Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is Aurelio Zen Italian?

Don't get me wrong; I like Michael Dibdin's books. I loved "Dead Lagoon." It did a lot more than entertain me. It taught me enough about how to structure a murder mystery to help me write one. I miss having new books of his. He died much too young. His language, enlivened by his Irish education, is a knockout. You hear the "but" coming, right?

Here it is: I have enjoyed Dibdin's books enormously, BUT only because I willingly suspended disbelief and accepted that Aurelio Zen is an Italian policeman. That is not how he reads on the page. Almost all Dibdin’s “Italians” are, like their creator, essentially English. In the beginning, while reading him, this fact distracted me, kept me thinking about what a strange Italian Zen was. Culturally, all Dibdin’s characters, especially Zen, do not behave like any Italians I know. For instance, at three in the afternoon, when the day is getting to be too much for him, Zen wants a drink – an alcoholic one, not a coffee. Sometimes, he has an espresso, but with a shot of the strong stuff in it. So does whatever “Italian” he is drinking with.

Zen lives with his mother. How Italian is that? Well, yes, we all know that Italy has lots of adult male "mammoni" who are too attached to their mothers to move out of the house. But Zen and his mother don't seem attached at all. He and his mom don't worry about one another, unless there is an immediate physical threat. They don't talk much to one another. She doesn't kiss him hello and goodbye. He doesn't long for her food when he's out of town, which he is A LOT. She doesn't try to ply him with it when he gets home. Their relationship is all too quiet and distant. On the surface they are Italians, but deep down, to me, they seem typically English.

Then there are Zen's attitudes toward his fellow Italians. He looks down on them, which could work, but he hates them for all the wrong reasons. Not, as an Italian would, because they are inefficient or sloppy or cold. But because they are too complex, too difficult to understand. A real Italian would hardly notice this since it would be expected.

It occurs to me that there is a discussion we could have about Zen being atypical, not stereotypically Italian. Couldn't there be an Italian like Zen, who reaches for alcohol in times of stress, whose mother never kisses him or prepares him his favorite dish, who is essentially cool, rather than warm, whose sense of humor is dark and ironic rather than one that laughs at the slings and arrows of life in order to make them bearable? Sure. But why not make him just a little bit Italian, for verisimilitude.

The director and producers of the BBC television adaptations of the Zen books, currently airing on PBS Masterpiece Mystery, have gone Dibdin one better. Zen and almost all the major characters in the series so far are played by English actors. This does not bother me at all. The series takes place in Rome. Since early childhood, I have become accustomed to Romans, especially ancient ones, sounding like upper class Englishmen and looking like Rex Harrison or Richard Burton. Even in the HBO series “Rome,” those hunky centurions and emperors were Englishmen.

The Masterpiece Mystery Zen series, however, does something very odd with the casting. All the educated and powerful characters are English actors and sound very British and classy. Zen’s love interest, on the other hand, speaks English with a thick Italian accent. I suppose that is to make her appear sexier. But also, she is a secretary — not a person with a university degree or a good salary. The everyday people that Zen passes on his way around gorgeous Rome — garbage collectors and waiters, in other words all the negligible people with no status in society — they all speak Italian!

This is the kind of stereotyping that could drive me nuts. But instead I laugh at it. Want to know why? Because that’s Italian.

Annamaria Alfieri

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