From a Samuel Huntington (the political scientist) book I first heard of Dibdin,
where a villain character in one of his crime novels is quoted asserting "There
can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we
cannot love what we are..." It ringed unmistakenly Tao. 30 years ago, I would
have tried to memorize such a maxim to impress others with it as I did with pop
lyrics and WuXia passages.
Most of what I once swore by have faded with the years and yet the quote above
seems to age well. In two weeks, I have devoured five of the Aurelio Zen series:
Ratking, Back to Bologna, Dead Lagoon, Cabal, and And Then You Die (ATYD), and I
am onto the sixth, The Long Finish.
A middle-aged peripatetic Italian policeman, Zen is sent to investigate crimes
all over the country. Each story brings me to a different corner, Perugia,
Bologna, Venice, Vatican/Rome, and Lucca, so far. Italy is not on my list of
places to visit before I die despite that I cook and enjoy 'saucici e fagioli'
every week. From the novels, however, I cannot help picking up a few things about
the cultures of that state, those not often covered by travel brochures. E.g., I
am suprised to learn from a Rome restaurateur's rant that over the 1.9 mile-wide
strait, there is not a bridge linking Sicily to the mainland! Meanwhile, half a
globe away in the Orient, the Bohai Strait tunnel project is proposing a 76-mile
new world wonder. It is also amusing to read Zen's view on the two main branches
of Christianity (ATYD)
Maybe Los Angles wouldn't be so bad after all, he thought. It sounded like a
pleasant, old-fashioned sort of place, and at least the people would all be
Catholics. Although by no means a committed believer, Zen preferred to be
surrounded by his own sort. Protestants were an enigma to him, all high ideals
one minute and ruthless expediency the next. You knew where you were in a
Catholic culture: up to your neck in lies, evasions, impenetrable mysteries,
double-dealing, back-stabbing and underhand intrigues of every kind. With which
comforting thought he lowered the blind again and doze off.
The plots were as intriguing as any mystery I read but that was a given from an
acclaimed detective storyteller. To an English-language junkie like me, the
author's way with words brought extra delight. It was the first time, e.g.,
after I learnt 'haute' from the dictionary, I met it in Cabal. Little gems such
as 'pall,' 'riffraff,' 'panache,' 'minder,' etc., brought such thrills. Besides
the stories, I was entertained by new and interesting terms and phrases on
almost every page. Out of habit, I kept jotting them down for revisiting. Here's
a sample when I was reading ATYD.
49. port, cavort, aft, precipitate
50. ornithologist, capo, limpid
51. idyll, roll call
52. waffle, veer, point-blank, silenced pistol
54. cool his heels, trolley, shunt
56. marked man, decant, restive
Most were not entirely new. I was just happy to see them. Dibdin wrote 11 Zen
stories and I need to loot another library for the next five.