Ratking by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"Zen knew that the truth prevailed, if at all, only after so much time had passed that it had become meaningless, like a senile prisoner who can safely be released, his significance forgotten, his friends dead, a babbling idiot."
I was a bit apprehensive picking up "Ratking" (1987) by Michael Dibdin, the first book in his Aurelio Zen series. While I quite liked the last entry, The End Games whose plot is situated in Calabria, the fourth book in the series, Rome-based Cabal , was pretty lame. Well, it turned out to be a needless worry: this is the best of the three books - obviously, first novels in a series often have that quality - and if only Mr. Dibdin had stuck to his strengths - brutally candid analysis of mechanisms governing the society and an extremely sharp eye in his observations of Italy and its people - this novel would have been great. Still, even if he makes too many concessions to routine conventions of a thriller, it is a pretty good book and I recommend it. And the title is so very fitting! Later about that.
Because of his lack of political acumen while working on the 1978 Aldo Moro kidnapping (the author refers here to a real-life affair that galvanized entire Italy), Commissioner Aurelio Zen was relieved of his duties and assigned to a desk job in Rome. Now, an investigation is ongoing in yet another kidnapping: Ruggiero Miletti, the owner of a company producing hi-fi equipment, was abducted in Perugia several months ago. The family paid a hefty ransom yet the victim has not yet been returned. An important friend of the Miletti family leans on important personages at the top of the police hierarchy and they transfer Zen to Perugia to work the case. Quite obviously Zen is not supposed to solve anything - his transfer to Perugia is just designed to make an impression of something being done; having been discredited in the past he can safely be assumed to become just a pawn in the game. Zen, however, does his best to find the abducted industrialist even though he has to face the corrupt local notables, the corrupt justice system, and most importantly of all, he has to fight against the corrupt Miletti family.
"Ratking" is first and foremost about corruption, corruption so widespread and deeply pervasive that Zen - not being corrupt himself - seems insane. Corruption is so ingrained in the entire system of government, including judicial and police branches, that it appears to be one of the main forces that keeps the system running. Most everybody in the system is corrupt because most everybody benefits from it in some way: of course people on the top benefit more than the ones at the bottom, but even the latter enjoy little perks and scraps of power that they would never get without corruption. Everybody defends the corrupt system because the strength of the system ensures everybody's strength.
The novel takes place mostly in Perugia, and it is no wonder that the author's prose vividly conveys the sense of the city: Mr. Dibdin used to teach at the University there for a number of years. He is a capable writer and the novel is eminently readable, except for somewhat clumsy way of presenting the denouement. Also, Mr. Dibdin must have some hangups about human excreta. In "Cabal" he writes about bowel movements, ear wax, and urine; here we have bad breath and "undisturbed deposits of plaque" on someone teeth. Huh?
So finally: what is a ratking? Is it a "king of rats", the dominant rat in the pack? No, it is not. If you do not know the meaning of the term, please read the book, or look the word up - if you must - on the Web. It matches the thrust of the novel so well (and reminds me of Nicolas Freeling's "dwarf kingdom")!
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