Monday, February 13, 2012

Involuntary Witness, by Gianrico Carofiglio

Bitter Lemon Press, 2005
originally published as Testimone inconsapevole, 2002
translated by Patrick Creagh
274 pp (trade paper ed.)

Involuntary Witness  is the first novel in Carofiglio's  series featuring attorney Guido Guerrieri.  Currently there are four books -- this one, A Walk in the Dark, Reasonable Doubts,  and Temporary Perfections.  Having never read any of these before and just on the heels of the most current Camilleri novel (and the tv series as well), I'm content right now to continue my sojourn in Italy and to try authors who are new to me from this country.   This may be one of the first books of crime fiction I've read where there is definitely crime, it's definitely fiction, but there's no case per se to solve.  Instead, what happens in this book is something totally different than most books written in this genre. Rather than focusing on any sort of police procedure or getting into the head of any criminal or cop,  Involuntary Witness is the story of Guido Guerrieri, an attorney located in Italy; it's a peek inside the complicated judicial system, and it also offers a look at attitudes toward immigrants to that country.  Put all of that together, and throw in some excellent prose, and a stunning novel emerges.

Guerrieri lives and works in Bari, a coastal city  just above the country's boot heel, pretty much due east from Naples. After ten years, Guido and his wife have separated and while some people in this situation tend to throw themselves into their work and try to move on, he's having a very difficult time.  His depression and anxiety are taking their toll and he's moving through his days as though someone has flipped his personal autopilot switch.  He cannot even pretend to be interested in the issues his clients bring to his office, and wonders if it's going to be like this from now on.  But in the midst of all of this gloom, he gets a visit from a woman who has her own problems.   Her name is Abajeje, and she wants to hire Guerrieri to take on the case of a Senegalese who sells fake purses, etc. along the beach.  Abdou is potentially facing life in prison for the murder of a young boy, a murder he says he absolutely did not commit.    Abajeje believes in his  innocence and needs Guido to stand up for him in court; he is her last hope after earlier lawyers basically sat by and did nothing, taking money raised for Abdou's defense in the meantime.    The case as it stands seems hopeless, but Guerrieri agrees to take it on.   He has no witnesses, but is determined to find justice for his client somehow.  How is he going to pull this off?

 For most of the novel, Involuntary Witness is actually more of a character study, introducing readers to Guerrieri, following him through his time of crisis, and watching him emerge out of darkness into a different person, making the quotation by Laozi (or as most people know this ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu -- 老子) at the beginning of the novel highly appropriate:  "What the caterpillar thinks is the end of the world, the rest of the world calls a butterfly." But what also comes out of this book is a stunning courtroom performance where Guerrieri has little or nothing in the way of evidence to prove his client's innocence other than his commitment to the truth.  Carofiglio also examines racist attitudes and anti-immigrant sentiment in a very open and honest manner.

Had someone told me that there is very little in the way of crime solving in this novel and that it rested mainly on the character of a depressed attorney who has trouble making it through the day without bursting into tears, I may have given it a pass in favor of much more meaty crime fiction.  But once I launched into the story, I had to keep going and couldn't put the book down until the last page. No, there's not the usual crime-fiction fare here; no, there's not much action going on; and no, there's not much focus on investigative technique. On the other hand, the insights into the judicial and legal systems, the attention to racism and the amazing courtroom scenes should more than make up for what's NOT here enough to keep any reader satisfied.   If those reasons aren't enough, Carofiglio is an amazing writer who manages to set you on the path of Guerrieri's journey, keep you there, and blow you away by the end of the book.  And considering that this is only the first novel, I'm sure the rest of the books have the potential to be even better.

If you only want the standard crime-fiction fare and put action ahead of  character, this may not be the right book for you. I've seen this book classified as a legal thriller, but that's not exactly right either.  On the flip side, if you're looking for solid writing, a character who is credible largely because he is so human, and  if you want some sterling moments of drama, you should consider giving this book a try.  Sometimes less is more, which is definitely the case here.  Highly recommended.

crime fiction from Italy


  1. That was an excellent review Nancy.

    1. Thank you, Jose Ignacio. I do try. I'm midway through the next - what a great series!


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