In a post about a subject entirely alien to this review (if you must know, a critique of an article about Orthodox Jewish-American fiction written by Wendy Shalit for the New York Times Book Review), Ron Hogan passingly describes noir as “a genre in which idealism is often defined by its absence”. If we take this definition as standard, I think Death’s Dark Abyss by Italian author Massimo Carlotto is the noirest thing I’ve ever read.
Yes, I’ve read books in which idealism was more absent — Bust, written by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr and published by the amazing Hard Case Crime, comes to mind — books in which crookedness was more absolutely pervasive. But many times these books show amorality in an amusing way, and it’s no accident that an homage to this kind of literature gave us a film as funny as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. (Throw the first stone if you didn’t laugh when Vincent Vega blew that dude’s head out because of a bump on the road.) Rather than defining idealism or morality, this kind of just-for-laughs noir creates an actual moral vacuum where the reader can simply root for the scum to win — because these books portray a reality where scum is all there is. I don’t undervalue this kind of noir, it is an impressive writer who can make us laugh from the most sordid acts imaginable, but I do make a distinction between it and the idealism-defining noir that Hogan mentions and that Death’s Dark Abyss represents so well.
Most of the novel (except, I don’t know why, for the first chapter, which could easily have been narrated by the criminal) is told in chapters narrated alternately by a criminal, Raffaello Beggiato, and his indirect victim, Silvano Contin. In the aftermath of a blundered heist, Raffaello takes Contin’s wife and kid as hostages and shoots them before being arrested. His accomplice gets away and Beggiato refuses to turn him in, being sentenced to life for murder — even though he claims it was his accomplice who pulled the trigger. Fifteen years later, upon discovering he has an advanced cancer, Beggiato decides to ask for a review of his sentence in the hopes of being put on parole; his plan is to take his half of the bounty and fly away to live the last of his days in my home-country, Brazil, always the haven for scoundrels. Beggiato then writes Conti asking for forgiveness, and the widow, who never recovered from the death of his family, sees in this request an opportunity to exact revenge against Beggiato and his accomplice, whom Contin still believes to be the actual killer.
The noirest thing I’ve ever read.
Both main characters undergo meaningful changes during this short, fast-paced (as any good noir) novel. Conti’s is slow and progressive, and it is hard to pinpoint the moment when his crave for revenge goes from understandable to psychopathic. His matter-of-factly narration offers no excuse to his acts, but no judgement either: his brutality (whose apex comes in a scene disturbing not only for its violence, but also for the narrator’s detached precision) just stands confrontationally before the reader. Beggiato’s change, on the other hand, is sudden yet more explained – and maybe because of that less compelling – and leads to the one relatively laudable act anyone makes in the course of the novel.
However, Beggiato’s lonely act of kindness is far from redeeming: on the contrary, it highlights the impossibility for Conti to retreat from or repent for his vengeful thoughts and acts. To the end, Conti is sure of his right to evil: “I am Silvano Conti, the man whose wife and child were killed”, he says at one point, and in his mind this phrase is both his reason and his defense. Without ever directly questioning it, Carlotto masterly shows us it’s neither.
I’ve read Death’s Dark Abyss in its French version, published by Metailie (where, full disclosure, I work as an intern). In the US, it was published last October by Europa Editions. Other books by Carlotto are available from both publishers; if they’re as good and as violent as this one, we have got ourselves a brutal, mighty good writer.