For the love of stereotypes.

Suffer the Little ChildrenThis post mostly refers to a book I finished last week called Suffer the Little Children which is part of the Commissario Brunetti series by Donna Leon.

As you may be able to tell from the name of the series this is a crime series set in Italy, Venice to be exact and I really enjoyed it. It’s a well written police procedural and it managed to avoid all of the traps that I usually encounter in detective fiction. Troubled life of main character, main character having relationship with wrong-doer, huge levels of unnecessary information and the obligatory red herring to name but a few.

Instead we had a solid, capable protagonist, happily married with two happy children and an excellent working relationship with his equally capable team. He investigated his case in a sensible fashion and what’s more is that time moved at what I feel to be a reasonable rate. Instead of everything happening in an intense couple of days resulting in a dramatic showdown where our hero is running on empty having not slept or eaten for 48 hours we had a story that moved along quickly at first and then with nothing for a couple of months. The way I believe investigations work in the real world (not that I have any real experience on that front).

But this post isn’t really about the quality of the book as an example of good crime writing. It’s more about the Italian stereotypes contained therein.

Brunetti and his colleagues represent what some would see as a typical Italian obsession with their stomachs. There were seemingly endless conversations and descriptions of lunch/dinner/snacks/cups and cups of coffee. It all sounded pretty tasty but I found it a little strange that it was such a feature of the book.

I work with quite a few Italians and although it’s certainly true that they love their coffee and their food, they don’t actually talk about it all the time.

Donna Leon is in fact an American although she lived in Venice for 25 years which made me wonder whether this endless listing of foods is because she believes the stereotype, the stereotype is true or she just loves Italian food. According to Wikipedia, the Commissario Brunetti books have been translated into many languages but Leon has requested that they are NOT translated into Italian. Which only serves to redouble my suspicions about her stereotyping.

And it got me to thinking about other stereotypes in literature. A friend was recommending a book to me at the weekend and he described what it’s about and then said ‘But it’s very Russian – lots of potatoes and vodka.’ I believe the book in question was written by a Russian and in my experience, the preference for vodka is true at least 50% of the time (that’s on a sample of 2…).

I thought of Fleur’s vanity and condescension in the Harry Potter series but then I wasn’t sure if that was meant to be a French thing or a Veela thing so I’m not commenting on that but it’s open for discussion if you have any thoughts.

I can’t really think of any more examples right now. There is a book I read at school which was set in Ireland and featured a lot of potatoes but it was mostly about the ghosts of some children who died during the potato famine so I don’t think I can count that one.

I’d be really interested to hear about your views, have you come across stereotypes in the books you’ve read and what were they? I’m always interested to hear what stereotypes abound in other countries as well – I’ll never forget the look on my friend’s face when we informed him that this is the typical English view of the French:

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6 responses to “For the love of stereotypes.

  1. The best friend stereotype drives me mental in YA, they’re always exactly the same, chirpy, sarcastic and boy obsessed. It drives me mental, grr! It’s very rare to come across a good best friend in YA literature these days.

    Funnily enough, the British stereotyping in books written by Americans also tends to be annoying. I read a book a few months back that just got it completely wrong!

    Anddddd that’s all I can think of at the moment. 😛

    • Oh yes that’s a good one, people like that put me right off and that’s in real life as well as in books!

      I can’t think of any examples in books but British people portrayed in American films drive me nuts, I swear they must think we all sound like Hugh Grant 😦

  2. Since Fleur’s the only character of her kind it’s kind of difficult to say whether Rowling wrote her that way because she wanted to build in that conflict between the Weasley family and the new member of the family…or because it was a stereotype. It’s possible that Leon writes a lot about food and coffee because she is a bit of a foodie and that side of her gets incorporated into her novels. Very hard to say.

    • That’s a good point but I seem to remember Mme Maxime being quite vain as well? Although that could have been more defensive than vain on account of being part-giant.

      You’re right about the food thing as well I just thought it was an odd coincidence that Italian characters think about food so much. And they would go for a three course meal with two types of wine at lunchtime which seemed like overkill to me (although that’s partly jealousy talking!).

      • silverneurotic

        I think that a 3 course meal like that is fairly typical in Europe. Never been there but did take Italian classes and meals like that did seem the norm.

      • I was under the impression that it’s not as often the case these days, I was always told that the French would eat a huge meal at lunchtime but my friends assure me that’s not really true. Could be in Italy though, I’ve never been either but you’re right I think it is more common to eat a big lunch in a lot of continental countries.

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