Mention the late Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri and people in the UK immediately think of Inspector Montalbano. Some have read the novels, translated by Stephen Sartarelli; most have watched the TV series. Few, sadly, know that the twenty-eight Montalbano novels, written between 1994 and 2000, are just a small portion of this great author’s output.
Camilleri wrote other novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as essays; he was a theatre and television director, an actor.
His works are well known in Italy, and it is yet another symptom of the UK’s literary type-casting (at least on the translation scene) that little outside the novels in the Montalbano series has been published in English.
One of Camilleri’s non-crime-fiction gems is I tacchini non ringraziano [Turkeys don’t Give Thanks], a memoir that pays tribute to the animals in the author’s life. It is a collection of twelve stories featuring animals whose lives somehow or other crossed paths with those of Camilleri and his family.
*In our family, we’ve never bought an animal from a pet shop.
The dogs, the cats, the birds we’ve had have always turned up at our house spontaneously and almost immediately manifested a desire to stay.
We’ve always – all of us – been convinced that, if an animal wishes to be sheltered for a few hours or its entire life, it is right to grant that wish. This is in part because I’m increasingly certain that we are not the ones who choose an animal’s company, but the animal who chooses us and, besides, makes sure we maintain the illusion that we’ve acted on our own initiative.
(From Aghi, cane diffamato)
The animals – some turned pets – all display strong personalities and intelligence. Above all, they’re individuals. The collection starts with a hare who has learnt that if he does a theatrical flip in the air, the hunter will think he’s dead.
It was the largest hare I’d ever seen; he must have been very old. He was lying on his back in the stillness of death, his paws contracted, his eyes closed.
I bent down and picked him up by his hind legs. At that moment, the hare opened his eyes, writhed, kicked, escaped from my hands, landed on all fours and departed at the speed of lightning, leaving me with my mouth open.
I was able to see very clearly that he hadn’t even been touched by the bullets.
(From Il lepro che ci beffò)
We then have a parakeet that learns to imitate the song of a goldfinch, much to the latter’s sense of outrage; a female tiger who responds to the author’s praise by showing him her derrière; a swearing parrot. There is an unlikely love story between a frog and a lizard, and mutual support between a dog and a cat. There is an episode involving drunk pigs and we meet a little bird who fiercely defends its cherry tree.
What shines through all these recollections is Camilleri’s awe of creatures who are far more intelligent, crafty and noble than most humans realise. Moreover, every story is laced with a subtle sense of humour.
If, someday, we really manage to discover what animals think of us, I am sure that all that will be left for us to do will be to disappear from the face of the earth, hanging our heads in shame.
The book contains black ink illustrations by Camilleri’s friend, the artist Paolo Canevari, which, instead of drawing them in detail, outlines more of an impression of the animals, thus making any kind of unnecessary anthropomorphism impossible.
I tacchini non ringraziano is a book to keep not on your bookcase, but somewhere visible, so that you can pick it up and read one story, in order or at random, when you need to remember – if you should ever forget – that animals make life on Earth even more precious, and that there are humans who afford these animals the respect they deserve. It is also a book you pick up and read whenever you need a happy, satisfying laugh.
* Translations in italics by Katherine Gregor
By Katherine Gregor
I TACCHINI NON RINGRAZIANO(Turkeys Don’t Give Thanks) Non-Fiction
by Andrea Camilleri (Salani Editore, 2021)
With warm thanks to Viviana Vuscovich, Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol, Milan.
Recently published in English translation: Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (Picador (UK), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (US), August 2021). Translated by Howard Curtis.
Katherine Gregor grew up in Italy and France before going to university in England. She has been a theatrical agent, press agent, teacher and one or two other things before becoming a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian. She also writes original material and is currently working on a non-fiction book.
Read previous posts in The Italianist series:
THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. CON I PIEDI NEL FANGO: CONVERSAZIONI SU POLITICA E VERITÀ (With Your Feet in The Mud: Conversations About Politics and Truth) by Gianrico Carofiglio (with Jacopo Rosatelli)