Feb 14, 2010

INVOLUNTARY WITNESS by Gianrico Carofiglio

Everyone loves Gianrico Carofiglio's three Italian anti-Mafia crime novels. I can't recommend them highly enough. The following is a review, from The Observer, of Involuntary Witness.

'Humane courtroom dramas: the anti-mafia judge who writes legal thrillers. Involuntary Witness is as much about a man going through a midlife crisis as it is a legal thriller, as much a love story as an Italian whodunit, un giallo. The central character is Guido, a 38-year-old defence lawyer with a neat line in deadpan, self-deprecating humour who suddenly realises that his life so far hasn't amounted to much. He's been dumped by his wife, underwhelmed by his career - the future looks as lacklustre as a plate of bloated, overcooked ravioli. When he starts bursting into tears in front of his secretary and having panic attacks in the office elevator, the last thing on his mind is the case of a Senegalese illegal immigrant arrested for murdering a child whom he had befriended on the beach. When I tell the author, Gianrico Carofiglio, that the book - his first work of fiction - made me cry, he is quietly delighted. 'Thank you,' he smiles, shyly. 'I told my friends I wanted to write a book about love and sadness and the absurdity of life. I want readers to laugh and to cry. They thought I was crazy. "It's a stupid idea," they said. "You have never even written a novel before."' In fact, what Carofiglio did was to use some of his own midlife crisis as inspiration. By profession he is a high-profile prosecuting magistrate in Bari, a port city on the coast of southern Italy which is also the setting for the novel. Yet as he approached 40 he began to feel despondent. 'It was a very difficult time in my life,' he says. 'Since I was a boy I had always wanted to be a writer, but I'd begun to realise that it might never happen. I really had the idea that my life was over and I was almost destroyed by the thought.' He recalls the symptoms typical of a crisis: anxiety, nervousness, insomnia.

'I tried everything to find a cure. In the end I began to write. I had no choice. I don't want to sound so emphatic, but I had to begin. Otherwise nothing had any meaning.'

It seems appropriate that he has written a curiously gentle thriller. It may be set in a courtroom, but its theme is our power to change. 'The crime is lateral - it is not the most important thing for me. It's the tool to keep the reader going until the end. To use the trial as a metaphor. What the novel is really about is transformation,' he says. 'Someone who crosses a border from one part of their life to another one which is totally different.'

Despite his early success, there's little chance that he's about to give up the day job. We meet in Bari's New Justice Building, which overlooks a graveyard. As we make our way up to his office, everyone seems to know him. I wonder what his colleagues thought when an insider had the audacity to reveal both a flawed legal system and debunk the myth of the macho Italian man. 'The thing about Guido is that he believes in justice. He understands that the legal system is imperfect but he decides - and this is something I believe in, too - to fight inside the system, not outside. My books are about never surrendering. Understanding that this is an imperfect world, but that we need to fight.'

His is, he says, 'a very powerful job'. In Italy, the prosecuting magistrates work with the police to combat crime. A week earlier, he masterminded the arrest of more than 40 mobsters in the city of Barletta, 40 miles away. 'They are very dangerous men. Homicides, drug trafficking, arson... They ran the city.' Three years ago he was instrumental in the conviction of Nadia Tkachenko, a Ukrainian woman at the centre of a child-trafficking case who sold unborn babies for £200,000. In a surreal moment he looks up the word for 'bazooka' in his Italian/English dictionary - he once discovered an Italian gang had one aimed at him. Other Italian writers, such as Massimo Carlotto, are currently gaining a reputation for savage 'reality crime' novels. But for Carofiglio the process of writing, often in a spare half-hour snatched at the end of the day, is perhaps an antidote to some of the horrific details he is party to at work. 'I'm interested in characters who are human and imperfect,' he says. 'Sometimes weak, sometimes strong. I like to mix them up.' And as though to illustrate his point, this anti-mafia magistrate who drives around town in a dinky Smart car, the scourge of the local criminals who likes to write books that make his readers cry, tells me how he prefers to relax. He stands up, locks the door to his office, and gives me a wonderful display of another of his talents - juggling.'

- Observer

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