Tonino Benacquista






First published under the title of La Commedia des Rates
by Editions Gallimard 1991
Translated from the original French by Adriana Hunter
Bitter Lemon Press, April 2005
Reviewed by Sunnie Gill

Tonio Polsinelli is the son of Italian immigrants living in France. Although he was born in Italy he regards himself as French and goes out of his way to avoid his Italian heritage. One day, Tonio runs into an old childhood friend, Dario, who asks Tonio to help him write a letter. Tonio is a little reluctant because Dario has never amounted to much in life and how he earns a living is somewhat obscure.

A week or so later Tonio is not only shocked to learn that Dario has been murdered but that Dario has left Tonio a bequest in his will: a small vineyard in Italy. Against his better judgement, Tonio travels to Italy to see his inheritance and discovers that Dario has set up a rather elaborate scam which should rake in millions. Along with the money comes unwanted attention. The locals detest Tonio and apparently want him dead. Then the US Mafia turn up late at night with guns and an empty suitcase demanding a cut of the profits. Finally there are the Vatican officials with dark threats of imprisonment if the entire enterprise isn't handed over to them.

Poor Tonio. His efforts to escape the clutches of those clamouring for a piece of the pie are met with disaster. As events spin out of control, the one person he thought would help turns out to have motives far darker than anyone else.

HOLY SMOKE has a lot of action packed into just 200 pages. Because of this, there is not a lot of depth to most of the characters. Even Tonio, we donít learn that much about, partly because we are seeing everything through his rather bewildered eyes and he isnít much into self-analysis.

HOLY SMOKE is written in the first person present tense, which is never easy to pull off. Benacquista is one of those rare authors who has managed to do it well. Adriana Hunter has done an excellent job with the English translation and itís pretty nigh impossible to tell that the original manuscript wasnít written in English.

Reading HOLY SMOKE is a little like starting a paint-by-numbers oil painting. A blob of colour here, a dash there, which up close appear to be a mish-mash of unrelated daubs but once finished it all blends together to create a complete picture. However, there is nothing paint-by-numbers about the plot. It's very clever and darkly comic with a wry look at Italian culture, pasta and wine. All of which make HOLY SMOKE a highly enjoyable book.

July 2006 review originally posted on Murder and Mayhem


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