Sicilianness in the storytelling of the contastorie Andrea Camilleri


Emilio Lomonaco

Macquarie University


This article explores how the Sicilian novelist Andrea Camilleri (b. 1925) creates his own version of the concept of sicilianità [Sicilianness] through a very personal writing style and an approach to storytelling that is steeped in the Sicilian oral tradition of contastorie [storytellers]. I argue that Camilleri’s famous gialli [detective stories][1] featuring Inspector Montalbano can be put in relation to the oral tradition of Sicilian storytellers and puppeteers by showing that his writing style is based on the presence of la voce [the voice], conveyed by the use of vigatese, the mostly invented language of Vigàta. In doing this, it will be possible to better understand Camilleri’s original style, which has engaged and entertained readers in Italy and all over the world over the last twenty years.

For a better contextualisation of Sicily and the representation of a Sicilian cultural identity in Italian literature, I will first consider the meaning of some key terms that have been used to define the cultural essence of the island of Sicily and its people. I will look at sicilitudine [Sicilitude] and sicilianismo [Sicilianism] with reference to Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia before examining sicilianità in the Italian literary context with reference to earlier Sicilian writers Giovanni Verga and Luigi Pirandello.

For Sciascia sicilitudine was “the consciousness of being Sicilian transposed into literary terms” and it expressed the best feature of “feeling Sicilian” (Mullen 2000, p. 6). The term, which echoed the French term négritude, developed by francophone African intellectuals, writers, and politicians in France during the 1930s, also came to represent a sort of Sicilian liberation from the subordinating, hegemonic culture of Florence, Rome and Milan, and Sciascia became the most celebrated writer of sicilitudine (Dainotto 2001, pp. 208-209).

In contrast, the term sicilianismo carries a complex negative connotation. For Onofri (1995, p. 15) sicilianismo is a Sicilian ideology based on the “abstract dream” of many Sicilians who have always seen Sicily as a mythical, unique land. As a consequence, some islanders show an apologetic attitude towards the mainland, while others, reacting against accusations of backwardness, denigrate the mentality of the government and of the rest of the nation. With its prejudices and commonplaces sicilianismo has, since the unification of Italy, symbolised the accusation that the Italian State has treated Sicily as a minor, Piedmontese colony (Onofri 1995, p. 16). According to Joseph Farrell “Sicilianismo is the underside of Sicilian identity, the inevitable, if also inevitably inward, reaction of small people to injustices they see perpetrated by large powers with whom they are constrained by geography or geopolitics to live cheek by jowl” (Farrell 2000, p. 84). For Sciascia, sicilianismo was based on:

[…] that combination of sentiments and resentments, traditions and institutions, which for centuries had, more or less effectively, opposed any attack on the privileges of the Kingdom of Sicily and, in the last period, on the unitary policy (of unification to the Kingdom of Naples) of the Bourbons (Sciascia 1970, p. 77).[2]

For Sciascia, there formed within sicilianismo, a middle class that he called borghese-mafiosa [middle-class mafioso], a clear example of which is the character of Don Calogero Sedara in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo [The Leopard] (Sciascia, p. 77). While both sicilitudine and sicilianismo are of minor relevance to Camilleri’s identity as a Sicilian author, the notion of literary sicilianità provides a key concept for defining both the author and his literary work, particularly his detective stories.

A first fundamental trait of sicilianità, shared by many Sicilian writers with only a few exceptions, is realism. For Sciascia,

[…] all Sicilian writers have been and are bound to the representation of Sicilian reality (someone would say condemned) because of their natural inclination towards realism, since realism imposes the precise condition of faultless knowledge, sentimentally and rationally, on their every implication and vibration, of the ways of being and categories that the writer or the artist adopts; […] in regards to Sicily, ways of being and categories present such complexity, subtlety and contradictoriness, such a suggestion, that any other reality, any other experience becomes (or seems to become) poorer in comparison (Sciascia and Guglielmino 1991, p. 8).

This inclination to favour a realistic writing style can be detected throughout Sicilian literary history. At the end of the nineteenth century Giovanni Verga, Luigi Capuana and Federico De Roberto represented the “great triumvirate” of Sicilian narrative. Luigi Capuana in particular was the theoretician of Italian naturalism or verismo – the direct portrayal of “il vero” or truth – and Verga its most important writer. The writers associated with verismo, following in the steps of French Naturalism, set out to provide an objective, “scientific” representation of the world, of nature, of social conditions and human behavior. Within this context, Verga was able to focus on elements that he perceived as traits of unmistakable sicilianità: the importance of the house, honour, roba or property, the patriarchal family, and a fatalistic resignation to life that creates a complete distrust of human actions (Sciascia and Guglielmino 1991, p. 485).

There are two aspects that, starting with Verga, will become a common element in Sicilian narrative. One is related to content and the other to style. With regard to content, a common element in Sicilian narrative was the strong disillusionment felt by the Sicilian people caused by the failed expectations of the Risorgimento, the nineteenth-century movement for Italian unification that culminated in the annexation of Sicily to the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.[3] The other aspect, related to style, is linguistic experimentalism. Beginning with Verga’s early works, Sicilian narrative became strongly unconventional in comparison to the national literary production. Verga used new techniques such as a voce narrante [narrator’s voice] and incorporated Sicilian syntax and lexicon in his novels. For Verga this was imperative because he wanted to give a realistic representation of Sicilian life and Sicilians. Guarrera (1996) argues that Verga creates an innovative, “anti-literary” model of writing based on orality or on the presence of la voce [the voice], which for him not only permeates Sicilian prose but also Sicilian poetry, oral and written. In literature, this model was followed by Capuana, De Roberto, Pirandello and Sciascia, among others. For Guarrera, the final stage of this tradition is represented by Vincenzo Consolo, who is able to combine these two aspects of the Sicilian tradition: the “learned” written and the “popular” oral (Guarrera 1996, p. 14). From Verga, through Pirandello and Sciascia, to Consolo and Bufalino, one can therefore detect, despite their different styles, a common stile della voce [style of the voice], better defined as a writing style that conveys l’illusione del parlato or the illusion of speech (Guarrera 1996, p. 10).

Since the 1960s, the longstanding Italian debate on literary language [la questione della Lingua] has shifted beyond the “traditional” binary model of spoken versus written, towards a gradation, a continuum of parlati and scritti and for the scholar Marina Spunta, this present multifaceted notion of orality “is the result of a long tradition of literary orality, ranging from more mimetic to more expressionistic uses, which finds in the ‘Sicilian line’ one of the most vibrant examples” (Spunta 2004, p. 298). I will argue that Camilleri is the latest representative of this long tradition of literary orality.

Camilleri’s Gialli: Their Style and the Sicilian Tradition

Over the past twenty years, Andrea Camilleri has been recognised both through the widespread success of his detective stories featuring police inspector Salvo Montalbano and through important literary awards. He has gained great popularity by giving a very vivid representation of Sicily and Sicilians in a series of historic novels and detective stories set in his fictional Sicilian town of Vigàta. These gialli[4] have been translated into more than thirty languages and have been made into an extremely popular television series[5] which has gained millions of followers in many European countries, in the United States, and in Australia.

Camilleri’s gialli appear to be inspired by real criminal events or historical facts and show a high level of engagement with social or political issues and, through the ever-present comic register full of ironic comments, there is an evident political comment. In the novels of the Montalbano series, Camilleri often mentions other Italian or European crime writers, such us Sciascia or the Spaniard Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and the Belgian Georges Simenon, with whom he shares his “militant attitude towards literature” (Pezzotti 2014, pp. 150-151). In line with a widespread current trend Camilleri, like other writers from France, Iceland, and Sweden, produces a “local” crime fiction with police procedurals at its centre. Characters like Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano, as well as Fred Vargas’s Parisian Chief Inspector Adamsberg, Arnaldur Indriadason’s Inspector Erlandur or Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander, give an insight into the police systems and cultures of different countries (Worthington 2011, p. 70). With regards to Italy, this “local” or “regional” perspective in crime fiction has been investigated by Barbara Pezzotti (2012), who presents a variety of writers who, through crime fiction, express their personal view and the “local” voice of a particular Italian city or region. Together with Andrea Camilleri, writers such as Piero Colaprico (b. 1957), Massimo Siviero (b. 1942) and Carlo Lucarelli (b. 1960), in Milan Naples and Bologna respectively, along with several others discussed in Pezzotti’s book, symbolise a kind of tessera [piece of a puzzle] in the elaborate Italian cultural mosaic.

In this cultural mosaic, Camilleri has been recognised as one of the most important proponents of an original literary style and has received honorary degrees from various universities in Italy and abroad, as well as the International Dagger, the highest foreign honour of the British Crime Writers’ Association. In 2012 the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Urbino awarded him with a Laurea Honoris Causa, whose motivation appears to be very relevant for my discussion, stating that:

Camilleri rightfully ranks amongst the great writers of his land: Verga, Pirandello, Sciascia and Vittorini. Always committed to seeking a “true” language with which he can convey the atmosphere and cultural variety of Sicily, he creates a sort of written orality or oral literature which forces the reader into confronting sounds and expressions that are not always immediately interpreted by someone who comes from elsewhere, but are rich in history and identity that perhaps only in this way can be transmitted with authenticity. (Università degli Studi di Urbino Carlo Bo n.d.)

This statement acknowledges the important role of Camilleri’s style, which is the first and most recognisable element of his sicilianità. His use of language can be broadly defined as a playful blending of standard Italian and the Sicilian dialect spoken in his native town of Porto Empedocle, with a mostly invented Sicilianised Italian and Italianised Sicilian. On the basis of this highly engaging style Camilleri has been recognised as having a strong Sicilian identity as a novelist. This style has also generated much debate between enthusiastic followers and detractors of Camilleri’s stories. Amongst the followers it has been defined “a mixed language at times plunged in the belly of the dialect” (Onofri 1995, p. 239), neo-standard Italian (Vizmuller-Zocco 2001a, p. 39), or a scrittura parlata [spoken writing] (Lo Piparo 2015, p. 39), and De Mauro, quoting Camilleri,[6] defines him a “trapeze artist in the Italian literary and linguistic circus” (2015, p. 19). Camilleri’s language has also been strongly criticised, considered “a folkloristic Sicilian dialect expressing a reassuring Sicily, the way northern Italian readers would imagine it” (Collura 1998). Jana Vizmuller-Zocco disagrees and emphasises that the negative comments expressed in Italy come from “an intellectual elite, very far from the masses” that tends to snub a successful author who reaches great popularity with a literary genre, crime fiction, considered “low” literature (2001b, pp. 35, 37).

The early development of Camilleri’s literary style was strongly influenced by Luigi Pirandello. When in 1967 Camilleri was starting out as a writer, he puzzled a great deal over the “appropriateness” of his writing style, which mixed standard Italian and Sicilian dialect. Pirandello, in one of his essays on theatre in Sicilian dialect, argued that by using standard Italian an author can express concepts, and by using the Sicilian dialect, he can express sentiments. This idea gave Camilleri the confidence to continue writing using his literary style, which for him was the only possible way to tell a story (Camilleri 2007, p. 19). In this regard, as a literary model for his writing style, Camilleri refers to Pirandello’s 1920 translation, from Italian into Sicilian, of the play Cyclops by Euripides. Pirandello uses three parlate siciliane [different varieties of Sicilian], the combination of which is very funny and entertaining: the chief of day labourers, Silenus, speaks like a mafioso, a variety of Sicilian full of mezze parole [half-words], expressions used to create uncertainty and open to different interpretations; the cyclops speaks like a Sicilian farmer, using words that are not easily understood by the middle class; Odysseus tries, or “pretends” to speak standard Italian but uses instead a kind of hybrid form between Sicilian and Italian. This, for Camilleri, was the language of the pupari who told their stories using this funny mixture of Italianised Sicilian and Sicilianised Italian, the so-called taliàno which inspired him when he created the character of Catarella in the Montalbano series (Camilleri and De Mauro 2013, pp. 80-81). This aspect will be discussed in the second part of this article.

Camilleri is a writer who, with his style, wants to portray Sicilians and Sicilian realism and belongs, like Verga and Pirandello, to the category of scrittori con lo stile di cose [writers with the style of things] not of scrittori con stile di parole [writers with the style of words] (Camilleri and De Mauro 2013, p. 80). It means, as pointed out by Pirandello in a speech in honour of Verga, that for some writers a word always expresses the cosa, the object or reality. For other writers, the word refers only partially to the cosa because it is skilfully and artificially used as an ornament and therefore fails to represent reality authentically (Pirandello, in Lo Vecchio-Musti 1960, p. 392). For Camilleri the use of dialect or of a particular Sicilian parlata or way of speaking becomes essential in his representation of Sicilians and Sicilian reality. From the stile di parole and stile di cose, there could be a further progressive identification of many Sicilian writers as proponents of a stile della voce [style of the voice] of which, as I argue here, Camilleri is the most recent and internationally acclaimed representative. With this notion, Camilleri’s presence in the literary context could be better understood and examined against a much broader background and, as a starting point for the discussion on Camilleri’s style, it appears significant to consider how he defines himself:

I am not a cult or a niche writer. I am a contastorie who with his stories wants to reach as many people as possible. Once, the contastorie travelled from square to square and recounted a news story that was represented on a bed-sheet. As he moved thorough the story, the man would indicate the most important moments with a stick and at the end he would take off his hat and move through the audience: the more coins he collected the more the story had been appreciated… (

He is often wrongly quoted and called cantastorie [singer-storyteller], to which he replies: “Contastorie with an o not with an a”. But, what is the difference? In order to discuss the “orality” of Camilleri’s literary style and his sicilianness, it is important to explore the world of the Sicilian oral tradition of contastorie [storytellers], cantastorie [singer-storytellers] and pupari [puppeteers], which seems to have given Camilleri his identity as a writer.

In the past, itinerant Sicilian storytellers or contastorie (Italianised form of the Sicilian cuntastorie from the Sicilian verb cuntari, to recount) travelled from town to town reciting various spoken texts, the cuntu [story]. The stories were taken from popular tradition, episodes of chivalric literature inspired by French epic literature, parts of operas translated into Sicilian, and contemporary chronicles in the form of ballads. In their tales, they combined Sicilian dialect with some Italian and employed various techniques, such as rhythm, enunciation, acting out characters, and singing. Their performances were extremely expressive and vividly engaging for their audiences who were kept in a state of suspension of time and reality. At the end of the performance the storytellers would collect money and would sometimes give the audience a synopsis copied on a sheet of paper. The distribution of these flyers became very common after the invention of the printing press.

The contastorie followed the long tradition of troubadours who in Europe specialised in different literary genres: the Chanson de geste in France, Cantares de gesta in Spain, the northern epic tales of Kalevala in Finland, the Byline in Russia. In Sicily cantastorie appear in the fourteenth century. Along with contastorie, they would usually perform during religious festivities such as Christmas and Easter and at fairs. In the same period the puparo [puppeteer] also emerged and inherited the repertoire of the contastorie. Very often a contastorie was a would-be puparo who did not have the financial ability to build a puppet theatre or Teatro dei pupi. The most recognisable and entertaining feature of the texts recited by storytellers and puppeteers was the mixture of Sicilian dialect and “standard” Italian used when narrating or in the dialogues of the characters. For the contastorie Camilleri it appears to be vital to draw his sicilianità and art of storytelling from this ancient tradition. This aspect opens the fascinating possibility of investigating further and more deeply his rich and complex written orality while gaining at the same time a different literary perspective since, as argued by Areti Dragas, contemporary fiction has recently seen the return of the figure of the storyteller who “is most often conceived of as the progenitor of an oral tradition significantly different to the literary tradition, and as a result has been rendered voiceless within academic responses to the novel” (Dragas 2014, p. 1).

Sicilianità and Illusione del Parlato in Camilleri’s Montalbano Stories

Since the publication of his first giallo of the Montalbano series, La forma dell’acqua (1994, translated as The Shape of Water, 2003) Camilleri has shown, more and more confidently, his ability to entertain his readers making use of his funny, literary language, vigatese. With this style he expresses all his enjoyment in narrating a story using the voice of a Sicilian contastorie. This voice can be heard immediately, in the opening of the novels, and it is noteworthy to highlight the way in which Camilleri’s vigatese evolves because, by gaining greater appreciation from his readers, he has been able to make more use of it in more recent novels. For example, the opening of La forma dell’acqua is predominantly in Italian with a few Sicilian or Italianised Sicilian words whose presence, nevertheless, conveys the author’s sicilianità:

Lume d’alba non filtrava nel cortiglio della “Splendor”, la società che aveva in appalto la nettezza urbana di Vigàta, una nuvolaglia bassa e densa cummigliava completamente il cielo come se fosse stato tirato un telone grigio da cornicione a cornicione, foglia non si cataminava, il vento di scirocco tardava ad arrisbigliarsi dal suo sonno piombigno, già si faticava a scangiare parole. (Camilleri, La forma dell’acqua, p. 9)

No light of daybreak filtered yet into the courtyard of Splendour, the company under government contract to collect trash in the town of Vigàta. A low, dense mass of clouds completely covered the sky as though a great grey tarpaulin had been drawn from one corner to another. Not a single leaf fluttered. The scirocco was late to rise from its leaden sleep, yet people already struggled to exchange a few words. (The Shape of Water, 2003, p. 3)

The word cortiglio, Italianised form of the Sicilian curtigghiu, in Italian cortile [courtyard], marks the presence of a Sicilian narrator who continues in Italian with the exception of the use of Sicilian verbs such as cummigliava, non si cataminava, arrisbigliarsi, Italianised Sicilian scangiare, and the hybrid Sicilian-Italian adjective piombigno. Also interesting is the fact that the voice of the narrator continues in the following pages predominantly in standard Italian with occasional Sicilian expressions. In contrast, in the opening of the novel Il sorriso d’Angelica (2010, translated as Angelica’s Smile, 2013) the use of this style is already much more distinct, with Sicilian or Italianised Sicilian words predominating. The confidence and enjoyment of the author, who now uses this style continuously to narrate the story, are also more evident:

S’arrisbigliò subitaneo e si susì a mezzo con l’occhi prontamente aperti pirchì aviva di sicuro sintuto a qualichiduno che aviva appena appena finuto di parlari dintra alla sò cammara di letto. E dato che era sulo ’n casa, s’allarmò. Po’ gli vinni d’arridiri, pirchì s’arricordò che Livia era arrivata a Marinella la sira avanti, all’improvviso, per farigli ’na sorpresa, graditissima almeno al principio, e ora dormiva della bella allato di lui. (Camilleri, Il sorriso d’Angelica, p. 9)

He awoke with a start and sat up in bed, eyes already open. He was sure he’d heard someone talking in his bedroom. And since he was alone in the house, he was alarmed. Then he started laughing, having remembered that Livia had arrived unannounced at his place that evening. The surprise visit had pleased him immensely, at least at first. And there she was now, sleeping soundly beside him. (Angelica’s Smile, 2013, p. 1)

In this passage the reader is immediately immersed in Camilleri’s distinctive sicilianità, a sort of humorous game of cleverly chosen Sicilian verbs and a playful mixture of a very personal Sicilian-Italian lexicon and syntax: a game based on a crafty use of code-switching and code- mixing between Italian and Sicilian (Longo 2003, pp. 41-42). In the whole passage there are only three Italian verbs: era, era arrivata and dormiva but they are included in phrases that are predominantly Sicilian. In the first sentence for instance, there are two Sicilian reflexive verbs s’arrisbigliò and si susì instead of the Italian si svegliò and si alzò, and Sicilian verbs aviva sintutu and aviva finutu, instead of aveva sentito and aveva finito. The opening, with the use of the Italian adjective subitaneo to describe the Sicilian verb s’arrisbigliò, not only engages the reader because it is weirdly funny, but also highlights the intention of the author to narrate using the voice of an uneducated Sicilian storyteller. This passage, with its rhythm, humour and playfulness given by the careful selection and balance of Sicilian, Italian or Italianised Sicilian words, gives the illusione del parlato with which the author immediately involves the reader, who is now intrigued and ready to follow the story. Unfortunately, the sicilianità, humour and playfulness conveyed by these opening lines seem to be lost in the English translation.[7]

This is the now consolidated style with which, as will be discussed further on, the storyteller Camilleri enjoys conveying a sense of authenticity and Sicilian flavour. In this regard, another important aspect is that if a non-Sicilian reader had encountered this second passage in one of the early novels s/he would have had enormous difficulties in understanding it. Camilleri has the merit of having given his readers gradually, novel after novel, a sense of familiarity with this style, always conveying the meaning of Sicilian expressions by contextualising them or with brief explanations. Little by little, non-Sicilian readers have learnt Camilleri’s language and have followed him since the publication of his very first novel.[8]

Camilleri has achieved what he now considers his own style, the equivalent of the musician’s personal “sound”, which for him is based on an harmonious alternation of different rhythms, with pauses, acceleration and slowing down. This is what he calls il respiro di un romanzo [the breath of a novel] (Camilleri and De Mauro, p. 94). In fact, he considered his early writing in standard Italian to have a respiro corto [short breath]. He found that the difficulty was to write a novel over a long period of time: the day after an interruption he was unable to find the same tone he was using the day before (p. 74). He eventually found his “voice” by consolidating the use of his invented literary language, vigatese. He starts first from a solid structure of the novel in Italian and after that he “composes”, page after page, like in a musical score, using the contrast of sounds created by words in Italian and in Sicilian dialect (p. 77). He achieves the final result by assessing the “sound” of the page (p. 79), by reading aloud what he has written, “in order to obtain a uniform mixture, where it is no longer possible to recognise the structural effort that lies behind it. The result must have the consistency of dough, ready to become bread” (Camilleri and De Mauro, p. 77).  

Mixed in the “dough”, as already mentioned, the reader also finds the funny, colourful language of the pupari [puppeteers], the so-called taliàno that inspired Camilleri in the creation of the character Catarella. Catarella’s language, with all the misinterpretations it creates, is used to generate comic gags and shows all Camilleri’s playfulness as he elaborates and enriches the hybrid language he remembers from his childhood when he attended performances at the Opera dei pupi [Sicilian puppet theatre] (Bonina n.d.). The police officer Catarella is a simple man, clumsy and semiliterate, but also emotional, compassionate and good-hearted. His first language is Sicilian and perhaps he has been exposed to standard (bureaucratic) Italian only when he joined the police. He answers the phone at the police station, a job his supervisors gave him “mistakenly thinking he could do less damage there than anywhere else” (The Voice of the Violin, p. 4). Many of the Montalbano stories begin with an early morning phone call from Catarella to the Inspector, who very often misunderstands the garbled content. Catarella’s taliàno is full of personal interpretations and distortions of the Italian language, as in informaticcia, a nonsense word in place of informatica [information technology]. Comic effects and misunderstandings are created when Catarella changes the family names of people the Inspector has to meet or names of cities: Mr Piritone (“big fart” in Sicilian) instead of Mr Pipitone, Florida instead of Floridia (a town near Syracuse). In the novel Una lama di luce (2012, translated as A Blade of Light, 2015) Montalbano has hallucinations and thinks that Catarella is speaking to him in Latin. The Inspector has given up and does not try to correct Catarella’s taliàno anymore and in order to communicate with him more effectively, he learns and uses Catarella’s strange colourful language.

Together with the voice of a contastorie, as seen above, or the use of Catarella’s language inspired by Sicilian puppeteers, numerous references to Sicilian puppets and puppeteers (pupi, pupari) are found in the Montalbano novels. This is another sign of a distinctive sicilianità and Camilleri’s affection for this particular aspect of the island’s oral tradition. For example, at the end of Il campo del vasaio (2008, translated as The Potter’s Field, 2011) Montalbano reflects on what his girlfriend Livia once said to him, asking him if he believed he was God and accusing him of always manipulating people and facts. The Inspector has reached the sad conclusion that he is not God, not even a fourth-rate one, “ma sulo il poviro puparo di ’na mischina opira dei pupi. Un puparo che s’arrabbattava a fari funzionari la rappresentazioni come meglio putiva e sapiva” (p. 166; “but only the poor puppeteer of a wretched puppet theatre. A puppeteer who struggled to bring off the performances as best he knew how”, p. 288). With the metaphor of the puppet theatre Camilleri here, through the voice of his Inspector, relates Montalbano’s investigations to a performance of a poor, tired, would-be puparo who cannot manage his performances and worthless puppet theatre anymore. In La pazienza del ragno (2004, p. 115; trans. The Patience of the Spider, 2007, p. 190) Montalbano realises that he and Inspector Minutolo have been manipulated like puppets in a performance skilfully produced by other puppeteers.

Another evident element in Camilleri’s storytelling is his fondness – perhaps due to his own puppeteer’s disposition – for presenting his stories as if on a stage on which he humorously and competently “directs” his characters. With his language, his comic flair and his use of ironic references to theatre and staging he gives his stories an evident theatricality, as in the following excerpt from his third novel Il ladro di merendine (1996, trans. The Snack Thief, 2003).  

Alle sette e mezzo di sira, come a un segnale convenuto, non ci fu balcone o finestra della parte del casamento dove c’era il portone d’ingresso che restasse senza gente a taliàre il rientro della signora Palmisano Antonietta, ancora ignara d’esser vedova Lapecora. Lo spettacolo si sarebbe diviso in due parti. [...]

[La] prima parte era indispensabile per godersi meglio la seconda (con rapido spostamento degli spettatori da finestre e balconi a pianerottoli): al sentire dall’agente di guardia la ragione per la quale non poteva trasìre nel suo appartamento, l’ormai vedova Lapecora avrebbe principiato a fare come una maria, strappandosi i capelli, facendo voci, dandosi manate sul petto, invano trattenuta da condolenti prontamente accorsi.

Lo spettacolo non ebbe luogo. ( Il ladro di merendine, pp. 28-29)

At seven-thirty that evening, as if on cue, every single balcony or window on the same side of the building as the main entrance was full of people looking out for the return of Signora Antonietta, who still didn’t know she’d become a widow. The show was going to be in two parts. […]

[The] first part was indispensable to a full appreciation of the second (for which the spectators would move quickly away from balconies and windows and onto landings and stairwells): upon hearing from the officer on duty why she couldn’t enter her apartment, the widow, now apprised of her widowhood, would begin behaving like the Virgin Mary, tearing out her hair, crying out, beating her breast while being ineffectually restrained by fellow mourners who in the meantime would have promptly come to her aid.

The show never took place. (The Snack Thief, 2003, p. 39)

Here, the streets of Vigàta become the theatre, where characters and spectators convene in order to attend the performance.

Camilleri is also, often referred to as a tragediatore. According to Nino Borsellino, tragediatore is part of the nature of all Sicilians, who, in search of their personal identity, amongst many “Sicilies” and many Sicilians, tend to represent their found identity in excess, by continually wearing costumes and masks, and for him Camilleri’s works regenerate a sort of Pirandellian, humoristic staging (2004, p. 48). This is also Massimo Onofri’s view (1995, p. 239): “Sicilians are tragediatori because they tend to confuse life and theatre”. For Nunzio La Fauci (2004, p. 161), tragediatore is Camilleri’s main narrative function, making him, at the same time, the narrator and the leading character of every story since, as a narrator, he is always present and expressive with his language in every page. This narrator does not wear the traditional clothes of the writer (p. 162), but those of a witty patriarch or a grandfather who involves his readers by winking at them (p. 167).

Inspector Montalbano himself is a tragediatore that is “a person who organizes practical jokes and fakes stupidity, sadness, or outrage in order to escape embarrassing or difficult situations” (Pezzotti, 2012, p. 131). Montalbano is able to fare teatro [to wear masks or to act out a character], to impersonate a “character” when he needs to. This, of course, involves also telling lots of farfantarìe [lies] in order to comply with the “parts” he has to play with his girlfriend Livia or with the police commissioner Bonetti-Alderighi, with whom he pretends to be stupid or humble, as well as with other characters (Pezzotti, 2012, pp. 131-132). For instance, in Il ladro di merendine (1996, translated as The Snack Thief, 2003), Montalbano, at the end of his investigations, has uncovered obscure manipulations of events made by the Italian secret services. Now he does not want the police commissioner, who is about to retire and for whom Montalbano has great admiration,[9] to find himself implicated too deeply in that murky affair. When asked about a detail of the investigation, Montalbano lies and then laughs, a laugh, rehearsed in front of the mirror the night before (Il ladro di merendine, 1996, p. 142; The Snack Thief, 2003, p. 237), in a performance which allows him to protect his superior.

The notion of Camilleri tragediatore, who narrates while “winking” at his readers, is also closely connected to the notions of the author Camilleri who, as a narrator, impersonates a witty Sicilian contastorie or a puparo. In conclusion, it can be said that they are different impersonations of the same author’s voice which, through its written orality, ultimately embodies Camilleri’s sicilianità. Camilleri’s style of storytelling in his gialli is steeped in the Sicilian oral tradition of storytellers and puppeteers. His written orality, his vigatese, echoes the long tradition of Sicilian literary sicilianità, started by Giovanni Verga and based on his realism and linguistic experimentalism. Camilleri’s approach to storytelling can therefore be considered a recent example of a literary style based on lo stile della voce [the style of the voice], a kind of oral literature with which the author can convey l’illusione del parlato [the illusion of speech]. This style gives his gialli a unique quality because, as Lo Piparo (2015) argues, Camilleri’s stories “are written in order to be listened to. The author uses his pen like the contastorie utilised his pedestal: so that the narrator’s voice can be heard better. During the reading the reader becomes a listener” (p. 39).

The impression that the readers of Camilleri’s gialli become an “audience”, gives his crime fiction a fascinating dimension: the dimension of an invented place or theatre, Vigàta, a virtual Sicilian piazza in which the engaging and entertaining voice of a contastorie or a puparo, can be still heard and appreciated.



Bonina, G n.d., ‘Camilleri: come nasce una nuova lingua’, Accessed 17 February 2016

Borsellino, N 2004, ‘Teatri siciliani della storia. Da Sciascia a Camilleri’, in A. Buttitta (ed.), Il caso Camilleri – Letteratura e storia, Sellerio, Palermo, pp. 48-53.

Camilleri, A 1994, La forma dell’acqua, Sellerio, Palermo. (Translated by Stephen Sartarelli, 2002, as The Shape of Water, Picador, London.)

Camilleri, A 1996, Il ladro di merendine, Sellerio, Palermo. Translated by Stephen Sartarelli, 2003, as The Snack Thief, Picador, London.)

Camilleri, A 1997a, La voce del violino, Sellerio, Palermo. (Translated by Stephen Sartarelli, 2003, as The Voice of the Violin, Picador, London.)

Camilleri, A 1997b, Un filo di fumo, Sellerio, Palermo.

Camilleri, A 2004, La pazienza del ragno, Sellerio, Palermo. (Translated by Stephen Sartarelli, 2007, as The Patience of the Spider, Picador, London.)

Camilleri, A 2007, Pagine scelte di Luigi Pirandello, BUR, Milan.

Camilleri, A 2008, Il campo del vasaio, Palermo: Sellerio.  Translated by Stephen Sartarelli, as 2011, The Potter’s Field, London: Picador.

Camilleri, A 2010, Il sorriso d’Angelica, Sellerio, Palermo. (Translated by Stephen Sartarelli, 2014, as Angelica’s Smile, Mantle, London.)

Camilleri, A 2012, Una lama di luce, Palermo: Sellerio. Translated by Stephen Sartarelli, as 2015, A Blade of Light, London: Mantle.

Camilleri, A & De Mauro, T 2013, La lingua batte dove il dente duole, Laterza, Rome and Bari.

Camilleri Fans Club n.d., ‘Nella coppola di Camilleri’, Il Carabiniere, Accessed 31 March 2016

Clemente, A 2015, ‘Cuntastorie e cantastorie’, Accessed 31 March 2016 e Cantastorie.htm

Collura, M 1998, ‘Via col blues palermitano’, Corriere della sera, 1 November,

Dainotto, R 2001, ‘The Importance of Being Sicilian’, in G. Parati & B. Lawton (eds.), Italian Cultural Studies, Bordighera Press, Boca Raton.

De Mauro, T 2015, ‘L’“accipe” e il colibrì: linguaggio ed ethos in Andrea Camilleri,’ in S.S. Nigro (ed.), Gran Teatro Camilleri, Sellerio, Palermo, pp. 19-31.

Dragas, A 2014, The Return of the Storyteller in Contemporary Fiction, Bloomsbury, London.

Farrell, J 2000, ‘The Things That Make Sicily, Sicily: Consideration on Sicilian Identity’, in G. Bedani & B. Haddock, The Politics of Italian National Identity – A Multidisciplinary Perspective, University of Cardiff Press, Cardiff, pp. 72-97.

Guarrera, C 1996, Lo stile della voce, Mimesi del parlato da Verga a Consolo, Sicania, Messina.

Gutkowski, E 2009, Does the Night Smell the Same in Italy and in English Speaking Countries? An Essay on Translation: Camilleri in English, Ilion Books, Enna.

La Fauci, N 2004, ‘L’allotropia del tragediatore’, in A. Buttitta (ed.) Il caso Camilleri – Letteratura e storia, Sellerio, Palermo, pp. 161-176.

Lombardo, L 2006, ‘Cantastorie, cuntastorie e poeti popolari di tradizione in Sicilia’, Accessed 31 March 2016, Éthnos. Quaderno di etnologia – Centro Studi di Tradizioni Popolari “Turiddu Bella”, vol. 6

Longo, A 2003, Il plurilinguismo del “contastorie” Andrea Camilleri, Disssertation, Università Degli Studi di Roma “La Sapienza”, Accessed 10 March 2016, http:/

Lo Piparo, F 2015, ‘La lunga durata della lingua di Camilleri,’ in S.S. Nigro (ed.), Gran Teatro Camilleri, Sellerio, Palermo, pp. 32-41.

McRae, E 2011, Translation of the Sicilianità in the Fictional Languages of Giovanni Verga and Andrea Camilleri, Ph.D thesis, The University of Auckland, Accessed 16 February 2016,

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Pezzotti, B 2014, Politics and Society in Italian Crime Fiction: An Historical Overview, McFarland, North Carolina.

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[1]  Gialli, the plural form of the term giallo (yellow), is commonly used in Italy to refer to crime or mystery novels. The term has been used since 1929 following the publication of the crime fiction series I Gialli Mondadori [Mondadori’s yellow books], by the publisher Arnoldo Mondadori Editori, whose covers had a distinctive yellow background. 

[2]   All translations from Italian are mine unless indicated otherwise.

[3]   The echoes of this failure appear in Sicilian narrative with novels such as Pirandello’s I vecchi e i giovani (1913, translated as The Old and The Young), De Roberto’s I Vicerè (1894, translated as The Viceroys),Tomasi’s Il Gattopardo (1958, translated as The Leopard), Sciascia’s Il quarantotto (1958, translated as 1848) and Vincenzo Consolo’s Il sorriso dell’ignoto marinaio (1976, translated as The Smile of the Unknown Mariner) (Sciascia and Guglielmino, p. 487).    

[4]   The novels of the Montalbano series are: La forma dell’acqua (1994, translated as The Shape of Water, 2002 ); Il cane di terracotta (1996, translated as The Terracotta Dog, 2002); Il ladro di merendine (1996, trans. The Snack Thief, 2003); La voce del violino (1997, trans. The Voice of the Violin, 2003); La gita a Tindari (2000, trans. Excursion to Tindari, 2005); L’odore della notte (2001, trans. The Scent of the Night, 2005); Il giro di boa (2003, trans. Rounding the Mark, 2006); La pazienza del ragno (2004, trans. The Patience of the Spider, 2007); La luna di carta (2005, trans. The Paper Moon, 2008); La vampa d’agosto (2006, trans. August Heat, 2009); Le ali della sfinge (2006, trans. The Wings of the Sphinx, 2009); La pista di sabbia (2007, trans. The Track of Sand, 2010); Il campo del vasaio (2008, trans. The Potter’s Field, 2011); L’età del dubbio (2008, trans. The Age of Doubt, 2012); La danza del gabbiano (2009, trans. The Dance of the Seagull, 2013); La caccia al tesoro (2010, trans. The Treasure Hunt, 2013); Il sorriso di Angelica (2010, trans. Angelica’s Smile, 2014); Il gioco degli specchi (2011, trans. Game of Mirrors, 2015); Una lama di luce (2012, trans. Blade of Light, 2015); Una voce di notte (2012); Un covo di vipere (2013); La piramide di fango (2014); La giostra degli scambi (2015). More information about Camilleri and his works can be found at and

[5]   In 1999 the production company Palomar and RAI’s production group Cinemafiction, with the cooperation of Swedish Sveriges Television started production of the TV drama Il commissario Montalbano, adapted from Camilleri’s novels. In Australia, SBS has subtitled and aired the series since 2001 with the title Inspector Montalbano (Rinaldi 2012, pp. 52-54). Between 1999 and 2013 RAI produced and aired nine series for a total of 26 episodes. Director Alberto Sironi has directed the series with a cast that includes Roman actor Luca Zingaretti in the title role of Inspector Salvo Montalbano. 

[6] Camilleri defines himself a trapeze artist, meaning that his literary language is not improvised, written currenti calamo, but carefully thought and practised. Like a trapeze artist performing apparently effortlessly, smiling without showing any sign of fatigue, similarly his writing is perceived as being light and effortless: a sweated lightness. (De Mauro 2015, p. 19) 

[7]   In her PhD thesis Translation of the Sicilianità in the Fictional Languages of Giovanni Verga and Andrea Camilleri, Ellen McRae presents a very interesting analysis on the flaws of the English translation of Camilleri’s novels. Also noteworthy is Emanuela Gutkowski’s 2009 book, in which she discusses the linguistic challenges and choices in the translation of Camilleri’s 2001 novel L’odore della notte (The Scent of the Night, 2005).

[8]   It is also worth noting that when Garzanti decided, in 1980, to publish Camilleri’s first historic novel Un filo di fumo, set in Vigàta in 1890s, the publisher asked the author to provide a Sicilian-Italian glossary in order to resolve the anticipated difficulties of non-Sicilian readers. When the novel was reprinted by Sellerio in 1997, Camilleri and the publisher decided to leave the glossary in, because, although now superfluous, it was entertaining (Camilleri 1997b, p. 123).

[9]   The new commissioner, the pompous Luca Bonetti-Alderighi, marquis of Villabella, very much disliked by Montalbano, replaces the commissioner Burlando in the next novel, La voce del violino (1997, translated as The Voice of the Violin, 2003). He is presented as […] un giovane e scattante bergamasco che era riuscito, in un mese, a crearsi dovunque antipatìe da coltello (La voce del violino, p. 13).“a young and testy native of Bergamo who in the course of one month had succeeded in creating knife-blade antipathies all around him” (The Voice of the Violin, pp. 12-13).


Emilio Lomonaco worked as a geologist in Italy before migrating to Australia in 1992. He teaches Italian at Macquarie University, where he is also enrolled in a PhD, focusing on the Sicilian oral tradition in Camilleri’s Montalbano novels. His other research interests include the tradition of Sicilian storytellers (cuntastorie) and singer-storytellers (cantastorie); the traditional popular culture in Sicily with reference to poet Ignazio Buttitta; folk singer Rosa Balistreri; Sicilian authors such as Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello and Leonardo Sciascia; and Italian cinema.


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The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 2 No 1 2016
Editors: Barbara Pezzotti and Brigid Maher