One of the most memorable evenings at AUR was the occasion in 2013 when we awarded Andrea Camilleri with an honorary degree. It was a particular thrill for me as I have long cherished his books.
I have treated each instalment of his celebrated chronicle of Salvo Montalbano as though I was looking forward to eating seafood at Enzo’s, the inspector’s favorite restaurant. Each story is lyrically told. Each twist of the narrative is laced with humor and a wicked eye for human behavior. Then, there is Salvo Montalbano himself, an aging, politically incorrect officer of the Italian state who, apart from driving badly, has an innate understanding of Italians and their humanity. Above all, he prizes the best in culinary skills, and those don’t belong to his long-suffering girlfriend, Livia.
It was easy to detect this wonderfully rounded character in the aged frame of Andrea Camilleri that night. Nearly ninety in 2013 and losing his eye-sight, he shed his years once he spoke. More to the point, recalling the American novelists that were his companions as a teenager in Sicily – Herman Melville, Mark Twain and so on – it was obvious, with each lyrical phrase, that this was Montalbano’s creator. And such was the pleasure. All in the auditorium that night bathed with supreme pleasure in his words.
I had ten minutes alone with him and so I asked him where he was in 1943 – seventy years before - when the Americans landed at Gela. He beamed at me, removed his cap, and allowed the memory to surface in his mind, before explaining.
“I went up to the temples (at Agrigento), “ he said. “From there you could see the warships, and overhead, flying low were fighter planes.” He did not know I was an archaeologist, so the image, of course, made an especially strong impact on me.
His eyes twinkled; I remember the moment because, whether his story was true or not, he loved telling it:
“I was a teenager, a young man, and these Americans had been our enemy, as much as I loved their books, their novelists. So I was running off the hill when this American jeep roared towards me. I was scared stiff when it stopped. There were three African American soldiers in polished helmets, one driving and two stood either side of an older general with a polished helmet. He had pearl-handled pistols, and leant down to me, and asked sharply, “Which way to the temples, son?” I pointed and he urged the jeep onwards and it sped up the hill.”
“Patton,” I intervened, smiling at the image, as though Montalbano himself had had this encounter.
“Patton. I often think of the imperial general in his chariot with his bearers.”
I felt I passed a test in grasping the significance of his story.
Much of Camilleri’s life (in the theatre, in television and in his books) was spent in bringing educated ideas to a huge public. He was a public intellect whose humanity, as recent episodes on television of Montalbano have depicted, has a hugely important contemporary resonance.
AUR is privileged to have included him within its family.