When the son of a Piedmontese wine-making family is jailed for killing his father, Aurelio Zen is ordered to secure his release. The reason: A certain well-connected wine connoisseur wants to make sure that this year's vintage goes to harvest.
In the hill town of Alba, Zen finds himself in the midst of a traditional culture in which family and soil are inextricablt linked, bombarded with gossip, and stalked by a mysterious telephone caller with tantalizing clues to his past. He also discovers that certain meals may really be to die for. A Long Finish is Michael Dibdin at his most elegant and surprising.
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LATER-WHEN WORD of what had happened got about and, in variously garbled versions, was for a time the common property of the entire nation-a television crew set up a satellite dish in a clearing on the hillside at the back of the Faigano property, paying what in local terms amounted to a small fortune for the temporary rights to a few square metres of land so poor, so barren, so utterly useless, that it had virtually ceased to exist on anyone's mental map of the vicinity. People scratched their heads and murmured, 'They paid that? For il Bric Liserdin?', seemingly as shocked by this anomaly as they had been by the thing itself.
That was how it was always referred to: 'the thing', as though it had nothing more to do with them than the metal bowl which the outsiders from Milan trucked in and mounted for a fat fee on the steep, scrub-covered hillside where rocks perpetually shouldered their way to the surface like moles, infesting the ground on which Gianni and Maurizio's ancestors had expended such futile labour, its only produce the stones used for terracing the slopes on the other side of the hill, the vineyards with the good exposure.
But the exposure that the television people wanted, contrary to every natural law, was apparently right there in that arid wasteland, with line of sight towards some heavenly body, invisible to the naked eye, which they claimed hung in space like the frescoed angels in the local church, motionless above the moving earth, gathering up all the villagers' chat, blather and evasions and then beaming it down again so that they could watch themselves later, being interviewed live at the scene of the tragedy
He himself couldn't be interviewed, of course, even later. The man they would have paid far more than they gave the Faigano brothers, in return for being able to ask exactly what he had seen and how it had felt, had to watch the whole charade and bite his tongue and pretend that he was just like everyone else, knowing no more than what he heard in the street and saw on television. The frustration bit keenly, like a bad case of indigestion, subverting every pleasure and adding its intimate edge to every other woe and worry. Had his state of mind been known to anyone else, it might have gone some way to explaining-perhaps even preventing-the subsequent events, which, while not in the same class as la cosa itself, nevertheless prolonged the unprecedented notoriety which the community was to enjoy.
But all that came later. At the time, he was aware of nothing but the smear of reluctant light to the east, the fat clods of clay underfoot, the mist oozing up from the river valley, the eager breathing of the dog keeping obediently to heel. He was intensely aware of all this, and of everything else in his immediate vicinity, as he walked up the hillside between the rows of vines, a large bouquet of white flowers clutched in one hand, hunching over to keep below the level of the russet and golden foliage sprouting from ancient stumps kept low by intensive pruning. With all the money they were making, the Vincenzo family had been able to replace the traditional canes supporting the training wires with concrete posts stacked neatly across the hillside like the rows of crosses in the military cemetery just outside the village.
His route had been chosen with care. The vines covered him on two sides only, but they were the vital ones. To his right lay the road which ran along the ridge towards Alba. Only one vehicle had passed since he had slipped into the field through a carefully concealed hatch cut in the protecting fence, and it had gone on its way without slackening speed. A more acute danger lay in the other direction, where on a neighbouring hillside about a mile distant stood the Vincenzo residence and its associated outbuildings. If the owner had been up and about at that hour, watching the mist drifting through his vines like the smoke from a cigar, he might well have spotted something moving out there, and gone inside for his binoculars and his gun. Even at his advanced age, Aldo Vincenzo's eyesight was as legendary as his suspicion and intransigence. But the intruder was fairly sure that on that particular morning there would be no one about, for he had chosen not only his route but also his moment with care.
The price he paid for the cover afforded to either side by the ranks of vines was almost total exposure in the other two directions, but here he felt even more confident of passing unobserved. At his back the ground sloped away to a railway cutting whose further edge was so much lower that nothing was visible in that direction except for the faint outline of the village of Palazzuole rising from the mist on its distant hilltop. Ahead of him, at the crest of the hill, was a small, densely wooded hanger which had been left wild, a scrubby north-facing patch too unpropitious for even Aldo to try to cultivate. The road from Alba to Acqui ran through it on a continuous banked curve so steep and tight that drivers still had to slow down, change gear and address themselves seriously to the steering wheel. Back in 1944, the underpowered, overladen, unwieldy trucks had virtually been brought to a standstill by the incline, even before the lead driver noticed the tree lying across the road . . .
It was while they were waiting that Angelin had found the truffle. The two of them had been stationed on that side of the road, while the others were concealed in the continuation of the wood further up the hill, which had then belonged to the Cravioli family. Now it, too, was part of Aldo's empire, together with the unbroken sweep of vines on the hillside beyond the road to the right.
The plan had been simple. When the crew of the Republican convoy, which had hurriedly left Alba after its seizure by the partisans, got out to clear the fallen birch from the road, the men on the upper slope would rake the scene from end to end with a mounted machine-gun captured from a German unit a few weeks earlier. He and Angelin were to pick off any fascisti who tried to take refuge in the woods on that side.
Meanwhile they had nothing to do but wait. People nowadays had no idea how much waiting there had been. They thought that war was all gunfire and explosions, sirens and screams, but he remembered it as long periods of tedium punctuated, like a summer night by lightning, by moments of intense excitement such as he had never imagined possible until then. He had been fifteen at the time, and immortal. Death was something that happened to other people. It no more occurred to him that he might be killed than that he might get pregnant.
As it turned out, he was right. Everything went according to plan, except that Angelin caught a stray bullet which emptied what little brains he'd ever had all over the mulch and moss of the underwood. But although no one came right out and said so, Angelin was expendable, and in every other respect the ambush was a textbook success. Mussolini's diehards were cut down in seconds-all but one youngster who threw down his gun, pleading incoherently for his life, and had to be dispatched at short range.
But during that interminable period of waiting, all he had been aware of was the pallid light reaching down through the trees and the welling silence, fat and palpable as a spring, broken only by the rasp of his companion's digging. Using a small, short-bladed knife, Angelin was painstakingly excavating the hillside in front of the oak tree behind which they were concealed. Eventually the scraping noise got on his nerves.
'What are you doing?' he whispered irritably.
Angelin smiled in a vacuous, almost mocking way.
'I smell something.'
He'd responded with a muttered blasphemy. It wasn't just the noise that was getting on his nerves, it was the whole situation. Everyone knew Angelin was the next best thing to the village idiot, so being relegated to keep him company on the other side of the road from the real action looked like a judgement. He could imagine what the others had said, back at the planning meeting to which he hadn't been invited. 'Let's stick the kid with Angelin. He can't do any harm over there.' They'd never forgotten the time he'd opened fire out of sheer excitement before the order had been given, and nearly compromised the whole operation. In the end no harm had been done, but one of the older men had made a crude joke about premature ejaculation, and ever since then they'd kept him at arm's length when it came to gun-play. His courage was not in dispute, but they didn't trust his judgement.
Angelin had kept digging away, scratching and sniffing, until he had opened up a gash about a foot wide in the soft earth at the foot of one of the trees. Finally he unearthed a filthy lump of something that might have been bone or chalk, shaved a corner off and presented it impaled on the tip of his knife.
'White diamond!' he whispered, as pathetically eager for praise as a truffle hound for the stale crust of bread with which it would be fobbed off after doing the same work.
It was then that they heard the sound of the convoy in the distance, engines revving as they climbed over the col leading up from the valley of the Tanaro. Later, of course, there'd been no time to explain. There were the trucks to turn around, and cartons of documents and records from the Questura in Alba to unload and reload, together with whatever arms and ammunition they could strip off the escort. They'd left Angelin's body where it was. There was clearly nothing to be done for him. Nor was there any way of identifying the bullet which had passed through the back of his skull and buried itself somewhere in the mulch. They all knew that bullets could ricochet in all kinds of crazy ways. Above all, they knew that the sound of gunfire must have been heard over a wide area, and that an enemy detachment would be coming to investigate very soon.
He did not return to the site of the ambush until the following year. By then the war was over and its victims had started to take on the marmoreal, exemplary status of martyrs and mythic heroes. At the bend in the road where Angelin died-but on the other side, as though he'd been part of the main action-a plinth had been erected, bearing his name, a date and the words: 'Here he fell for Italy beneath the lead of a barbaric enemy'. A faded wreath in the national colours garlanded the stone tablet. Angelin's ex-comrade had read the inscription without the slightest flicker of expression. Then, making sure no one was watching, he climbed down into the woods below and commenced his excavations.
For several years it continued like this. Some seasons he got a heavy yield, others little or nothing. Truffles were like that: capricious, female and unpredictable. It was part of their considerable mystique. Lacking the late Angelin's nose for their pungent scent-no doubt nature's compensation for his deficiencies in other respects-he used a tabui, one of the carefully bred and trained mongrels which have the ability to home in on any example of tuber magnatum Pico within a ten-metre radius.
The lode which Angelin had discovered on this unregarded strip of wasteland at the edge of the Vincenzo property was not his only hunting ground, but returns during the early years had still been modest. He kept a few of the smaller tubers for his own use, and sold the rest either to middlemen in the informal market held every morning in the back streets of Alba, or directly to a variety of restaurants and local connoisseurs. Considering that the outlay consisted only of his time, which was of no value, the returns were reasonable. Along with some casual labour, part-time haulage and odd jobs in the handyman line, it added up to a modest living.
Then, imperceptibly at first, things started to change. One of the first signs-and the most serious, from his point of view-was the barbed-wire fence which Aldo Vincenzo had erected around his property. The local wines were beginning to acquire a reputation, and with it a price, exceeding anything previously heard of, and the grapes which produced them became correspondingly precious. There was even talk of Aldo Vincenzo emulating the example of some other local producers by sending his son, Manlio, to study something called 'viticulture', which struck most of the community as an absurdity akin to enrolling the boy at university to teach him the facts of life.
At about the same time as wines of the Langhe started acquiring their international reputation, coincidentally creating difficulties of access to his secret hoard of white truffles, the market for the latter took off in an even more dramatic and indeed literal sense. Since truffles lose their savour after a few days, most of the harvest had previously been consumed locally, with just a small quantity being exported by rail to hotels and restaurants in other regions of Italy, as well as a handful in Austria, France and Switzerland. Then came the era of air cargo. 'White diamond!' Angelin had said, but that proverbial metaphor was soon out of date. Ounce for ounce, la trifola made uncut diamond look cheap. International buyers vied with one another to obtain the precious tubers and ship them off to eager consumers in London, New York and Tokyo.
It was a world market, but the supply was strictly local. Some unexplored Russian hillside or Cambodian valley might perhaps hide similar riches, but white truffles could not be cultivated, and for now the only source of any importance was a small area of southern Piedmont centred on the town of Alba. Prices went through the roof, and the trifolai became even more reticent about the exact location of their favoured sites. Angelin's discovery thus became of still greater value. No one ever suspected that this slice of forgotten copse at the margins of the Vincenzo territory might be a mine for the white diamonds so much in demand. Like the hillside which the Faigano brothers later leased to the media for a small fortune, it had fallen off the map.
But if anyone saw him digging there, or noticed that the barbed-wire fence designed to protect the vines had been cut, all this would rapidly change. That was why he had not come during the hours of darkness, the traditional season of the 'phantoms of the night', as truffle hunters were known. At night he would have had to bring a torch, which might easily have been seen. People around here were naturally curious. Everything happened according to a time-honoured order and sense. Any exception was a potentially interesting anomaly to be noted and passed on to others. Hence the indirect route which he had chosen to approach the spot, the care he took not to be seen, and above all his timing.