The lunch hour is the hour when I sit munching pasta along with more or less discouraging newsy stuff. Reading newspapers isn’t healthy, but lunch without a broadsheet also happens to put a strain on my system, so the waiters at my favorite restaurant are quite used to my paper-rustling sounds.
There are, of course, days when way too many bleak themes are laid out in pitch print, and I have no choice but to follow a sudden impulse and let the paper slide off onto the floor for the sake of staying sane. Yes, the staff have long experience with that habit, too.
On newsy Armageddons like this, one especial waiter, who always seems to simulate walking on the moon while balancing dishes, is like a shock absorber to me. He is sweet and poignantly eccentric, the right sort of guy to take my mind off things and steer a small conversation to, say, the topic of crime fiction. Talking to him (he must be in his late 50s) is like digging for gold and strike it rich. When he is off moon walk duty, he mainly lives on (the right sort of) books, and coffee.
Years ago we accidently discovered that we both tie shoes with a sailing knot, and that we are as hard-shelled Michael Dibdians as can be. The British crime fiction writer Michael Dibdin, who died in 2007 (a grief I have yet to recover from), is probably best known for his Aurelio Zen mysteries, set in Italy. The first of these, RATKING, won the Gold Dagger Award in 1988.
Reading Dibdin triggers marvelous fun. The Venice-born Aurelio Zen is both hero and constant target of a mild, satirical farce about redefined Italian masculinity. The middle-aged commissioner comes across as a decent man, but also as a bit of an oddball, sometimes even slow-witted, a hypochondriac and loner with a clingy mother who tends to get in the way like a self-inflating boat inflating indoors. Irritability provides the rhythm to Zen’s days: he has a love-hate relationship with Italy, his job, his girlfriends. He does not get humanized by something bizzare like a marriage or a career, but rather by letting emotional and professional matters hang in mid-air.
The mafia-esque mobsters he has to deal with are psyched on having a wad of cash, secured by a rubber band, in their pockets: that kind. Their self-esteem and position in society often seem to depend on clothing style and the right sort of last name. Where corruption, Italian hyperbole and organized crime commingle, Zen usually walks into mayhem unblinkingly, but also slows the hero image down, and gives it an almost dreamy otherworldliness: he puffs one of his poisonous Nazionali, lost in thought, and keeps the reader absorbed with his stubborn, clumsy work ethos.
Dibdin, a clear Italy-lover, never misses a chance to kid the country’s stereotypes. The narrative is straightforward, often funny, involving and very insightful concerning Italian police work, society and politics of the past 30 years. Absurdity often pours right out of the stories, and gracefully so: Dibdin was a powerfully eloquent writer from the word go. Ask my favorite waiter, who knows most of Dibdin’s lines by heart. He shows greatest sympathy for Zen’s many dilemmas, put in focus and made immortal by the author’s mastery.
Although Dibdin is best known for the creation of Aurelio Zen, there are other novels to discover, among’em DIRTY TRICKS (1991), one of my all time favorites.
When I talk to my waiter during luncheon I am at ease, like a child skipping rope. The pasta is delicious, and Michael Dibdin gets mentioned and quoted at a scandalous rate, and with a warmth and sincerity that never fails to carry over.