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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Qui pro quo

Gesualdo Bufalino

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Title: Qui pro quo
Author: Gesualdo Bufalino
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991
Length: 173 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Qui pro quo - France
Klare Verhältnisse - Deutschland
Qui pro quo - Italia
Qui pro quo - España
  • Qui pro quo has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : amusing murder-mystery variation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El País . 20/6/1991 Marcela Smocovich
Die Zeit . 17/3/1995 Maria Gazzetti

  From the Reviews:
  • "Bufalino plantea en Qui pro quo situaciones irónicas, en las que la literatura y los libros, son siempre el trasfondo de las cosas que pasan y se entrecruzan." - Marcela Smocovich, El País

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Qui pro quo has not yet been translated into English. This review is based on Hans Raimund's German translation, Klare Verhältnisse (Suhrkamp, 1994); all translations are mine, based on that translation.]

       In Qui pro quo Gesualdo Bufalino tries his hand at an old-fashioned murder mystery -- but very much on his own terms, rather than in imitation of the standard genre blueprint --, playing with the form and its history. Literary tradition -- both the modern mystery-writing one as well as a much broader classical tradition -- informs much of the story and its telling. So also the death around which the story revolves involves the victim being crushed by a large stone bust of Aeschylus (echoing the Greek dramatist's own death, crushed by a turtle dropped from the sky) -- while one of those present suggests, in a variation on the famous words of "the admirable Stefan" (the 'Mallarmé' understood in these circles) that 'Everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book', that: "tout au monde existe pour aboutir à un polar" ('everything in the world exists in order to end up as a mystery-novel').
       Qui pro quo is not just steeped in the literary, but also has a literary backdrop: the victim, Medardo Aquila, runs a publishing house -- which includes a mystery imprint, 'The Cat and the Canary' -- while the novel is narrated by his secretary, Esther Scamporrino (also called Agatha Sotheby), who has written several mysteries (for the drawer) and whose current work in progress is titled ... Qui pro quo.
       The novel is largely set in August, 1990, during the summer vacation period when Aquila has decamped from Rome to his luxurious seaside estate -- called 'Le Malcontente' (a nod to the Palladian Villa Foscari). Secretary Esther, a thirty-eight-year-old old maid, is happy to be invited along, even if it means working during these vacation weeks -- as Aquila keeps just as busy here as he does in the office --, though there is certainly time for some rest and relaxation as well. An extensive cast of characters is also present -- there's a list of 'Personaggi' at the beginning of the book, to help readers keep track -- and they include the publisher's wife, Cipriana, and his brother-in-law and business partner, Ghigo; his lawyer; the director of publishing at the house; and several artists, including a former priest.
       Aquila warns Esther that something serious is going to go down -- and even writes her a check for twelve months' wages ("Let's say: as compensation for your present and future loyalty", he explains when she asks him what for), suggesting things might be going seriously south soon. More shocking is what he tells everyone present there: that he's going to close up shop, with the publishing house set to publish its final volume. Given that pretty much all those assembled have a vested interest in the continued success of this business, this isn't news that goes over well.
       Soon enough, Aquila is dead, which brings Commissario Currò to the estate to investigate. His task is not made easier by the victim -- who has left behind a document in which he describes his murder, or rather two possible variations, each pointing to a different murderer. Aquila apparently expected to be killed -- not only that, he seems to have facilitated his murder. And, all too neatly, he even spells out who must be behind the deed, depending on which method did him in.
       As it turns out, Aquila's game is even more elaborate than that. There are more documents, upending what initially seemed apparent. Esther plays detective alongside Currò -- who, though complaining: "You read to many novels", admits some of her insights might be of value. (She responds to him, re. the novel-reading, that she also writes them .....) Still, after they've followed Aquila's paper-trail, and the events surrounding them that then unfold (as some are eager to get their hands on some of those papers before their contents can be revealed), it would seem that they're, as Esther sums up:

back at that starting point: confronted by a death that wasn't an accident but rather a crime, for which there are many possible, two probable, but no certain suspects.
       The clever answer then lies elsewhere -- and that would seem to be that. Except that it is all a bit convenient. Except that, as Currò can't get out of his mind, it all looks all too much like 'the staging of a staging'. Except that our story-teller is both narrator and participant -- and one whose Qui pro quo was then published, and enjoyed considerable success .....
       Aquila had complained about modern mysteries and their detectives; he dislikes Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, and Poirot; instead: "My heroes are Zadig, Dupin, Rouletabille ...". Esther would seem to display an analytical mind similar to those of those he approved of -- but in this novel where even the victim seems to have staged so much of the proceedings it's impossible to avoid the question of just how reliable a narrator she might be and how much she (and her story) can be trusted.
       Bufalino has no interest in making it easy -- in offering a case, ingenious or not, that is neatly tied up at the end. If not exactly all loose ends, this is nevertheless a novel that ends with an Appendix of 'sundry variations': tossed out little bits of a manuscript fished out of a wastepaper basket -- yet more suggestive scraps to tease the reader with.
       The characters in Qui pro quo play many games -- notably Aquila, but quite a few of the others, too, not least among them our narrator. The reliance on written records and documents is appropriate in this novel about publishing (whose narrator is a would-be novelist ...), with a victim who was obsessed by the literary; so is the fact that one final sealed letter from Aquila is left essentially unread (and burned, so it can't be), leaving open just how far (t)his game went.
       Bufalino did not want to be a mystery-writer -- this isn't a trial-run at starting an 'Agatha Sotheby'-series or the like -- but he certainly enjoyed playing with the form and seeing what could be done with it in this one-off. It's a fairly successful effort, somewhat in the Gilbert Adair-vein -- complete with unusual (and peculiarly named) cast of characters --, though Bufalino is more interested in theory (and games) than fleshing out the mostly rather cartoonish characters. It's fine as is, but certainly he could have added more meat to it.
       All in all, good and quite clever fun -- something for the reader interested as much in the literary (that term meant generally here -- i.e. not 'fancy' writing but rather writing steeped in literary tradition, high and low) as in mysteries (both as genre and puzzle).

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 December 2020

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Qui pro quo: Reviews: Gesualdo Bufalino: Other books by Gesualdo Bufalino udner review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Gesualdo Bufalino (1920-1996) is among the most important modern Italian authors.

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