, the place of his birth. This is fiction based on fact, although as the author admits the actualité is profoundly distorted. It’s a fascinating insight into the life and social structure of the island at the beginning of the twentieth century. La Setta degli Angeli, published in Italy in 2011 when Camilleri was 87, is a clear sign that his writing is as passionate, acerbic and funny as it ever was. His knowledge of Sicily and it’s people is unrivalled by any living writer and he is the natural heir of Sciascia, di Lampedusa and the great literary tradition of the island (just with more laughs!). There’s a remarkable energy in this novel and, as always with his historical tales, Camilleri revels in sharply satirising the Sicilian ruling classes, the Church and the pomposity of patriarchy. Of course, as with all good farce The Sect of Angels is also a reflection on modern Sicily’s woes and an expression of the author’s concerns for Italy and Europe, you will instantly recognise themes currently topical.

Andrea Camilleri, now ninety-three and blind, is a Leviathan of Italian literature. In a recent interview with Lorenzo Tondo (published in The Guardian, 5/4/19), Camilleri expresses his vehement disapproval of the right-wing populist coalition ruling Italy. He has a particular dislike for Matteo Salvini, the far-right Interior Minster, a man who reminds him of the fascists of the 1930s (a time he lived through):

“I don’t believe in God, but if there is a Judgement Day, those like him will certainly end up in hell for their hypocrisy.”

It is that hatred of hypocrisy that shines out of this passionately socially aware novel. Camilleri has real fire in his belly and his weapon of choice is the pen which he wields like a sword. This farce, the interplay between characters and the dialogue all expose puffed up self importance (of individuals and institutions). The Sect of Angels is delivered in honeyed mellifluous tones but the seriousness of the novel is never far from the surface.

If you’ve into ever read Camilleri’s Montalbano detective stories I urge you to try his historical novels and why not start with The Sect of Angels? You will recognise the same ready wit and style, the same love of Sicily but distaste for corruption, the mafia (who never get the limelight but are always lurking in the background), poverty and, of course, hypocrisy. This novel has the same disdain for authority, which is mercilessly lampooned with an incredible lightness of touch and easily readable prose. There is no doubt you could just enjoy the farce but the tragedy of it all seeps into your soul too, there are dark themes in this novel. Sadly, Montalbano is coming to his end, a grand finale already sits in a publisher’s office in Palermo. All the more reason to enjoy Camilleri’s other writing. I don’t know of another contemporary writer who manages to deliver serious social commentary in such a breezy way. When Camilleri writes about the past he opens up that world to us but also delivers an intelligent and insightful analysis of the modern malaise in Sicily and Italy. The Sect of Angels is a title that has meaning in the novel but could equally be ironic and in keeping with Camilleri’s style in this brilliant satire of the island’s social hierarchy.

At the Sunday meeting of the Honor and Family Social Club (??), President don Liborio Spartà is about to announce the result of the ballot to admit attorney Matteo Teresi to their ranks. Someone smells burning, Don Anselmo Buttafava, snoring as usual, has dropped his cigar into his lap and his pants are on fire. Colonel Petrosillo, the first to react, grabs the cigar from between the don’s legs just as the man wakes. Buttafava is outraged that the pervert colonel should assault him as he sleeps, he strikes out. Then he demands that Petrosillo be expelled. While Petrosillo staunches the blood flow from his nose and challenges Buttafava to a duel, the assembled gents have to re-vote on Teresi’s membership as the don knocked over the jar and sent the ballots flying in all directions. The second vote is 29 black balls to one white but the vote must be unanimous, which is a pain because everyone wants to leave for the last mass of the day. Accusations begin flying about why Teresi, a much hated liberal, was proposed in the first place. Now Colonel Petrosillo issues a second invitation to a duel, the name of ‘u zu Carmineddru, a man of consequence, the local mafia chieftain is nearly mentioned and a ‘smart’ man comes up with a way of avoiding re-running the ballot – everyone can leave.

This is Palizzolo, 1901, a town with one Duke, four barons, and an assortment of important people all looking to out do each other and stab each other in the back. There are eight churches, seven that the nobility have divided up between themselves. Don Stepino Vassallo is never at the same mass as don Filadelfo Cammarata, the dispute between the families goes back to 1514 and an infidelity occasioned by erectile dysfunction. The remaining church belongs to the peasants. This Sunday the priests of the town are denouncing the liberal attorney, Teresi; don Alessio Terranova won’t even speak his name but condemns his news-sheet as a scandal, sacrilegious – the work of the devil. Teresi attacks Holy Mother Church, marriage and chastity. Padre Reccuglia thinks the town could become the new Sodom and Gomorrah if attorney Teresi get his way:

“This Teresi, when he dies, will have trouble getting into Hell! The devil won’t want him!”

Rumours of cholera cause a panic and a spate of pregnancies reveal a much darker secret in this small community. Camilleri delivers cruelty and horror in an ironic tone reflecting the ‘values’ and beliefs of the time. Only our modern sensibilities realise just how awful things really are.

Camilleri can make you laugh out loud at life’s outrageousness and absurdity or tug at your heart strings over its cruelty (pathos). He writes about Sicily with acuity, insight and love (the food, the beautiful countryside and, of course, the genuine and generous people). But also disdain for the things that crush the spirit of the island people. The Sect of Angels is full of local colour; love, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, jealously, violence and tragedy. To read Camilleri is to begin to understand the complex issues Sicily faced/faces now and then; a fading aristocracy, the mafia, political corruption, civic incompetence and the abuse of the local peasants.

Camilleri is a consummate storyteller. Once again the superb Stephen Sartarelli, poet and writer, has translated Camilleri into English. Over the years he has developed a sympatico with Camilleri that allows the spirit of the original to shine through. His understanding of the Italian master’s work is profound and obvious from the text. This is just a delight to read, intellectually rewarding and thought provoking. No one writes like Camilleri, his dry wit and irreverent eye are a sign of genius. To successfully write a novel that is farcical and bawdy but deals seriously with history and says something about modern world is remarkable.

Paul Burke 5/5