Roman-born author Massimo Mongai published his first book, a science-fiction novel called Memorie di un cuoco d'astronave (Memoirs of a Spaceship Cook), in 1997. It won the prestigious Urania Award. His latest novel, a crime story entitled La Memoria di Ras Tafari Diredawa, was published in 2006.
You're best known for your science-fiction, but your latest novel (La memoria di Ras Tafari Diredawa) is a crime story. Tell us a little about the plot.
Massimo Mongai: It is a story about a homeless Ethiopian in Rome, he's 40, an alcoholic begging for money to buy cheap (and cheerful?) wine to remain drunk. He only remembers “Amhara”, the main Ethiopian language and has only one human relation in town, Eurosia, a volunteer waitress in the “Caritas” restaurant for the homeless. By chance, he is present when she is killed. The fact itself and an evolution of the story brings him back to his past, so we discover (with him) that he is a former professor of Italian in the Addis Ababa University... Slowly his memories come back and he stops drinking, finds a job and starts a search for the killer, with a further problem: if and when he gets him, how to convince Italian police and judges that his testimony (when he was a homeless drunk) is good enough to condemn the man. I love happy endings, so I tell you this: he will succeed!
Which crime writers do you admire?
Massimo Mongai: My favourite is Rex Stout and his Nero Wolfe character. Then Grisham, James Ellroy, and Camilleri and Faletti for the italians. I loved Edgar Allan Poe when I was a teenager, not now: he was a little crazy at the end.
In your author's biography, you seem to be very proud of your Roman roots. Is it a good place to be a writer?
Massimo Mongai: Sure! In this town we have been killing men and loving women (gay people doing the contrary) for 27 centuries! We have a lot of experience. And any story is always “the same old story, a fight for love and glory”, so... Beyond jokes, Rome is a perfect place to live and work, so if you do not believe (and I do not) that art is suffering, this is a wonderful place to write. If you think art is suffering, well go to Milano...
And what makes Rome a good place to set a crime story? How have you used it in your novel?
Massimo Mongai: Rome seems a very quiet and calm town and basically it is the best place where you can have a “dolce vita”. Beyond that, we have inside the walls: the Vatican (another State), 10% of the present population on any given day made of tourists from all parts of the world, another 20% of foreigners living here (may of them catholic priests), more or less legally, in a “little” town of 3 million residents. It is a perfect milieu where criminals and spies hide, and it has double the number of embassies of any other city (the embassies to the Italian government and to the Vatican) plus FAO which is part of the UN, and the Italian Government, which means lobbies, legal and illegal business, bribes, and a “mob” which is not very evident, but present. Rome is a perfect place to set a crime story, believe me. I just used one part of it, Garbatella, my quarter, the one I was born in and in which I still live, which is a popular quarter, very Roman, more than Trastevere, which is full of freaks, American tourists and Italian snobs. And remember, in Italy dramatic situations are always dramatic but never serious (Flaiano said this).
Italy has an excellent literary tradition, from Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio right up to Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. Who do you think are the best Italian writers working today?
Massimo Mongai: Honestly I do not know. I am not reading a lot, recently, so I do not know the new names. I do not have the impression we have a good literature nowadays.
Will we see any more of Ras Tafari Diredawa?
Massimo Mongai: I am still trying to finish the sequel and my publisher is expecting it for the end of this November...but you know what? I will finish it because I work for my bank, the bills, the food and not for the “posteri.”
Will we ever see your books translated into English?
Massimo Mongai: Ah, good question...
This interview took place in early 2007.