Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review: The Memory of Evil by Roberto Costantini tr. N S Thompson

The Memory of Evil by Roberto Costantini translated by N S Thompson, March 2016, 480 pages, riverrun, ISBN: 0857389408

Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)

2011, Zawiya, Libya.
Men awaiting execution are noosed to a row of poplar trees leading to the village’s burnt-out, shot-out school. The Berbers, or Amazighs, have been amongst the first to rebel against Gaddafi earlier in the year and now this Amazigh village has been captured by his troops. An armoured SUV draws up and an Arab man in his 60s gets out: civilian dress, dark glasses, part of his ear missing. In the dust of the hot desert wind, this man calls the tune for both Gaddafi’s troops and their white mercenary leader as he dictates the ingredients for a vile and cruel massacre that spares not a man, woman or child in Zawiya.

1962, Tripoli, Libya.
As the desert wind blows sand into the villa courtyard four boys, two Arab and two Italian, solemnly cut their wrists and share an oath of blood brotherhood. Sand and blood. For ever.

2011, Rome, Italy.
Commissario Michele Balistreri walks through early morning Rome, exercising his painful knee before spending the rest of the day, as he prefers, indoors. First an espresso in his favourite bar. The radio spills out the latest on the war in Libya and in particular a brutal massacre at Zawiya. Balistreri leaves and heads for the office. He doesn’t want to hear any more about that war. He wants the darkness of his office.

2011, Tripoli, Libya.
Linda Nardi stretches out on her hotel bed in the quiet of sunset before the night brings the roar of NATO jets. She remembers her closeness with Michele Balistreri five years ago. They had talked, ate, spent time together, without so much as a kiss but it had ended badly. She knows that she should be getting on with the job of reporting this war, the massacre – but what she really wants is to return to her orphans and hospitals in Central Africa. In the morning she will be boarding a plane to Nairobi but for now …
In the hotel bar she bumps into a Lebanese acquaintance from Nairobi. What brings him here? “War is manna from heaven to businessmen”, he says. She asks about the hospital contract in Nairobi. Yes, he won the construction contract: Kenyan accounting, Italian rules. But the investors are Swiss? Nothing is ever really Swiss. He goes on to hint at profitable dealings for a certain bank, God’s Bank, in the Vatican state.
Just then Linda notices a beautiful Western woman surrounded by an obviously Libyan Secret Service group crossing the bar. They are followed by an Arab in his 60s, deeply lined face, part of an ear missing. The Lebanese businessman pales.
Is that a business competitor? No. Have you heard what happened in Zawiya, Miss Nardi? They say that man was behind the death of General Younis … Suddenly her acquaintance remembers something he must attend to. Sick of both Libya and the war, Linda returns to her thoughts of Nairobi.

THE MEMORY OF EVIL is Roberto Costantini's final part of his Commissario Balistreri trilogy. By 2011 (the primary setting of THE MEMORY OF EVIL) bad boy Michele Balistreri, sworn childhood blood-brother of Ahmed, Karim and Nico in 1960s Libya is reaching the end of his career as Head of Rome's Murder Squad. He is a man well-versed on both sides of the criminal fence, in his 60s, exhausted, in ill health and approaching retirement. Although the story begins with journalist Linda Nardi’s investigation of corruption in Nairobi and the death of a beautiful young woman and her two year-old daughter on board a cruise ship off Elba, these crimes are counter played by Balistreri’s increasing obsession with the past, in particular the riddle of his mother’s death in Tripoli of 1969. Supposedly a suicide, Michele is convinced she was murdered. But which of the people he knew and loved back then had killed her?

My sense of Roberto Costantini's trilogy is that it is a work in its own right. So I have to ask if it is a problem not to have read its previous novels. Costantini keeps events clear and apparent in the timeline so the problem is unlikely to be that of missing important elements in the narrative. But as THE MEMORY OF EVIL’s narrative heat rises, its chapters come short and fast, referring back and forth between 2011 and 1960s Libya as seen through the eyes of different characters. This focusses and builds tension but it’s possible that the staccato changes may confuse a reader new to the trilogy.

Above all THE MEMORY OF EVIL is crime fiction. It encompasses violence and unlikeable characters doing unspeakable things, investigative journalism and police procedural, plot twists and suspense, skilful writing and translation. But I do recommend this “saga” of an influential Italian family and its circle set against the backdrop of events in twentieth century North Africa and Italy during the rise and fall of Gaddafi. These are times, places and points of view not often caught in crime fiction and Costantini’s writing of this story is authoritative.

Lynn Harvey, June 2018.

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