In decades past, a kind of honorary chair existed in American publishing for a “great” Italian writer—one only, please—through whom tasteful American readers could satisfy their need for la vita Italiana, dolce and otherwise.
Alberto Moravia’s many translated novels, from Gli Indifferenti on, provided slices of Italian existentialist angst and leisure-class ennui (or noia, to be exact), suffused with the 20th-century secular sexuality that makes Italy, like Brazil, Catholic and sensual at the same time.
Italo Calvino showed that an Italian novelist could best the French at their own surrealist, postmodernist, Oulipo-nutty ways. (The “Oulipeans”, such as Paris-based Georges Perec, liked to write novels without a particular letter, among other tricks.) Primo Levi kept the tradition of sober Italian moralism alive. Umberto Eco synthesized highbrow agendas, pop culture and recondite history to invent a new genre of best-selling egghead fiction that fellow professors around the world tried to emulate.
That was then, this is now. Translation of foreign fiction remains so occasional here that Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy (which chooses the annual Nobel literature laureate), notoriously rebuked US publishing recently for its provincialism. Italian fiction traditionally trails French and German literature here in numbers, but continues to surface— note the publication this month of Ottavio Cappellani’s Sicilian Tragedee, a theater-based murder tale, and Andrea De Carlo’s Sea of Truth, the story of two brothers by the veteran novelist who served as an assistant director to Fellini and Antonioni.
Still, no younger Italian novelist looms as clear successor to the chair. Meanwhile, Italy resembles the land of Moravia and Calvino less and less. Once a fount of emigrants who brought Italian food and ways to America, Argentina, northern Europe and elsewhere, Italy (like Germany and France) increasingly looks like a nation of immigrants, with so-called native Italians exhibiting the usual reactive attitudes and behaviors, from bleeding-heart sympathy to aggressive hostility.
No recent Italian novel so elegantly and directly confronts the “new Italy” as the just-published Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous, an Algerian in his late 30s who holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Algiers and another in cultural anthropology from “La Sapienza”, the University of Rome.
Do we have an Italian Camus on our hands? Just possibly—Class of Civilizations won Italy’s Flaiano Prize, and comes to us care of Ann Goldstein, the leading literary translator of Italian these days. It’s just the latest fine European fiction from Europa Editions, a small New York house at the forefront of a modest rebellion against the provincialism Engdahl decries. The novel revolves around a character, Signor Amedeo, whose Italian origins are utterly in dispute.
Lakhous shapes his story around a single apartment building on Piazza Vittorio in Rome, an immigrant area. His building’s residents, whose stories crisscross, offer a microcosm of modern Rome as they battle over the deteriorating condition of their elevator.
Elisabetta Fabiani, addicted to thrillers, also frets that her dog, Valentino, has disappeared into dishes served by Chinese restaurants popping up everywhere in the neighborhood. Parviz Mansoor Samadi, an Iranian cook forced to flee Shiraz by the Revolutionary Guards, refuses to learn Italian cooking (he hates pizza and pasta) and so finds himself bounced into dishwashing jobs and further indignities.
Benedetta Esposito, the building’s concierge from Naples, hates immigrants and constantly calls Parviz “the Albanian”—and much worse. Antonio Marini, a Milanese professor who moved to Rome to take a professorship at La Sapienza, feels he has survived a Third World country and believes the unification of Italy was an “irreparable historical mistake”—one perspective the Milanese sometimes bring to Rome.
Add Lorenzo Manfredini, a thug nicknamed “The Gladiator”, who has a charming habit of urinating and scrawling vulgar graffiti in the elevator. And Johan Van Marten, a Dutch film student who wants to revive 1950s neorealism with a movie titled naturalmente, “Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio”.
Rounding out Lakhous’ neighborhood—all these characters get to narrate in separate chapters——are such finely drawn figures as Iqbal Amir Allah, a grocer from Bangladesh whom Benedetta insists is Pakistani (we like him despite his remark that in Italy “Massimo, Giulio and Romano are all first names”); Sandro Dandini, owner of the piazza’s main bar; Inspector Bettarini; and Maria Cristina Gonzalez, an overweight Peruvian maid abused by Lorenzo and on her way to setting a local record for abortions.
One resident of the building links all these characters: Signor Amedeo, Lakhous’ most appealing character, a translator and intellectual who reads abstruse authors such as the Romanian aphorist E.M. Cioran. The others, who largely disdain one another, like Amedeo. Most assume he’s Italian because of his fluency, fine manners, Italian wife, and aristocratic gait. But when police find “The Gladiator” murdered in the building’s elevator, then name Amedeo as the chief suspect, his own immigrant identity comes to the fore.
Lakhous orchestrates Clash of Civilizations as a small symphony of telling voices, with the winds predictably winning pride of place. We hear voices of racism (Lorenzo’s “Italy for Italians! Italy for Italians!”), exasperation (Benedetta’s “Living with them is impossible!”), and even outrage from the new immigrants themselves (Iqbal laments, “Why can’t the police be strict with immigrants who are criminals? Why should the honest ones who sweat for a piece of bread suffer?”).
Because Lakhous favors a livelier, more reportorial style than Camus, it would be easy to let the slapstick moments of Clash of Civilizations obscure its fundamental seriousness as a photo of a society in transition. To his credit, the author understands “reflex racism”—the shabby thoughts of non-evil people who mouth observations their wiser selves might reject. So Elisabetta, arguing that dogs should be protected before immigrants, asks, “Have you ever heard of a dog who raped its owner?” By doing so, Lakhous maintains an evenhanded angle on his characters that helps them rise lifelike from the page.
Iqbal, one example of that, recalls that Amedeo once shared with him the Prophet Muhammad’s thought that “to smile at someone is like giving alms.” Lakhous’ kindly gaze at his cast in Clash of Civilizations perhaps is his way of noting that battling outsiders have defined Italy since the beginning of time, and those clashes made Italy Italian.
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