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Review: The Brewer of Preston, by Andrea Camilleri
Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli
Penguin, 2014 [1995]. 245 pp. $15

It’s a measure of how things are in this Sicilian town of Vigàta that when a destructive crime appears to have been carefully planned, the guilty party must be a “foreigner,” someone from Milan or Florence or Rome. The year is 1870, and Italy has just been legally unified for the first time since the Roman Empire, but so what? What matters in this Sicilian town is who’s bribing, cuckolding, murdering, trading back-scratches with, or blackmailing whom. Outsiders, whose sole purpose is to interfere with and impose on what they can’t understand, smell like dirty laundry aired in public and can be scented from miles away.

 

Porto Empedocle, Sicily, Camilleri's model for Vigàta (G. Melfi, 2006; via Wikimedia. Public domain)

Porto Empedocle, Sicily, Camilleri’s model for Vigàta, in 2006  (G. Melfi, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain)

 

 

Which is why the Vigàtese know implicitly that one of their own couldn’t possibly have committed the destruction that everyone’s talking about. A local would have struck out of passion, possessed by rage, incapable of cold-blooded planning. Though it may be metaphorically correct to talk of back-stabbing as the way of life here, that’s not quite accurate. It’s much more likely to happen face-to-face.

Consequently, when the new prefect, a “foreigner,” decides to produce a dreadful opera called The Brewer of Preston, he runs into trouble immediately. Nobody in town likes this opera, but the prefect doesn’t care: They’ll attend the performance anyway, because, well, they should know who’s boss. Naturally, the boss is the last one to realize where his heavy-handedness will lead–to the place he’s trying to avoid–or how hilarious, profane, and bloody the result will be.

What enrages the good citizens of Vigàta isn’t only that the jackass prefect is trying to force them to do what they don’t want. It’s the opera itself, which depends on the most ludicrous instances of mistaken identity ever to appear on a stage. After all, so few things in Sicily happen by mistake.

In Vigàta alone, and keeping only to the past three months, Artemidoro Lisca was murdered on a moonless night when he was mistaken for Nirino Contrera; Turiddruzzu Morello married Filippa Mancuso by mistake after deflowering her one night without realizing that she was not her sister Lucia, who had been the one foreordained; Pino Sciacchitano died because his wife mistook rat poison for the tonic her husband took after every meal. And suspicions in the end arose that all these mistakes were actually phony mistakes, not mistakes at all, but only alibis, even deliberate acts.

If this novel has a unifying theme–pun intended–that’s it right there: the complete and utter difficulty of figuring out what happens by accident or on purpose. The chief difference is who, if anyone, suffers legal consequences, but you can be fairly sure that nothing monumental will change.

Coincidence, if that’s what it is, plays a key role. The action hinges partly on how Mommo Friscia chooses to emit one of his famous raspberries, “which had the power, density, and brutality of a devastating earthquake or other natural disaster,” and a soprano who hits the wrong note. But these are mere details, which change in the telling.

That’s both the confusion and charm of this novel. The action unfolds out of order, from perspectives that constantly shift. Just when you think that the more-or-less honest cop, Lieutenant Puglisi, has figured out what happened, events turn that upside-down.

So if you read The Brewer of Preston, don’t approach it as a mystery or a plot with a clear, linear resolution. But do be prepared to laugh hysterically.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.