Saturday, May 14, 2011

In Which I Know Nothing About Opera: A Review of Michael Dibdin's Cosi Fan Tutti

Title: Cosi Fan Tutti
Author: Michael Dibdin
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (1998)
Pages: 247
How I Came By This Book: The library that I work at has a Take-a-Book/Leave-a-Book shelf that I frequently nab things from. I'd never heard of this author or of the Aurelio Zen series but the cover caught my eye (I'm a sucker for fishnets) and the blurb on the back sounded interesting so I picked it up.

Synopsis: In police inspector Aurelio Zen, Michael Dibdin has given the mystery one of its most complex and compelling protagonists: a man wearily trying to enforce the law in a society where the law is constantly being bent. And nowhere in Italy is the law bent more flagrantly than it is in Naples, where a police station may double as an after-hours brothel. But this time, having alienated superiors in all his previous postings, Zen is determined not to make waves.

Too bad an American sailor (who may be neither American nor a sailor) knifes one of his opposite numbers in the harbor, and some local garbage collectors have taken to moonlighting in homicide. And when Zen becomes embroiled in a romantic intrigue involving love-sick gangsters and prostitutes who pass themselves off as Albanian refugees, all Naples comes to resemble the set of the Mozart opera of almost the same title. Bawdy, suspenseful, and splendidly farcical, Cosi Fan Tutti is an irresistible offering from a maestro of mystery.

Review: I came to this book ignorant of two things: the character of Aurelio Zen and the opera Cosi Fan Tutte. Other than Carmen and Madama Butterfly, I really know next to nothing about opera period. So obviously there are parts of this book that were lost to me because I had never seen Mozart's opera. That didn't make the novel any less enjoyable so if it sounds interesting to you, don't be put off if you're not a fan of fat ladies singing.

Cosi Fan Tutti is a fun romp through Naples in the '90s, a time when crime is running rampant and there's not a whole lot going on that isn't somehow tied to the Mafia. In the midst of all this corruption, Aurelio Zen has had it with police bureaucracy and is determined to make himself as scarce as possible when it comes to his new job. He comes into work late (if at all) and tries not to know too much about what's going on at the station. Unfortunately there's a few things keeping him from his dream of being a no-namer in a new city.

First and foremost is the "Clean Streets" movement, a group of apparent garbage collectors who are assassinating prominent but corrupt figures in Naples. While that case is not under his jurisdiction, a fake American sailor kills a real Italian sailor, dragging him into an absurd case that brings him dangerously close to the alleged terrorist organization. To top it all off, a wealthy widow wants him to help her split her daughters and their beloveds up, thinking the two men to be vicious gangsters who will bring her precious babies no end of trouble. This leads him to employ a cab driver with questionable contacts, two fake Albanian prostitutes, and a wannabe gangster turned wannabe pimp. Plus, it seems like Aurelio is being followed.

This whole book is a case of mistaken identity. At times it was hard to keep up with all the changing names and identities, but for the most part it was fairly simple despite the complex plot. The chapters are titled in Italian--taken directly from the libretto for Cosi Fan Tutte--but are, thankfully, translated in the table of contents. It gives the book an extra something, as does the opening chapter which likens the beginning of the day on a street in Naples to the beginning of an opera. The characters are interesting, although no one shines quite like Aurelio Zen.

Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen in the BBC series, Zen.

I didn't expect to like him as much as I did. There's just something about a reluctant cop that really pulls me in. From what I gathered from the novel, he didn't used to be that way. In fact, he was somewhat of a notorious superstar before allowing himself to be demoted to Naples after he got on the bad side of his superiors. I'm really interested now in picking up the rest of the series (there are quite a few books so it'll take me a while to get through them) just to see how he began and how he ends up. Zen is quite funny in an often sarcastic way but the situations he gets himself into are also hilarious.

One of my favorite scenes in the book takes place rather early on. It's a rather lengthy exchange involving Aurelio, his second in command, Caputo, and the Questore of Naples' police department. Zen, who has no idea what's been going on with the case against the "American" "sailor" is on the phone with the Questore, who is quite angry with him. Caputo is feeding Zen information through mime and the following occurs:

"Caputo stood on the other side of the desk, his arm thrust forward, holding up three fingers.

'We are working on three main theories at the moment,' Zen replied evenly. 'The first is that the perpetrator...'

He glanced at Caputo, who was waddling bow-legged around the room with his hands clutched like claws beside his hips.

'...was a cowboy,' concluded Zen.

'A what?'

Caputo shook his head furiously. Zen covered the mouthpiece of the phone.

'An American!' hissed Caputo,

'...that he was an American,' Zen told the Questore." (p. 21)

Michael Dibdin is a man who can keep track of his subplots. The way this book twists and turns is probably not unlike the winding streets of Naples, which act as the setting for the majority of the novel. Dibdin describes things in such a way that the city appears to be both beautiful and hideous, both inviting and repulsive. I know practically nothing about Italian politics, but Dibdin apparently does and uses it in such a way that it forms the backdrop of this paperback opera.

The late Michael Dibdin, who died in 2007.

The book frolics along for almost three hundred pages and I was with it until the last, maybe, thirty or so. I wasn't a huge fan of the ending, although I enjoyed the fact that Dibdin created it in such a way that it mirrored an opera's finale. The full ensemble is there and gasp-worthy things are revealed. I think my real issue with the ending was that it was sort of bland. Zen ends up in danger, the case is solved, but there's no real excitement in either situation. It kind of just...resolves itself. And Zen barely does anything, although I guess that sort of plays into his "I-don't-want-to-be-involved-in-anything" mentality.

I was also sort of put off by Valeria Squillace, the woman who asks Zen to help her break up her daughters and their boyfriends. I liked her up until she gives a small speech at the end about how love between a man and a woman is much more real than homosexual love. It's brought on by a small and, in my mind, unneeded plot twist that felt almost offensive to someone in the LGBT community. Squillace's words only added to that feeling of offense, especially since the whole thing came out of left field.

NOTE: Mild rant ahead.

Regardless of what my readers may feel about homosexuals and/or gay marriage, I know for a fact that the love between two people of the same sex is just as real as the love between a man and a woman. My ex's mother and her partner have been together for almost thirty years--and that's without being able to legally get married. In fact, one of the first gay couples married in Massachusetts had been together for over seven decades before they tied the knot! If that isn't love and devotion then I don't know what is.


These little things aren't going to keep me from reading other Aurelio Zen novels. Cosi Fan Tutti was fun and enjoyable and piqued my interest regarding Zen's character. I'm giving the book four out of five Gabriels.

If anyone's interested, BBC1 had a short lived 2011 series called Zen which was based on the first few books in the series. I think I saw somewhere that PBS is thinking of picking the series up and working on a new season but I can't remember where I saw it. I'm sure a Google search will yield some results.


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