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God's Dog

Author: Diego Marani

Translator: Judith Landry   Cover design: Marie Lane  

"My name is Domingo Salazar; I was born on the feast of Saint Dominic and brought up by the Dominican Fathers. I am a policeman, I see to it that the laws of our Holy Mother Church are respected and I work for the worldwide spread of that same Church… I studied at the patriarchal monastery in Bologna and then at the Papal Police Academy in Rome, which I left with the rank of inspector in the fifth year of the reign of Pope Benedict XVIII."

This is how we are introduced to the implacable, Machiavellian protagonist of Diego Marani's new novel, the eponymous God's Dog. But do we want to spend a whole novel (however brief) in such unsympathetic company?

The author's New Finnish Grammar won literary prizes in Italy, and his second novel, The Last of the Vostyachs, was longlisted for this newspaper's Foreign Fiction Award. This book, however, is described as the author's first detective novel, but its near-future milieu also locates it in something like the SF arena.

God's Dog is set in the not-too-distant future, and Rome is now a sinister theocratic state, a religious version of Orwell's Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The much-feared papal police (among whom Salazar is a star enforcer) are armed and enjoy total autonomy; their targets are abortionists (who are seen as irredeemably evil – not a massive extrapolation from current Roman Catholic orthodoxy), while atheists are identified as terrorists and hunted down equally ruthlessly.

The cobbled streets, hospices and churches we see here are minatory places, and those who Salazar encounters live in a constant state of paranoia – as well they might, as insufficient piety can be fatal. Onto this dark universe, Marani has stitched a Chandleresque detective plot. Salazar, brandishing gun and crucifix, is on the trail of a doctor who has performed not only abortions but the equally heinous crime of euthanasia. But this is not Salazar's only assignment; he has been instructed to foil the plots of the Free Death Brigade which has plans for violent disruption at the canonisation of Pope Benedict XVIII. But will Salazar begin to question the Catholic fatwas that are his calling?

The crime genre is thronging with honest, likeable cops working within corrupt regimes (Martin Cruz Smith's Renko in an increasingly totalitarian Russia, for instance), but the writers of such novels give themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card by allowing us to sympathise with their conflicted protagonists, chafing against their brutal paymasters. Marani (in Judith Landry's able translation), however, is more audacious, granting his anti-hero a terrifying religious fervour, unquestioning of the status quo. What's more, he is an intelligent, intuitive investigator, skilled at using psychology against his victims.

Perhaps readers in theocratic Middle Eastern countries (in the unlikely event that they are to pick up a novel such as this) might see Salazar as necessarily rigorous in carrying out God's work, but for most Western readers, he will be a tough pill to swallow. Which is what makes the success of this energetic and trenchant novel all the more impressive, however reptilian its protagonist. Marani's church authorities here propose an interfaith movement called "Bible-Koranism" designed to stamp out secularism; as Salazar calmly explains this historical necessity to non-believers, the reader may hear Marani's warning voice: be aware!

Barry Forshaw in The Independent

Domingo Salazar is a Vatican secret agent bent on defeating the Angel of Death. He must capture an abortionist doctor who is likely to commit the serious crime of euthanasia while visiting his terminally ill father. Although content with his mission, Salazar is a complex individual with complex ideas. While living in Holland, he has been secretly building a movement called Bible-Koranism, the new frontier of globalised faith. As a result, in a turn of events, it is Salazar and his closest friend, Guntur, who fall under suspicion of sabotaging the administration as their concept for a globalised religion upsets the church....
Set in a parallel world where religious doctrine has replaced secular faith, this vision of future Italy is a place where papal police carry guns, abortion is punishable by death and atheists are hunted as terrorists.

Italia Magazine

Judith Landry knows her man inside out, having previously given us English versions of Marani's New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs and she imparts a cool detachment to his catechetical Utopia that lifts it above the merely satirical and makes Domingo's hunt genuinely exciting

Brian Morton in The Tablet's Novel of the Week

...a fleetness of description, a concentrated expository style, and intensity of atmosphere. Its subject, a plot by “euthanasiasts” both to liberate terminally ill patients from palliative treatment consisting entirely of prayer and to assassinate Pope Benedict XVIII, is ingenious. It is fast-paced and, to a degree, thrilling. The status of Salazar as hero or anti-hero is nicely balanced, and the invented repres- sive state repulsive, very much in the manner of the mutant Britain of V for Victory. Even Rome is somehow recognisable, delivered with the lightest of brush-strokes, infinitely more assured than the heavy- handedness of a Dan Brown. Judith Landry’s translation is elegant - it's a a good read.

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints’, Rome in The Church Times

Don’t be fooled by the sombre portrait on the cover of Diego Marani’s new novel courtesy of 15th century Italian painter Giovanni Bellini: just as in the novel nothing is what it seems, the book itself seems to be saying “historical” while hiding a heart as dystopian as 1984. Marani shot to prominence when Dedalus published his 2000 novel, New Finnish Grammar, in English in 2011; this was followed in 2012 by The Last of the Vostyachs, which had appeared in Italian in 2002. Now we jump forward ten years as Judith Landry (once again) translates his latest novel, God’s Dog. The overall impression is of a restless, questioning mind with scant regard for genre.

Of the three, I must admit that God’s Dog is my favourite: it not only grabbed my attention within a few pages but plunged me into its world with the senses-shocking invigoration of an ice bath. That world is a near future Italy which is in the hands of a Catholic theocracy:

“The Catholic Republic was by now on a firm footing. Internal dissent was minimal. The anti-papists preferred to leave Italy rather than mount any opposition.”

The novel’s main protagonist is not a rebel but a servant of this state. Domingo Salazar is a Haitian orphan who has been brought up by the church and now works as an agent for them. He is tasked with rooting out any members of the Free Death Brigade, an outlawed pro-euthanasia group, masquerading as relatives at a hospital for the terminally ill:

“If men cease to fear death, or regard it as something run-of-the-mill, our sway over them is seriously threatened.”

The church also suspects that the dying father of a wanted abortionist, Ivan Zago, is hidden among the patients and that this might flush Zago out of hiding. The novel then proceeds conventionally with meetings with his vicar ‘handler’ in the confessional, observations of staff and visitors, the identifying and following of a suspect – only now and then dipping into Salazar’s diary to discover his religious views are more complex than we might expect for a ‘dog’. This changes when the narrative begins to fracture and sections reveal Zago and fellow ‘terrorist’, Marta Quinz. At the same time the plot also starts to fragment: Zago is after revenge for his father’s treatment; Quinz and others are planning to disrupt the canonisation of Benedict XVI; and Salazar is suspected of being unfaithful to the church as a result of his friendship with an Islamic scientist, Guntur.

It is perhaps difficult to fully appreciate the dystopian nature of the novel in the UK where the idea of a religious state seems unlikely (although Kingsley Amis wrote an alternative history where the Reformation didn’t happen and Europe is controlled by the Catholic Church). Much of the satire is directed at Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI – who is quoted throughout and whose nickname was the Pope’s Rottweiler. This is also, however, a novel of ideas, articulating religion’s fear of science, and once again exploring the issue of language. The Catholicism it presents is ferocious and ruthless (like a dog) but also reasoned and calculating. Marani’s master stroke is centring the debate on an ambivalent character, one who is neither hero nor villain, and with whom the reader’s sympathies rise and fall.

The more I read of Marani’s, the more interesting he becomes.

Ist Reader's Blog

It is the background of an aggressively intolerant religious totalitarian state that gives the book its main interest and, for some readers at least, its real appeal. The sophisticated cover features a portrait of St Dominic by Bellini. The book, published by Dedalus, is handsomely produced.

Philip Grosset in Clerical Detectives

a fairly intriguing read, and a pretty decent thriller, with a compelling protagonist.

M.A.Orthofer in the Complete Review

Not only repressive: it is predicated on the subversion, if not the actual overthrow, of reason. It is now illegal to teach Darwin in schools; Aids vaccines being sent to Africa are intercepted, the ampoules switched so that they contain water; palliative care involves nothing more than bedside prayer; pain relief is discontinued because the dying must "bear witness" to Christ's suffering on the cross; and science is now a matter of speculation as to how we might set about communicating with angels.

Into this dystopia comes our young detective, who is sent to investigate a group of euthanasiasts who infiltrate hospitals and put those in extremis out of their misery. Which, of course, goes against everything the church is supposed to believe in. This might remind you of Robert Harris's Fatherland, but the point about God's Dog is that it's not counterfactual, it is something that could still happen.

Salazar is a complex, ambivalent character; he is homosexual, with a penchant for hashish, yet at the start of the book he is fiercely committed to the papal cause. He discovers a plot to assassinate the pope, and there's an eye-popping cameo from Joseph Ratzinger's corpse. The good news is that this is the first of a series, and the second has already been written. Heretic that I am, I can't wait.

Nick Lezard's Choice in The Guardian

To find Marani harnessing the genre of detective story for creative effect is not surprising; after all, he plays with the form in his Europanto synthetic-language sequence Las Adventures des inspector Cabillot and The Last of the Vostyachs revolves similarly around a murderously suppressed linguistic secret. Here, though the terse economy of detective prose works to move events briskly to their violent conclusion. In this Marani is very well served again by Judith Landry's excellent English translation, which captures both the novel's nod to generic conventions of style, and its stranger little flourishes and apercus.

Bharat Tandon in The Times Literary Supplement

As a book about morality, raising issues which can be discussed long and passionately, God's Dog is an exemplary piece of work.

Alastair Mabbott in The Herald's Paperback of the Week

This thoughtful book - set in the near future, in an Italian Catholic Republic ruled by a conservative, doctrinaire papacy - is less mystery than dystopian thriller. Domingo Salazar, Roman Catholic police officer, has spent years in Amsterdam proselytizing, laundering church money, and forging a heretical alliance with Muslims. When he’s summoned to Rome, he believes he’ll investigate a euthanasia ring, but realizes too late that someone wants him dead. His only hope for survival is an alliance with a terrorist cell planning to assassinate the pope. The plot builds slowly, with numerous philosophical discussions about faith, syncretism, language, and theocracy. The villains — church leaders obsessed with ideological purity —a re one-dimensional, but Marani offers no easy heroes either. The fanatical Salazar has destroyed lives for his church. Readers troubled by subjects such as theocracy, propaganda, and the debate between science and faith should find plenty to contemplate.

Publishers Weekly

'Steady, sure and deft are the adjectives that come to mind when one reads God’s Dogs. At first, Diego Marani’s book reads very strangely. Not like a typical mystery where there is a set-up, and you get a glimpse of the lead character’s character that makes you interested in following the tale. God’s Dogs is like eavesdropping on a conversation going on inside the writer’s mind. More specifically, an argument about the role of the state in mediating the tension between the dictates of belief and the demands of free choice. ...Salazar is a complicated and morally ambivalent character who smokes hashish and likes ‘destroying things’. But at the same time, at the beginning of the book, he is committed to the Papal project of the Counter- Reformation. A compelling character in what is bound to be a gripping series. Can’t wait for the second book.'

Shylashri Shankar in Open Magazine

RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 146

Publication date: 10.01.2014

ISBN numbers:
978 1 909232 51 8
978 1 909232 87 7

World English
rights sold; Australian(Text)