A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


No More Tomatoes Or iPods For Aurelio Zen
Friday, March 14, 2008

It doesn't seem all that long since I remember entering Duthie's on Robson and Celia Duthie asked me, "Have you read any Michael Dibdin? You should, you know." From there I would go to the Granville Book Company where someone was bound to ask, "Alex, have you read Dibdin?" I finally did and I even met and interviewed the author a few times.

I have read 6 (of 8) of Dibdin's "stand alone" novels and all 12 of his Aurelio Zen mysteries. The last one, End Games - The Last Aurelio Zen Mystery I read last night with a somehow special approach. How does one read a novel in which the author has recently died (1997) and where his main character, the sad Aurelio Zen has always been the author himself for me? I read it with a deep melancholy. I read it (slowly) as if I were sipping the last of a bottle of precious manzanilla from San Lucar de Barrameda. Certainly while I liked Dibdin and Zen I never did agree with their preference for grappa.

But what struck me the most and saddened me about End Games is a sense that Aurelio Zen almost feels a stranger in a world. With technology, an all prevailing event, from his vantage point in a small town in Calabria where he is temporarily replacing the police chief who shot himself in the foot Zen seems tired of it all. Not that the tiredness would ever prevent him from solving a complex crime where nobody can be pursuaded to talk.

After a pleasant sleep in a train to Rome Zen faces:

It was only when he was ejected from this sanctuary in the commuter rush hour at Rome that he realized to what extent he had become a provincial after just a few months in Calabria. He found it both physically difficult and emotionally repugnant to battle his way through the riptide of people coming at him from every direction, empty eyes trained like a gun on the personal zone immediately in front of them, attention absorbed by the loud songs or little voices in their heads, fingers fiddling with iPods and mobile phones, all oblivious of each other and their surroundings, marching relentlessly onwards like the ranks of the damned.

Then Zen says this of faxes:

I remember when we first got fax machines at work, Zen thought. They were cutting edge then, a status marker. If you didn't have one, you weren't important. Now they were virtually obsolete and sat gathering dust in some unvisited corner of the building. I've witnessed the birth and decay of an entire technology, he thought, not just in my lifetime but within recent memory.

I have a writer friend who says that thanks to the internet he can do all his reasearch from home. He has special (and expensive) permits to access such publications (from the 1880s) as the Globe & Mail and The New Yorker. He told me he no longer has to visit libraries. That contrasts with my knowledge that for many years Jonathan Raban and Michael Dibdin (both expatriots from the United Kingdom but Seattle residents) would meet to compare notes on what it was like to live in the foreign country of the United States. Both authors have a special talent for injecting authentic sounding conversation (the lingo, Raban would say) into the dialogue of their books. Their books are full of live content that comes from listening to people in real cafes, in the street and yes, perhaps even in libraries.

Two characters in End Games meet at a restaurant:

Jake and Martin met at SooChic, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion place with accents on the Deep South. The furnishings were 1950s Scandanavian, easy on the eye but hard on the ass. A waitperson showed up and dispensed some intense culinary talk therapy.

"So?" said Jake.
"Yeah,"said Martin.

I will never know exactly how well Dibdin adjusted to living in the 21st century but I find it appropriate (even if it is a loss to Aurelio Zen fans) that Zen has moved on to some heaven-in-the-sky for novel characters where he will live in comfortable silence, with the smell of the sea that one only gets while living in Venice and that he will never again have to be subjected to pasta with that New World monstrosity, the tomato.


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