Grim Determination

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By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com
Monday, October 16, 2006

DEATH'S DARK ABYSS

By Massimo Carlotto

Translated from the Italian by Lawrence Venuti

Europa. 152 pp. Paperback, $14.95

As a 19-year-old left-wing political activist, the Italian novelist Massimo Carlotto was accused of stabbing a woman to death. He insisted that he had only found her body and summoned the police, but he was convicted of murder, whereupon he fled to France, then Mexico City. Eventually he returned to Italy and served seven years in prison while his case was appealed and a coalition of writers and leftists carried out an international campaign on his behalf. He was later pardoned by the president of Italy. As a free man, he proceeded to become one of that nation's best crime writers, a leader in the school that is often referred to as Mediterranean noir but that he prefers to call "the literature of reality." All his novels, Carlotto says, are based on real crimes, real murders and real life.

He writes a popular series about a hard-drinking private investigator who calls himself "the Alligator," but "Death's Dark Abyss" is not part of that series. It is, rather, a raw, extremely dark portrait of a crime and its aftermath. In a prologue, set in a northeastern Italian city, a coked-up criminal named Raffaello Beggiato and his unnamed partner rob a jewelry store. Police are summoned, and the thieves try to escape by commandeering a car containing a woman and her son. A shootout ensues, and Beggiato, more or less by accident, shoots and kills both the woman and the child. He is captured, but his partner escapes. At his trial, he refuses to name the partner and is sentenced to life in prison.

We move forward 15 years. The rest of the novel is told in alternating chapters by Beggiato and by Silvano Contin, husband and father of the dead woman and boy. Silvano's once-happy life has been ruined: "I loved her body and her joie de vivre. Enrico arrived three years later. A sweet, carefree kid." Unable to continue as a jovial, glad-handing wine salesman, he now operates a shoe-repair shop. He is haunted by his wife's dying words: "Everything's gone dark, Silvano. I can't see anymore. I'm scared, scared, help me, it's so dark." Friendless, Silvano goes home at night to watch television, eat frozen dinners and drink wine that comes in cartons. He has once-a-month sex with the whore who had been Beggiato's girlfriend. It is as brief and ugly as he can make it.

One day he receives a letter from Beggiato's lawyer. The killer has cancer and is seeking a pardon so he will not die in prison. The lawyer asks for forgiveness, but at first Silvano will have none of it. He hopes the killer dies the most wretched death imaginable -- in prison. Then he changes his mind. If Beggiato were freed, he reasons, he would certainly go to the partner who escaped to claim his half of the jewelry that was never recovered. Then the partner could be caught and imprisoned. The fact of his continued freedom is maddening to Silvano.

In the chapters narrated by Beggiato, we find that he's a profane and bitter man who's vaguely sorry about killing the woman and child, but "it's done and over with and I can't do a thing for them now." He views his cancer as a blessing that can win his freedom. If so, he would indeed claim his half of the loot and then flee to Brazil where, if he must die, he can at least die surrounded by good food, wine and all the women his money can buy.

Silvano identifies the escaped partner, now a law-abiding citizen who runs a small shop with his wife. Silvano torments them both in increasingly sadistic ways. He does not want justice but revenge, the more violent and painful the better. His suffering has made him a monster. It is Beggiato, the convicted killer, who when freed shows signs of a humanity that is otherwise all but nonexistent in the novel.

I happened to read "Death's Dark Abyss" just after reading Cormac McCarthy's powerful new novel, "The Road." It's a monumentally bleak portrait of the end of civilization, but McCarthy does offer a faint glimmer of hope at the end. Carlotto does not. At one point, when Silvano is tempted by compassion, he digs out the autopsy photos of his wife and son, "and the hate came back to comfort and reassure me." For Carlotto, hate and revenge trump love and forgiveness every time. His is a nihilistic vision but, if you are drawn to noir, a compelling one.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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