The news of the recent passing of Italian novelist Andrea Camilleri means a great loss to the mystery readers, as Camilleri was particularly known for his Inspector Montalbano series set in contemporary Sicily. Yet the late-blooming Camilleri (he wrote his first novel in his sixties) was remarkably prolific, writing close to a hundred novels in a variety of genres, notably historical fiction. Born in Sicily, Camilleri had a knack for mining the island’s rich history and culture. While his mysteries have their place, my favorite Camilleri work is a charming and little-known historical novel originally written in 2013. The Revolution of the Moon captures a little known moment in history that serves, like much of Camilleri’s other work, as both a vivid depiction of Sicilian life and a sly commentary on current cultural and moral norms.
While reading a history of the island, Camilleri stumbled across the mention of Eleanora di Mora, wife of Angel de Guzman, Spain’s viceroy to the Sicily in 1677. At the time, Sicily was ruled by Spain, and the viceroy had all the power of the king on the island, answering only to King Carlos III, but advised by a cadre of local grandees both civic and ecclesiastical. Remarkably, when Guzman died suddenly, he took the unprecedented step of naming his wife as successor, and the highly intelligent and shrewd Donna Eleanora had full authority to reign. The advising counsel regarded Donna Eleanora as both an easy mark—after all, a woman who barely speaks the language would be pliable to the suggestions of such prominent and worldly men—but Donna Eleanora has different ideas. Within days, Donna Eleanora’s reforms start to improve the lives of the poorest of Palermo’s residents. The local bishop sees his refuge for ‘endangered virgins’ exposed as the brothel it really is and the public funds the conservative elite had long used as their personal banks dry up. Their conclusion is obvious: Donna Eleanora must be stopped. And after twenty-seven days—a single revolution of the moon—she is recalled to Spain.
Camilleri depicts the power struggle between Donna Eleanora and the Sicilian cadre as a taut chess match of wills. The men are at times comically inept, disbelieving at first that a woman would actually wield power and then cast into the unusual predicament of setting aside their self-interests to work together against Donna Eleanora. Although Donna Eleanora seems a bit distant as a character, Camilleri makes it clear that she clearly sees their underhanded dealings and is easily two steps ahead of their plotting. She turns what could be a liability—her stumbling mix of Spanish and the local dialect, with much of the Spanish untranslated—into a defense that keeps both advisors and readers guessing what her next move might be. (Stephen Sartarelli, who also translates the Montalbano books, does especially fine work here.) The image that emerges is a woman of quiet and secure confidence that her adversaries, used to business as usual, lack the creativity or backbone to challenge.
The Revolution of the Moon is a brief novel, easily digested in a sitting or two. The Sicilian grandees have their comic role, but Camilleri clearly lets their easy misogyny shine through. It’s what gives the story its teeth and by the end, The Revolution of the Moon becomes a cautionary tale. Donna Eleanora’s brief reign hardly warranted a footnote in history, but Camilleri’s tale asks what might have been if this challenge to traditional power might have been allowed to flourish.