Così Fan Tutti by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"Everybody in Naples is more or less a gangster, my dear. It's a question of degree."
Zen again. Così fan tutti (1996) is my fifth novel by Michael Dibdin featuring the unconventional, unpredictable, and often unlucky police inspector Aurelio Zen. This time the plot takes us to Naples (the Italian name Napoli - coming from Greek Neapolis - sounds much better, of course), and is closely based on motifs from Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto to Mozart's famous opera buffa Così fan tutte. Note the one-letter difference in spelling of the titles - tutte is feminine while tutti masculine - the substitution is not insignificant for the novel!
Zen is posted to a lowly job of a harbor detail commander in Naples. He tries very hard not to do much in his new job and avoids any involvement in police work, which suits his subordinates fine since they are busy running various lucrative businesses, including a brothel, from the police station. Meanwhile, crime keeps happening in the city: local businessmen disappear, literally treated as garbage by sanitation crews. Zen is supposed to work on the case of Greek sailors knifed in the port by an American counterpart, but he does not exhibit much diligence, instead helping a middle-aged widow arrange an intrigue that aims at breaking her two daughters' infatuation with local hoodlums (this thread of the plot borrows heavily from the opera's libretto).
The romantic intrigue is purely farcical, and the crime-related components of the plot are not the main focus of the story. The author is at his best providing a biting, satirical look at Naples' local character, proving again his superb observation skills and smooth writing. This layer of the novel is also truly hilarious - just imagine the situation when the police force, mourning their comrade fallen in action, are so extreme in their grief that even the whorehouse operating on the police station premises needs to be temporarily closed.
The operatic ending of the novel offers a truly clever denouement. Readers who - unlike myself - like plot twists will love the avalanche of surprises. Revelation are stacked upon revelations, and most of them actually do make sense.
While a lightweight and broad farce, Così fan tutti is a well written, funny, and readable book.
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