Involuntary Witness, which they’ve just republished with a new cover (see left) is the debut novel from one of their lead authors, the Italian one-time anti-mafia prosecutor Gianrico Carofiglio.
The protagonist, in this novel and its sequels, is Guido Guerrieri, a defence lawyer who lives and works in Bari, a coastal town in the Italian region of Puglia (the area usually referred to as “the heel of the boot”). At the beginning of the novel, we find Guido in a bad state: still reeling from the end of his marriage, which has left him unable to concentrate at work and suffering from claustrophobia. When you add the development of a flirtation between Guido and his upstairs neighbour Margherita; and his latest case, involving an African streetseller accused of child murder, you get a pretty good idea of the formula that Carofiglio is working with.
Guido being a lawyer, the driving plot of Involuntary Witness is more courtroom drama than detective story, and Carofiglio is good at getting across the complexities of the Italian justice system as easily and as simply as possible. (There’s also a good running joke about people not expecting or giving receipts.) The best pleasures in the book though come from the details, the way that Guerrieri talks about his past, or explores the world around him. An ex-boxer, this is how he remembers his time in the ring:
Thinking it over, I realized that it had been one of the few solid things in my life. The smell of glove leather, the punches given and taken, the hot shower afterwards, when you discovered that for two whole hours not a single thought had passed through your head.
The fear as you were walking towards the ring, the fear behind your expressionless eyes, behind the expressionless eyes of your opponent. Dancing, jumping, weaving, trying to dodge, giving and taking ’em, with arms so weary you can’t keep your guard up, breathing through your mouth, praying it’ll end because you can’t take it any longer, wanting to punch but being unable to, thinking you don’t care whether you win or lose as long as it ends, thinking you want to throw yourself on the ground but you don’t, and you don’t know what’s keeping you on your feet or why and then the bell rings and you think you’ve lost and you don’t care and then the referee raises your arm and you realize you’ve won and nothing exists in that moment, nothing exists but that moment. No one can take it away from you. Never ever.
Something that I think comes across in this is the playfulness of Carofiglio’s writing; in this case, the way he lets his character get lost in the sentence, as though in a reverie over memories of better times. In other places this playfulness comes across in different ways: at one point, when Guido is browsing his neighbour’s bookshelves, he finds a copy of John Fante’s Ask The Dust, takes it down, and reads the last page… as do we, because it’s all copied out for us.
The murder case provides a spine to the novel, but the meat is in these details, the way that Guido describes himself and the way he relates to the world. It’s certainly enough to make me want to check out Bitter Lemon’s other Carofiglio titles.