The end of the road

Aurelio Zen will not outlive End Games (Faber and Faber). That bald statement says nothing about Zen‘s state at the end of the book; rather, it acknowledges that his creator, Michael Dibdin, died before its release.

So, however End Games ends, the rich seam of Zen novels—all of which carried on their covers the subtitle legend “An Aurelio Zen Mystery”—has ended at number 11.
(The cover of which, criminally, has the misspelling Aurello.) Perhaps this last, portentously titled novel will prove the greatest mystery of them all, with those looking for clues of Dibdin’s intentions convincing themselves that scant auguries constitute hard evidence.

It is significant that the Zen books are labelled mysteries, because Dibdin defied the norms of detective fiction and, in subverting its conventions, reworked the genre. Not many crime novelists are accorded entries in The Oxford Companion to English Literature and, of those who are, few are praised as highly as Dibdin:

“He is admired for taking the crime genre into areas associated with literary fiction: his novels, characterised by their wit, pessimism and strong sense of place, explore the moral complexities of urban life, sexual behaviour and the demands and deceptions of the world of work.”

End Games speaks poignantly of the deceptions of the working world, most so when Zen thinks to himself: “But I do have a vocation … it’s this stupid, meaningless, utterly compromised job that I try to do as well as I can.” That has been Zen’s daily struggle, for the series essentially is a profound examination of the state of the Italian State.

In this Dibdin was influenced by the Sicilian master, Leonardo Sciascia, who wrote masterly fiction that was simplistically labelled and superficially reviewed as crime fiction. In reality Sciascia was critiquing conceptions of justice and the political situation in Italy.

Of Sciascia’s novels, arguably it is To Each His Own (A ciascuno il suo, 1966) that was most inspirational. Its protagonist, the teacher Paolo Laurana, approaches the crime as a mystery to be solved, not as a matter to be reported to the police: he does not believe in the official judicial machinery any more than does Zen.

Italo Calvino wrote to Sciascia of To Each His Own: “I have read your detective novel, which is not a detective novel, with the passion with which one reads detective novels and with the added pleasure of seeing how the detective novel is dismantled.”

That experience is integral to reading Dibdin, though he is perhaps not as iconoclastic as his Sicilian totem. He is, however, as caustic.

In the later Zen novels, Dibdin is also scathingly satirical, though never dystopian.

The penultimate Back to Bologna sees the horrors of Italian celebrity TV and the absurd heights of postmodernism skewered simultaneously in a cook-off between the Singing Chef, Romano Rinaldi, and world-renowned academic Professor Edgardo Ugo (did someone say Umberto Eco?), master of post-meaning culture.

If the attack on TV is Felliniesque, End Games sees a Fellini-like film maker, Aldobrandini, revelling in the glories of a “silver at Venice back in the 1960s” while reclining on his yacht in preparation for shooting a movie based on the Bible’s concluding section, the Book of Revelations.

The roué director is making the film for mega-rich, retired code warrior (read: computer geek) Jake Daniels. Having settled in Seattle, Dibdin perfectly captures the geek-speak, as when Jake reads a leaflet to combat transatlantic boredom and thinks: “Linear reading! In treeware format! It was just too weird.”

In the treeware format that readers will savour in this final Dibdin, there are many pleasures. The late Dibdin style, a collage of characters and seemingly unconnected incidents, is mischievously inventive. It allows also for delicious asides, such as how to pronounce Aurelio (perhaps long overdue—as well as indicating Zen’s potential United States readership) and the pernicious effect of the southern Italian love of tomatoes on global ideas about Italian cuisine. More seriously, there is corrosive criticism of US obsessions and modus operandi. Prevailing is the sense that Dibdin believed crime novels—or his, at least—are spoilt by short-sighted focus on plot.

Zen, as always, is the outsider, come to a new part of Italy (this time it is the boot, Calabria). In other senses, it is a return to the beginning, the first Zen mystery, Ratking (1988), because a hostage has been taken. Read into that symmetry what you will, but know that in End Games, Zen and Dibdin are at their best.

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is writer, teacher and independent scholar based in Johannesburg. He is formerly the books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

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