Writing and Translating Crime Fiction during Italian Fascism

Caterina Sinibaldi   University of Manchester

Donna LeonOver the last twenty years, Italian crime fiction has attracted growing scholarly attention, both in Italy and in the Anglophone world. If, on the one hand, this is due to a renewed interest in previously neglected areas of ‘letteratura popolare’, on the other it cannot be denied that Italy itself has become a central theme in crime fiction. Not only have contemporary Italian authors, such as Carlo Lucarelli and Andrea Camilleri, gained international success, but also British and North-American authors (Michael Dibdin and Donna Leon, just to mention two) have chosen to set their detective stories in Italy.

The association between Italy and crime fiction, however, is only a recent one. Crime fiction became a cultural phenomenon at the end of the 1920s, thanks to Mondadori’s series ‘I Gialli’ (1929-1941), which introduced Italian readers to the best English and American authors (e.g. A. Christie, S. S. Van Dine, G. K. Chesterton, and others). In the mid-nineteen-thirties, at a time when Fascism was implementing autarchic and imperialist policies, the proliferation of crime fiction series featuring foreign detectives raised concerns with the regime. Special measures were issued to limit the numbers of translations [1], and Italian authors began to write detective stories, in an attempt to exploit the mass popularity of the genre. However, the first Italian writers of crime fiction were faced with numerous challenges, and in having to negotiate between readers’ expectations, which had been shaped by (mostly) Anglo-American detective stories, and the regime’s demands, they struggled to compete with foreign authors. As a result, the Italian ‘giallo’ of the 1930s is often described as a failed experiment, a derivative and almost artificial literary form, without any aesthetic value, aiming to exploit the commercial success of foreign detectives [2]. With the exception of a few authors who have received some scholarly attention, such as Augusto De Angelis [3], Alessandro Varaldo [4], and Ezio D’Errico [5], literary critics have identified the founding fathers of Italian crime fiction as authors such as Leonardo Sciascia, Carlo Emilio Gadda and Giorgio Scerbanenco, whose works appeared from the 1950s onwards.

In the last thirty years or so, groundbreaking studies by Rambelli (1979); Carloni (1994); Petronio (2000); Chu (2001); Crovi (2002); Somigli (2005); Pistelli (2006); Pieri (2011); Pezzotti (2014), just to mention some, have outlined the history of Italian crime fiction and offered insights into how issues of politics, space and identity inform the genre. However, except for a few studies on the foreign origins of the ‘giallo’ (see Guagnini 1979 and Arnaudo 2011), the transition from translation to original writing of crime fiction in the 30s and 40s has remained largely unexplored. My research focuses precisely on the years after 1929, when Mondadori’s “I Gialli” was published and foreign crime fiction began to reach mass audiences through book series.

From the very beginning Italian crime fiction was characterised by an ambiguous relationship with authority and power. If we consider that cronaca nera or crime news had been banned in 1932, it is not hard to understand why crime fiction clashed with the image of the harmonious and crime free society promoted by Fascism. One of the strategies adopted in the Fascist campaign against crime fiction was precisely that of suggesting how the very experience of crime was alien to Italian people. In an article appearing in Corriere Padano in 1936, Egidio Terracina said: “la delinquenza, recitata dal romanzo giallo, è per fortuna nostra inglese e americana. In Italia invece la delinquenza è oggetto di studio e di legislazione” (1936, 3). In the same year, a journalist of Il Bargello criticised the popularity of detective stories saying: “tutto ciò è roba molto, ma molto lontana dalla nostra pratica investigativa giudiziale e soprattutto dalla nostra mentalità” (1936). The idea that crime fiction was incompatible with Italian mentality is reiterated by Alberto Savinio, who in a 1937 article in Omnibus, famously described the Italian “giallo” as “assurdo per ipotesi” (1982, 84).

In spite of this, the cultural campaign against crime fiction was paralleled by political measures: this included the forced increase in Italian crime fiction at the expense of the translations mentioned above, as well as the 1937 MinCulPop directive stating that “l’assassino non deve assolutamente essere italiano e non può sfuggire in alcun modo alla giustizia” (Crovi 2002, 52). Finally in 1941, the Ministry ordered the immediate withdrawal of “non pochi romanzi gialli già pubblicati e che giudica nocivi per la gioventù. L’incarico di ritirare tali libri è stato affidato agli editori stessi” (Rambelli 1979, 115). At a time when most publishers faced financial difficulties due to the imminent war, several book series, including Mondadori’s ‘I Gialli’, were forced to close down.

cerchioverde37_23gen1936x

Il Cerchio Verde, 23 January 1936

However, if on the one hand foreign crime fiction was officially accused of being immoral, on the other the flow of translations helped to modernise the Italian publishing industry, and played a key role in creating a mass readership. Similarly, while translations of detective stories were labelled as “anti-Italian”, their popularity was also exploited to create a national tradition of crime fiction. This is clear if we look at how advertising campaigns promoting Italian writers of crime fiction often relied on patriotic appeals which had previously been used to condemn the genre all together. For example, in an attempt to encourage Italian writers to engage with crime fiction, the short-lived magazine “Il Cerchio Verde” launched the appeal: “Affermate anche in questo campo il prodotto nazionale” (Anton 1990, 13)

By focusing on the ‘translated origins’ of the Italian ‘giallo’, my research seeks to illuminate the distinctive ways in which Italian crime fiction has developed as a complex and controversial genre, marked by an ambiguous relationship with power. While existing work has recognised the important role played by foreign crime fiction in the first Italian book series (particularly in Mondadori’s “I GIalli”; see see D’Orsi and Volpatti, 1988), no study has focused specifically on translation as a literary and cultural phenomenon. Which authors were translated? Who were the translators? Which strategies of translation did they adopt, in the attempt to negotiate between aesthetic, ideological and commercial interests? These are some of the questions informing my analysis.

La strana morte

One of the case studies I consider is that of detective Philo Vance. Created by S. S. Van Dine, Philo Vance was the first detective to appear in Mondadori’s “I Gialli” in 1929 and his popularity is confirmed by the fact that all his stories were translated shortly after their original publication. I was interested to see how this New York dandy, defined by Julian Symons as a ‘monster of snobbish affectation’ (1985, 101), was translated into Italian at a time when the Fascist project of anthropological revolution promoted a specific cult of virility. Moreover, similarly to other detectives of the so-called “Golden Age” [6] of the 1920s and 1930s, Philo Vance is a typically bourgeois character who appealed to middle-class readers. In the context of Fascist Italy, where the regime was carrying out a cultural campaign against the bourgeoisie, crime fiction played a very different role, and provided an alternative space to the regime’s pervasive propaganda.

Enrico Piceni, the Italian translator of Philo Vance, had to negotiate between conflicting demands, in order to achieve a successful literary product which was also acceptable in the eyes of the regime. The process of negotiation and compromise is especially evident if we look at how the class and gender expressions of Philo Vance are translated for Italian readers. Besides providing insights into issues of identity which were crucial to Fascist ideology, the Italian translations of Philo Vance also reveal the influence of foreign crime fiction on the first Italian detective stories.

The second part of my project focuses specifically on 1930s Italian crime fiction, as a ‘laboratory’ where translation and original writing interacted and fed into each other. Instead of trying to assess their literary value, I argue that the first examples of Italian ‘giallo’ should be examined in a translational perspective, where foreign models were assimilated and negotiated to suit domestic purposes.

The regime’s requirement that criminals should come from abroad also contributed to the foreign flavour of Italian crime fiction. In order to comply with such demand, many writers set their stories abroad, or created foreign detectives, thus indirectly feeding readers’ fascination with foreign settings and characters. Some examples include detective E. Richard by Ezio D’Errico, detective Enderton by Alfredo Pitta, detective Schurke by Romualdo Natoli and detective A. Jelling by Giorgio Scerbanenco, just to mention a few. What is interesting to point out is that, while in some cases the ‘foreigness’ of crime fiction allowed Italian authors to avoid any reference to Fascism, in others, it provided an opportunity to highlight Italy’s greatness in comparison with ‘inferior’ democratic countries. More generally, if we look at authors such as Tito Spagnol, Natoli, De Angelis, Brighenti, D’Errico, Pitta, Gemignani, Scerbanenco and others writing in the 1930s/early 1940s, we can notice how the ‘translated status’ of crime fiction was exploited in different ways and for different purposes. If, on the one hand, crime fiction provided a relatively free space, which allowed authors to engage with controversial or sensitive topics, on the other, some exploited it as yet another instrument for Fascist propaganda.

g356The figure of the detective is, in this regard, particularly interesting to investigate. If we think of classic Anglo-American detectives such as Edgar Allan Poe, Philo Vance or Sherlock Holmes it is easy to see how these characters stand in contrast with the Fascist myth of virility and the pro-natalist campaign carried out between 1925 and 1938. Like translators, Italian authors of crime fiction had to negotiate between sometimes conflicting aesthetic and ideological considerations, in order to create fictional detectives that were both popular with readers and acceptable in the eyes of the regime.

Among the first examples of Italian detectives, we find a few explicitly Fascist/Nazi characters, such as Orazio Grifaci by Carlo Brighenti and Welf Schurke by Romualdo Natoli, alongside less openly politicised figures such as Romano Bonichi by Alessandro Varaldo and Commissario De Vincenzi by De Angelis. Varaldo, who was nicknamed by his publisher Mondadori ‘il Wallace italiano’, was affiliated with Fascism [7], but his detective Bonichi is far from being a Fascist hero. De Angelis who was also praised by critics for writing ‘truly italian’ crime fiction, claimed in one of his prefaces: ‘Io ho voluto e voglio fare un romanzo poliziesco italiano (…)’ (1940, 13-14). However, De Angelis’ patriotism was more ambiguous; while his anti-Fascist leanings only became manifest in the last years of his life, his depiction of Italian society was untouched by the regime’s propaganda.

Conclusion

To conclude, looking at the translated origins of Italian crime fiction is fundamental for understanding the development of the genre and what have come to be regarded as its distinctively Italian features. The use of regional dialects, the social investigation, the complex relationship with power an authority, and the elements of noir, are the result of a complex history that has its roots in translation. Italian crime fiction of the 1930s and early 1940s has often been dismissed by scholars and critics as a failed experiment. On the contrary, I argue that the cultural and literary roles played by crime fiction in Fascist Italy should not be overlooked. Translations of foreign crime fiction, which flooded the Italian market over the 1930s, provided Italian writers with a new literary form to articulate the anxieties and tensions of their time which had been repressed in official culture. Processes of identity construction and negotiation, which were central to the Fascist experience, are particularly evident in crime fiction written and translated during these years.

Notes

1. In 1931, the MinCulPop imposed that between 15 and 20 percent of all published crime fiction should be written by Italian authors (Crovi 2002, 15)

2. Interestingly, recent scholarship on crime fiction holds a similar view of 1930s Italian detective novels as a derivative genre, with low literary value. See for instance the reference to the ‘agonizzante giallo italiano’ in Anton, A. (ed.), L’Almanacco del delitto: storia e antologia del “Cerchio Verde” (Palermo: Sellerio, 1990), p. 23.

3. See in particular the work of Oreste del Buono, starting with the special issue of La Lettura entitled “Esiste il giallo Italiano?” (February 1980) and that of Luca Somigli (2005).

4. See Francesco De Nicola’s critical editions of Alessandro Varaldo’s work and his essay “Varaldo e l’undicesimo comandamento : non annoiare” in Alessandro Varaldo, Alla ricerca di un Tesoro (Genoa: ECIG, 1989), pp 7-37.

5. Loris Rambelli, Ezio D’Errico: paura e fascinazione (Florence: Pirani, 2012)

6. The 1920s and 1930s have been referred to as the Golden Age of crime fiction (Symons 1985; Plain 2001). Over this decade, the figure of the classic detective was born, and Anglo-American writers worked towards a common definition of the genre.

7. in 1928, Varaldo was among the signatories of the telegraph sent to Mussolini by the “Gruppo d’azione per servire il Romanzo italiano in Italia ed all’estero”.

Bibliography

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——————-. 2012. Ezio D’Errico: paura e fascinazione. Florence: Pirani.

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