Holy Smoke Paperback – Apr 1 2005
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About the Author
Benacquista, born in France of Italian immigrants, dropped out of film studies to finance his writing career. After being a museum night watchman, a train guard and a parasite on the Paris gallery opening and cocktail circuit, he is now a successful author and screenwriter. Her work includes Catherine Millet's explicit autobiography, 'The sexual life of Catherine M' and Beigbeder's attack novel on advertising, '9.99'.She also translated 'Death in the Dordogne' by Louis Sanders recently favourably reviewed by the NYT.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Not long after their encounter, someone shoots Dario in the head. Tonio as he known now is stunned to learn he inherited an Italian vineyard near Naples from Dario. He also finds out that his friend was a Taxi-boy earning his money as a gigolo. Tonio tries to locate Madame Raphaelle, but that proves a bit dangerous. So instead he travels to his new property only to find the wine stinks, the vines are worse, the locals already hate him, and a religious scam is in place. With the inheritance comes the Mafia and the Vatican, two of the toughest mobs in Europe, who expect Tonio to give each of them a 100 percent tithe.
HOLY SMOKE! This tale is a terrific twisted look at crime from the perspective of a small timer who is being squeezed by organized groups who want the whole action. Tonio is fabulous as a minnow suddenly swimming with sharks. Fans will appreciate his distinction between the two outside "mobs". The story line satirizes criminal behavior (a crime is defined by the state) to include organized religion as a subcategory of crime. Tonino Benacquista provides a delightfully droll dark thriller.
The novel opens with our hero, the Italian Frenchman Tonio Polsinelli, running into Dario, a friend from the neighborhood that Tonio left many years earlier. In fact, the reader learns that Tonio has spent his life trying to escape the old neighborhood and its Italian-immigrant residents. Tonio wants to be a "real" Frenchman and sums up his feelings on the old neighborhood in the following passage:
"God, you suburbs are depressing. You've got nothing going for you. There you are with your eyes turned towards Paris and your arse towards the countryside. You can only ever be a compromise. You're boredom incarnate" (page 53).
Tonio agrees to write a love letter to Dario's French girlfriend (because Dario's French is too poor for him to do it himself). When Dario is murdered, Tonio inherits the Italian vineyard that Dario has recently purchased. Fate, then, draws Tonio into Dario's world and back to Italy.
Of course, Italy is the last place he wants to go. Even worse, the village in which he finds himself is his family's ancestral home. Once there, all sorts of misadventures ensue; Tonio eventually runs afoul of the mafia, the Vatican, and the townspeople. (Ironically, the townspeople now consider him to be French, which perhaps sums up the immigrant's dilemma of being stuck between cultures).
Benacquista paces the story well, it never bogs down. He also interjects little bits of sardonic humor that sneak up on the reader. (Of one Italian-American gangster, Benacquista writes "He was amazed that you could get good pizza in Italy too, only not so good as at home). A subplot develops the "searching for roots" theme by tying Tonio's current search to his father's past in World War II Italy. Though the subplot meshes with the book's theme, it made things fit a little too neatly for my taste.
I am ambivalent about Holy Smoke's final chapter. Benacquista could have omitted it with no loss, but he decided to end with a literary flourish. Perhaps it's a brilliant stroke, or perhaps it's another case of a writer not knowing when to quit - I'm still not sure.
As a rule, I am skeptical of any mystery that aspires to be "more than a mystery." Most authors of such books seem to view mystery writing as "slumming" and - as a result - their books fail on both levels. Holy Smoke is a happy exception to that rule.
It sort of meandered along with the main character stumbling into plot connections, which perhaps reflects the Gallic and Italian flair referred to in a review clip from The Guardian.
''An iconoclastic chronicle of small-time crooks and desperate capers, with added Gallic and Italian flair. Wonderful fun.'' The Guardian
However, this stumbling just didn't have a realistic feel to it and perhaps that is why the novel leaves me with a "meh" feeling.
I've read another two of his books, the first, The Family I found quite amusing especially having just seen the film. Indeed the film was great, quite off beat. The second that I read was Framed, also fun.
This version of Holy Smoke is translated from French by Adriana Hunter. As all of Benacquista's books are written in French, I wonder whether they truly lend themselves to good translation. Holy Smoke won prestigious awards for French writing yet I found it so annoying; who knows..
I found the main character who is the narrator, quite irritating, indeed almost schizophrenic. He barely seemed to finish a thought before being in another thought, indeed without seeming to begin the thought! The character seemed to me to be shallow, cowardly and, most of the time, unwilling to complete his actions. The truth is I couldn't see anything in his life that he was truly interested in! This might appear a rather extraordinary opinion, but there, it was my impression. I think that as readers we need to identity with a character: if we can't, the story fizzles.
Maybe Benacquista is an acquired taste. His writing certainly is, to this Anglo/Aussie reader quite off beat. That's usually welcome; and he develops somewhat unusual subject matter, which is also welcome.
Don't be put off by what I write! There have to be good reasons for the awards he has won. Read his books for yourself: he's probably one of those authors you either love or hate. You might love him..
After that, I just didn't care about the characters enough. The main character is grumpy and friendless. He gets a vineyard and hates everybody. There, that's the story in a nutshell.
When the main character got shot at and I didn't even notice, I knew that was the time to stop. I just couldn't see how the book could bring me back around to care.