Così Fan Tutti by Michael Dibdin

Pantheon Books 1997 247 pp. 23.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


"How was it that everything became so complicated here? A week earlier, his life had been as he had always wanted it calm, pleasant and predictable. And now even the smallest details seemed uncertain." With his mother, Giustiniana, missing, a violent criminal at large, and his ex-wife of fifteen years, Luisella, calling on his new, and defective, cellular phone, Aurelio Zen has problems.

In Così Fan Tutti we find Michael Dibdin’s Italian policeman hero in Naples, hiding out from certain "difficulties" that have arisen in Rome, both in his job as Vice-Questore of the Polizia dello Stato, and from the unnerving feminism of his on-again, off-again girlfriend, the voluptuous but prickly Tania Biacis. He has taken on a job not with the Neapolitan Questura, but with the port detail, where Zen, "a dedicated slacker," can arrive at work after eleven, smoke his poisonous Nazionali cigarettes, overlook the brothel his fellow officers run on the top floor, and generally lie low.

He’s assisted in his quest for lethargy by one Signora Valeria Squillace, a partially deaf, but wealthy and amorous widow. A wager ensues, testing whether he can cause her two daughters to fall out of love with their present paramours, two seemingly unsavory Mafia hoods. Zen, confident in his abilities, concocts a complex plan involving prostitutes, flights to London, a fake electrocution, and tattoos.

Zen finds, however, that the kneecappers have principles. Here one of them explains the political dimensions of his romantic credo of faithfulness toward his one true love: "I have a commitment to Orestina and I intend to honour it. This is more than a personal issue, it’s a political decision. If there’s to be any hope for this country, we’ve got to start accepting our responsibilities and keeping our promises. That’s the only way to build a new Italy."

Despite his time-consuming machinations over amore, Zen is drawn to Naples, "for its own sake, not for what it could do for him but for what it was. He was enchanted by every aspect of the city which he had expected to drive him mad. He loved the noise, the crowds, the traffic, the chaos, the pushiness and resilience of the people, their innate sense of tolerance, negotiation and endurance."

He loved it, that is, until the stabbing of a sailor at the port, and until important Mafia chieftains began disappearing off the streets, victims of Strade Pulite ("Clean Streets"), a secret organization bent on vengeance. This group has declared a private war of retribution on "men whose greed and arrogance have made our city a national and international byword for public and private corruption, waste and inefficiency."

Never one to stand up when he could sit down, or sit down when he could lie down, Zen finds it relatively easy to accommodate himself to the lax southern Italian attitudes toward trifles such as laws. He appreciated people who "were too smart to waste their time trying to change the world. They came to terms with life as best they could, each in his own way. History had taught them what happened to anyone who failed to do so."

Così Fan Tutti is constructed around a series of farcical and droll coincidences, cases of ongoing mistaken and shifting identities, sexual ambiguity, and a series of seemingly random encounters among characters that would do the Marx Brothers proud. Through this vaudeville hall action move Neapolitan cab drivers who specialize in doing all the things for the police that the police themselves cannot seem to do, prostitutes so skilled in impersonating people from other countries and genders as to cause their johns to change their sexual orientation, and eloquent and fiscally conservative bums who can promise to sell you not fake designer clothing, but "authentic verified copies."

Fans of Mozart’s opera will note that Aurelio Zen has adopted the role of Don Alfonso, and that the gender of the lovers whose fidelity is being tested has been reversed. Piled atop Mozart’s comedy—sometimes criticized as misogynistic—is a charming plea for sexual tolerance implied by the title, which Dibdin has changed from Così Fan Tutte ("Women Are All the Same") to Così Fan Tutti ("People Are All the Same"). For Zen, such "conventional banalities … resound like eternal verities, a profound reverberation of all the horrors and miseries which have taken place here, and which might yet teach us, if we cared to learn, how to live."

Così Fan Tutti finds Dibdin at the top of his witty and entertaining form. For readers new to Aurelio Zen, this novel will make a good starting place, then they will want to go back to Dottor Zen’s first appearance in Ratking and work their way forward. To Dibdin fans, this will mark a fresh and diverting encounter with an old and trusted friend.