The Italian Riveter: GIANRICO and FRANCESCO CAROFIGLIO interviewed by West Camel

‘I have always thought of my activities as the tributaries of a single creative river,’ says Francesco Carofiglio at one point in the discussion with me and his brother, conducted for this magazine, in pandemic-honoured tradition, via Zoom, in December 2021.

His comment is apt: between them the Carofiglio brothers have written, individually and in cooperation, fiction and non-fiction, literary and crime, memoir, and even scripts and graphic novels. Not only that, their mother was also a writer – the novelist Enza Buono. But in what way her creativity has flowed on into her sons’, is somewhat unclear. ‘I have always loved my mother’s novels’, says Francesco. ‘I love the elegance of her language and the intimate characters of her stories. I don’t know if any of this has filtered into my writing, but if it has, I would be happy.’

Gianrico is more sure: ‘The idea of writing that you feel when you read my mother’s novels is completely different from mine. I think we can find something of our mother’s writing in Francesco’s writing, but I have a completely different idea of language, words, the feeling of words and the act of writing.’

There’s another key difference between the brothers’ approaches to their work. Francesco says he ‘loves the act of writing’, while Gianrico, even though he always wanted to be a writer, says: ‘I hate it. I find it very painful.’ Perhaps this is part of why he started his writing career by focussing on a world he knows a lot about: the Italian legal system. Gianrico was, famously, an anti-Mafia prosecutor. I ask what prompted him to fictionalise the world he worked in.

‘Fear’, he replies. ‘When you begin to write your first novel, it’s scary. Because it will be a long trip and you don’t know if you will make it, so you seek help, and one way to get this is through an environment that you know very well – characters that you know very well.’

There are pitfalls to ‘writing what you know’, however, particularly when the world you know is an intricate and recondite one. You get over this, Gianrico believes, with empathy – ‘the ability to put yourself in the reader’s shoes … being aware that there are things that they don’t know and you do. You have to fill the gap between you and them.’

Francesco’s work, as an artist, architect, actor and director, has influenced his writing in a completely different way: ‘I like to tell stories, and I try to do it through writing novels, painting, designing spaces, performances, acting. Sometimes it is not so easy to reconcile all this … But it is my only way of seeing the creative process: I contaminate the disciplines, bringing one into the other. When I write, I am an architect; when I do theatre, I am an illustrator.’

This feeling is echoed in the way both men approach their writing. Gianrico is now generally seen, in the UK at least, as a crime fiction writer. But his oeuvre encompasses a lot more than that. When his first novel, Involuntary Witness, was published, he thought he’d written ‘a special kind of coming-of-age novel’, so he was surprised by the label it was given: ‘I really didn’t know I had written a legal thriller. But a very respected and important Italian journalist wrote that this was the best legal thriller published in Italy. I was flattered, but at the same time I was a little disappointed … after a few weeks, I could see how the label worked and became more flexible.’

We discuss the labels ‘literary’ and ‘genre’, and it seems that Italy is similar to the English-speaking world in the ways these are used for commercial purposes rather than artistic ones.

‘I only distinguish between good and bad novels,’ says Francesco. ‘I have never loved classifications. And I believe that some authors categorised as genre writers are great storytellers … I need to tell different stories, so my novels do not all look alike, and I move comfortably between different genres … I always think writing is like entering a mysterious playroom, in which you can find everything.’

With a long, and lengthening writing career behind him now, does Gianrico see his ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ books differently? No, he says: ‘I just write, and it has always been the same, there is no difference.’ And he agrees with his brother about good and bad writing:

‘There is a good technique to understanding if a novel is literary or not literary, even if it is about crime or something else, and this is to do with something that happens or doesn’t happen after reading the book … with a good novel or short story, the characters remain inside your soul and your brain. They are walking with you as you wonder “why?” and “what?” … You were sure about things, but after finishing the book, you are not sure anymore. This is a good thing and it can happen with a so-called “mainstream” or “genre” novel.’

Gianrico famously writes about Bari in his Guerrieri novels, whereas Francesco is more peripatetic: ‘When I write I have the feeling of putting new roots in different places in the world every time.’ So I ask whether there’s another classification they might disagree with; a peculiarly Italian one: campanilismo – the very localised patriotism felt for your city or region. Francesco is strident: ‘I think that the history of Italian literature, from Dante to today, is dotted with great writers that are absolutely not attributable to the concept of campanilismo – once again we are faced with preconceptions that for me are useless and harmful. Shakespeare has Hamlet say: “I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” I believe that writing stories even set in small, remote places can do this.’

Gianrico is more qualified, and unwittingly raises once again the image of tributaries to a single creative river:

‘I think we have an Italian literature. There are regional literatures and there is a mainstream literature, novels that are not local and regional. Generally speaking, I would say this national Italian literature has got to do with a feeling of discontent; it is a metropolitan literature, talking about this unease among modern, urban people. So, together with the regional literatures, Italian literature offers some interesting experiences.’

The brothers have recorded their own ‘interesting experiences’ by writing a memoir together. But, typically for them it doesn’t sit neatly within the form:

‘I was talking with a publisher, and they wanted a memoir about food,’ says Gianrico. ‘I really didn’t think that I could write that book, so I asked my brother, why don’t we write it together? We can make it a memoir about our family, our childhood, our parents and our mythical holidays … It is a strange book, because it is many things together: it’s a memoir, it’s fiction – there are many parts that are absolute fiction. It’s a melting pot: it’s about food and its connection with memory and feelings.’

I ask how it felt to write together, and typically for these brothers – and for most siblings, I think – they both agree and disagree on the same events. Gianrico refers again to the pain he experiences when writing: ‘I have to say that writing the book was a nightmare. I wouldn’t want to write a book with a guy like me, so I can understand what my brother had to go through.’

Francesco takes the opposite view: ‘It was a lot simpler than you can imagine; we shared our memories and took notes. I think the story was built naturally without any particular artifices of narrative or fiction … It was like a game.’

After an hour spent in the company of these two writers, I think that game must have been a very enjoyable one.

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