If this slight novel (Original title: L’oscura immensita della morte, 2004) by Massimo Carlotto, the master of Italian Noir, is anything to go by, then European crime fiction is in a killer shape. Carlotto’s tale of a man who has lost his wife and child in an armed robbery gone wrong stands our perception of good and evil on its head and throws a glaring light on the heartlessness of Berlusconi’s Italy.
Silvano, the story’s victim, is a broken man. Following the senseless death of his loved ones, he gives up his high flying job and safe, middle class life to become a human shell who makes keys and fixes shoes in a shopping center, waiting for his time to run out, unable to overcome his grief. But when he hears that Raffaello, the killer who’s doing time for his family’s murder has cancer and is asking for clemency to be allowed to die a free man, he sees his chance for revenge and has high hopes that he will be able to track down a never apprehended accomplice of the crime that destroyed his life. With Raffaello out on the streets, Silvano uses the terminally ill gangster, his mother, a cop, a priest and a high society socialite with a guilt chip on her shoulder to track down the alleged accomplice.
The story is told by alternating protagonists, with Raffaello wanting to make the most of the time he has left and Silvano not caring for his life (not that of anyone else) which ended with the death of his wife and child. The violence unleashed by the victim is epic, repulsive and understandable, as conventional morality is stood on its head by extreme suffering. Soon, the reader is led into the darkest corners of Silvano’s mind where revenge and mayhem thrive, fester and burst forth.
The protagonists, all too real in both their humanity and monstrosity, show a healthy capacity for cruelty, as well as, in unexpected ways, for kindness. In the end, the reader is left with some of the incredible pain that all human beings endure as a consequence of their decisions which somehow never pan out the way they planned. This is what makes Death’s Dark Abyss a truly frightening and disturbing text. Carlotto does that rare thing, telling it like it is.
Incidentally, the author’s history reads like one of his novels. Massimo Carlotto, a left wing activist in his younger years, was framed by Italian police for a murder he did not commit, went on the run to South America and France, eventually turned himself in to Italian authorities and did five years in jail. In one of the biggest cases of miscarriage of justice in Italy, Carlotto, thanks to a long campaign by his supporters, eventually received a presidential pardon in 1993. Hardboiled indeed.