Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, dystopian, Fiction, Italy, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Anna’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Cover image of Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 273 pages; 2017. Translated from the Italian by Johnathan Hunt. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

A deadly virus has killed every adult in Italy and the world has irrevocably changed. There’s no electricity, no transport, no food. The cities are empty, the roads quiet. The world is run by children, who fight among themselves for survival, and feral dogs roam the countryside. The date? October 2020!

Reading Niccolò Ammaniti’s post-apocalyptic novel Anna right now was quite a freaky experience. When I found it lurking on my Kindle I had no idea about its contents. There was no blurb, I just knew that I liked the author’s work having previously read his novels I’m Not Scared (published in 2003) and Me and You (2012). So when I realised it was about a deadly pandemic I wondered what the universe was telling me! The whole book felt scarily prescient.

Set in Sicily

Set in Sicily, the story follows 13-year-old Anna, who lives on Mulberry Farm with her nine-year-old brother, Astor. The siblings have been living alone for four years following the death of their mother from a flu-like virus.

The virus, which has killed every adult in the world, lies dormant in children, appearing only when they reach puberty.

When you reach maturity, red blotches start to appear on your skin. Sometimes they appear straight away, sometimes it takes longer. When the virus grows in your body you start to cough, you find it hard to breathe, all your muscles ache, and scabs form in your nostrils and your hands. Then you die.

Much of the book’s plot centres on two kinds of jeopardy. The first is the threat posed by Anna and Astor wandering the now lawless land in search of food, where every stranger is a danger and wild dogs have the potential to eat them alive; the second is Anna’s countdown to puberty because as soon as she gets her first period it’s likely she’ll also develop the illness that will kill her.

Girls’ own adventure story

It reads very much like a girls’ own adventure story as Anna leaves Mulberry Farm to not only look for supplies but to follow the instructions left by her mother: head for the mainland in case there are adult survivors living there.

Along the way she loses Astor, finds him again, meets up with other children, some of whom are violent and dangerous, others who are helpful and friendly, and chases a rumour that there’s an old lady living in a hotel who has a cure for the virus. She also finds a wild dog who becomes a loyal companion.

I can’t say I loved this book; I think I found it a little too close to the bone given the current covid-19 pandemic. But the writing is beautiful in places, the storytelling is masterful, the characters are well-drawn and the atmosphere is suitably dark and menacing. It’s a heartfelt portrait of sibling loyalty and ends on a hopeful note.

This is my 13th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I actually requested this as a review copy from NetGalley when it first came out, but never got around to reading it — until now. Timing is everything, right?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Granta, Italy, Leonardo Sciascia, Publisher, Setting

‘The Day of the Owl’ by Leonardo Sciascia

Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 122 pages; 2014. Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver.

Short. Sharp. Powerful. That’s the best way to describe Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl.

First published in 1961 and set in the early 1940s, this novella looks at the difficulty one policeman faces when he tries to investigate a crime. The setting is Sicily, where the mafia has infiltrated almost every aspect of society. Even the average citizen on the street closes ranks when the Carabinieri start asking questions.

Dramatic opening

The book opens in rather dramatic fashion. A man in a dark suit is running for a bus when he is gunned down in broad daylight. He is only metres away from a fritter-seller and there are dozens of passengers on the bus, yet no one sees a thing.

What follows is a complicated narrative tracing the investigation into the man’s murder led by Captain Bellodi, an outsider and “mainlander” who heads up the Carabinieri. His quiet pursuit of the truth is intertwined with the voices of those who want to obfuscate his work, and yet he never gives up or takes short cuts to reach his desired outcome.

Captain Bellodi […] was by family tradition and personal conviction a republican, a soldier who followed what used to be called ‘the career of arms’ in a police force, with the dedication of a man who has played his part in a revolution and seen law created by it. This law, the law of the Republic, which safeguarded liberty and justice, he served and enforced.

But while this book might have the look and feel of a crime novel, it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. There’s no neat ending, no redemption. What it offers is an honest and authentic look at a society that has been subjugated by a small band of powerful and immoral men, who have rewritten the rules of engagement and live by their own code of honour. It is particularly good at showing what happens  when bystanders turn a blind eye to crime, violence and corruption.

Tautly written

This tautly written story, which has been pared back to its most basic elements, is an incredibly nuanced piece of work (the dialogue is exceptionally good) and is a wonderful portrait of Sicilian society at a particular moment in time. But it’s also difficult to follow. We are introduced to an endless cast of characters — informers, criminals, politicians, shopkeepers et al — and there’s a disturbing lack of place names (everything is referred to by initial), which makes for a sometimes confusing and frustrating read.

Furthermore, for anyone new to Italian history, it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on politically without doing some research first. (It was thanks to this Wikipedia entry on the Sicilian Mafia that I discovered that the mafia was suppressed under Fascism, which helps put the whole of The Day of the Owl into context.)

Yet for all the difficulties I had with this book, I’d like to return to it at a later date. It’s short, yes, but it’s so dense with ideas and ethical issues that it would take multiple readings to come to grips with them all.

Finally, the author’s afterword — or “tailpiece” as it is called here — adds a fascinating insight into his fear of being charged with libel and slander for skating too close to the truth. He shortened the story — he calls it “pruning” — to protect himself from the reactions of “any who might consider themselves more or less directly attacked in it”, adding: “I was unable to write it with that complete freedom to which every writer is entitled.”

I can only imagine how explosive the book might have been had it included everything he really wanted to write!

Author, Book review, Brian Moore, Cristina Henríquez, Five fast reviews, Joseph Kanon, Muriel Spark, Tiziano Scarpa

Five Fast Reviews: Cristina Henriquez, Joseph Kanon, Brian Moore, Tiziano Scarpa and Muriel Spark

Five-fast-reviews-300pix

‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Contemporaries; 286 pages; 2015.

The-book-of-unknown-americansI read Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans for my book group, but it also fitted in quite nicely with #DiverseDecember. It’s a timely story about immigration — to the USA from Latin America — and the challenges those immigrants face on a daily basis.

Written in a light, almost “frothy” style, the novel follows the fortunes of a wide cast of characters in two families. Each character takes it in turn to tell their version of events, but there are also several chapters written as stand-alone “testimonials” by others that have also immigrated to the US. This structure serves to create a clamour of voices that show the ups and downs of moving to a new country and trying to fit in.

The blurb on the back of my edition claims it’s a love story between two teenagers — the brain-damaged Maribel Rivera, who has immigrated with her family to seek specialist education and treatment for her condition, and her neighbour Mayor Toro — and that’s partly true, but the book is more about showcasing life as an immigrant in the US, where the road isn’t always paved with gold and where racism and victimisation is always on the doorstep.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly enamoured of this novel. I didn’t like the structure and thought the themes were overly simplified. But don’t take my word for it — many in my book group really liked it and it’s been a commercial and critical success in the US, where it was named a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read, and named one of the best books of the year by Oprah.com, School Library Journal, and BookPage.

‘Alibi’ by Joseph Kanon

Fiction – paperback; Sphere; 416 pages; 2007.

Alibi by Joseph KanonFor those of you who follow me on social media — and Instagram in particular — you will know I spent Christmas in Venice. It was my fourth visit to the watery city, and this time it was very much about the food and the drink, rather than the architecture and the walking (although there was plenty of that too). I packed Joseph Kanon’s Alibi in my suitcase, because I always love to read books set in the places I’m visiting, and this one certainly didn’t disappoint.

It’s largely billed as a murder mystery, but it feels more like literary fiction than anything else. It’s certainly intelligent, and the crime at its heart is almost too complex to follow, but it’s the scene setting — Venice in 1946, when everyone’s trying to deal with the outfall of the war —  which makes it such a great read. The characterisation is spot on too, especially the leads: Adam Miller, a traumatised war crimes investigator who has left the US Army and is now visiting his widowed mother in Venice,  and Claudia, an Italian Jew, who survived the death camps, with whom he falls in love.

The story, which is fast-paced and compelling (I read it in the space of two days, because I just had to know what happens next), is very much about love, forgiveness, war and moral culpability (one of my favourite themes in fiction and non-fiction). It brought to mind Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon, which I read — and loved — years ago. This was my first Joseph Kanon; it won’t be my last.

‘Lies of Silence’ by Brian Moore

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Classics; 192 pages; 1995.

Lies of Silence by Brian MooreFirst published in 1990, Lies of Silence is one of those novels I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I’ve had this little Bloomsbury Classic edition in my TBR pile for years, so when I was casting about for something quick and compelling to read it seemed like a good fit: I wasn’t wrong. From the first word, this is the kind of gripping read that makes your pulse race…

Set during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, it thrusts one man into a moral quandary: on the day he plans to tell his wife he’s leaving her for another, much younger, woman, the IRA orders him to park a car in the car park of the Belfast hotel he manages. Without knowing the specifics, he believes the vehicle contains a bomb. But if he refuses to carry out the task, his wife, who has been taken captive, will be murdered; if he does what he’s told hundreds of hotels guests will be killed by the ensuing explosion. Whichever course of action he takes, there will be far-reaching and deadly repercussions…

In this intelligent, well paced novel, we see the themes of sacrifice, love, religion and war play out on a relatively small canvas. It is not your average psychological thriller. Yes, it’s a real page turner, but the prose style, almost old fashioned with an undercurrent of menace to it, lends it a literary feel. I loved it.

‘Venice is a Fish’ by Tiziano Scarpa

Non-fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 137 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside.

Venice is a Fish by Tiziano ScarpaThis is another book that I read while I was in Venice. Written by a native Venetian, it has real Italian flair: the writing is fresh and original, and much of the anecdotes contained within are humorous and (sometimes) surreal. It is strangely bewitching and, hands down, the most innovative book about Venice I’ve ever read.

Scarpa’s main thesis is that Venice is so beautiful — her paintings, her architecture, her canals — that the visitor can be inflicted with a disease known as “aesthetic radioactivity”, an idea that is pushed so much it soon becomes wearing. However, the book is filled with some good factual information of the historical variety — this isn’t a guide book telling you which hotel to stay in or what restaurant to eat at.

It’s divided into short chapters which are themed around the ways in which the visitor experiences the city. For instance, the first chapter entitled “feet” is about experiencing Venice on foot, “ears” explores the city’s noises and “nose” is about smell, and so on. My favourite, and the one that came in most handy for my trip, was “mouth”, which gave me the courage to order authentic Venetian food (rather than typical pasta and pizza) when out dining. Indeed, it’s thanks to Venice is a Fish that I soon developed an addiction to sarde in saór: fried sardines marinated in a sautéed mixture of onions, wine, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it…

(Note, the book could benefit from a Table of Contents and an index, and the last 40 pages fail to be clearly labelled as appendices.)

Territorial Rights’ by Muriel Spark

Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classic; 224 pages; 2014.

Territorial Rights by Muriel SparkTerritorial Rights is one of Muriel Spark‘s lesser-known novels — and, as I soon found out, there might be a reason for that. I read it on the basis it was set in Venice, so would be perfect holiday fare. To some extent that’s true: this was a very easy read, one that felt frothy and light and gave me several good belly laughs. But the storyline is absolutely bonkers.

I know that Spark’s plots are always a bit crazy and that her characters are often absurd and strange, but this one was filled with so many oddballs and misfits, all carrying on in weird and often abysmal ways, that I couldn’t keep track of who was doing what and why. And the ending, after all that hilarity, was also a bit of a let down.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book — it’s just that there are better Spark novels to spend your time with. But if you like farces, washed down with a good dose of eccentricity, you’d be hard pressed to find anything as perfect as this.

Author, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Von Arnim, England, essays, Europa Editions, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Helen Macdonald, Italy, Japan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Verso, Vintage, Yukio Mishima

Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim

Five-fast-reviews-300pix

‘Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Non-fiction – paperback; Verso; 232 pages; 2015.

Mass-murder-and-suicideAs you may gather by the title, I like my non-fiction as dark as my fiction — and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, written by an Italian Marxist whose work mainly focuses on communication theories within post-industrial capitalism, plumbs some pretty black depths. But what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has to say about society and, in particular, capitalism rang a lot of bells with me.

There’s a lot of hard-hitting political, economic and psychological commentary and analysis running throughout this book — produced as part of Verso Futures, which is a new series of essays by leading thinkers and writers — and not all of it is easy to understand. Some of the arguments occasionally feel a little uneven and there are sections written in a clunky academic style, but the ideas outweigh the writing style. Berardi’s main argument is that many young men — and yes, he says they are always men — commit mass shootings before turning the gun on themselves, because this new age of hyper-connectivity and relentless competition in which we live, where neo-liberal politics has stamped out egalitarianism, has divided the world into winners and losers. If you’re a disaffected young man who hasn’t achieved much it’s very easy to become a winner in a short space of time: you take a gun to school (or another public place) and kill everyone in a violent rampage. You’re in charge for 30 minutes or however long it takes and before long the whole world knows your name, even though it’s unlikely you’ll live to see the fame you’ve achieved.

Admittedly not for everyone, this book posits some interesting ideas and is recommended for those who like to explore complex moral and social issues.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

Fiction – Kindle edition; 336 pages; Europa Editions; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

My-brilliant-friendIt seems the whole world has fallen in love with My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-part series by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, but I have to admit that I didn’t really warm to it, perhaps because it was too slow and gentle for me.

The story is a simple one: two girls growing up in 1950s Naples — at a time when women stayed at home and looked after their husbands and children, and girls received only a minimal education — become firm friends. But like many close relationships between teenagers, their relationship is fraught with jealousies and rivalries and they begin to grow apart as they enter the complex world of young womanhood. Elena, the narrator, is bright and does so well at school she’s encouraged to continue her education, while Lina, perhaps more intelligent than her friend, leaves school to pursue work in her family’s shoe-making business.

As well as an authentic look at female friendship, the story is an intriguing portrait of a machismo culture — there’s a lot of violence, domestic and otherwise in this tale — and an impoverished neighbourhood on the brink of political and social change. But while I admired the author’s restraint in telling the story in such simple, stripped back prose, My Brilliant Friend didn’t grip me and I probably won’t bother reading the rest in the series.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 284 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

H-is-for-hawkIn a previous life I was the editor of a bird magazine and often commissioned articles about falconry, so I was keen to read H is for Hawk, which explores Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk following the death of her photojournalist father. The book is actually three books in one: it’s an entertaining account of the ups and downs of training a bird of prey; it’s a moving portrait of a woman’s grief; and it’s a detailed biography of T. H. White, a troubled man who wrote a controversial book about training a goshawk in the early 1950s. These three threads are interwoven into a seamless narrative that is both compelling and illuminating.

The story is infused with a bare and sometimes confronting honesty as Macdonald comes to grips with her own failings and frustrations brought about via the clash of wills between her and Mabel, the £800 goshawk she bought especially for this project. At times it is quite an emotional book, but it’s lightened by moments of humour and it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for the dedication that Macdonald devotes to the task of taming a wild creature. H is for Hawk is probably one of the most unusual non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s also, happily, one of the most heartfelt and intriguing ones.

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 389 pages; 2000. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher

Spring-snowFirst published in 1968 but set in 1912, Spring Snow is the first in Yukio Mishima’s acclaimed The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It’s a rather beautiful and austere tale about a teenage boy, Kiyoaki, who falls in love with an attractive and spirited girl, Satoko, two years his senior, but he plays hard to get and views their “romance” as a bit of a game. It is only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince that Kiyoaki begins to understand his depths of feeling for her — and the enormous loss he looks likely to face unless he takes drastic action to change the course of events.

As well as being a deeply moving love story — think a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet — the book is a brilliant portrait of Japanese society at a time when the aristocracy was waning and rich provincial families were becoming a powerful elite. Through the complex and troubled character of Kiyoaki, it vividly portrays the clash between a rigid militaristic tradition and a less restrained, Westernised way of life.

Written in lush, languid prose, filled with beautiful sentences and turns of phrase, this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s a dense and complex work, but is imbued with such pitch-perfect sentiment it’s difficult not to get caught up in this rather angst-ridden romance. And the ending is a stunner. I definitely want to explore the rest of the books in this series.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The-enchanted-aprilThe Enchanted April is appropriately named for it is, indeed, one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners — quite a daring proposition in itself at that time in history; even more daring when you realise that none of them know each other before the month-long trip.

The holiday is first mooted by an unhappy Mrs Wilkins who sees an advertisement in The Times which captures her eye — and her imagination— looking for “Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” to rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. She advertises for companions, which is how she is joined by Mrs Arbuthnot, who is fleeing an unappreciative husband; the elderly, fusty, set-in-her-ways Mrs Fisher; and the beautiful Lady Caroline, who is not yet ready to settle down but is sick of being chased by marriage-hungry young men.

In the delightful confines of the castle and its heavenly garden, the four women seek rest, recreation and respite with mixed, and often humorous, results as clashes between personalities and numerous misunderstandings ensue. A  brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and delightful book. It’s uplifting, fun and the perfect summer read.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Domenico Starnone, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘First Execution’ by Domenico Starnone

First-execution

Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 173 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar.

Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer, rumoured, at one stage, as being Elena Ferrante, the writer of the Neapolitan series of four novels — My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New NameThose Who Leave And Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — whose identity has remained secret. Having read My Brilliant Friend (yet to be reviewed) I can see how that theory might have come about.

Starnone’s novel, First Execution, posits the idea that education shapes our world view, just as Ferrante does in My Brilliant Friend. He also depicts a relatively violent world, where emotional restraint is in short supply, one that is deeply divided between the rich and the poor. This is something Ferrante does, too. Are they one and the same author? Who knows? To be honest, it doesn’t matter.

The Execution is a brilliant novel brimful of ideas and theories about politics, education, terrorism, war and justice — among others — and I came away from it feeling as if my mind was slightly blown. This is a good thing.

Mild-mannered man caught up in bigger events

The book opens with a retired teacher, 67-year-old Domenico Stasi (note the similarity to the author’s own name) finding out that Nina, a former pupil, has been charged with “armed conspiracy”. Stasi, who taught his students to fight for what they believed in, feels partially responsible — did he contribute to Nina’s desire to become a terrorist?

To appease his own sense of (misguided) guilt, he visits her — they have coffee together in a cafe — but then finds himself caught up in Nina’s world:

She asked me to go to the apartment of a friend of hers. The apartment had been empty for some time, her friend was overseas, she handed me the keys. On the bookshelves in the living room I would find a copy of The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch. On page 46 a few words had been underlined. I was to transcribe those words and place the sheet of paper in an envelope. Soon, someone would show up and ask for the envelope. That was all.

This puts Stasi in a difficult position: should he do it, or say no?  Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he declined, but the narrative that unfurls from this one decision is quite unexpected, for the author inserts himself into the story — Paul Auster style — and we learn how he struggles to write the very pages we are reading. It’s slightly disconcerting and disorienting to suddenly have Domenico Starnone tell us about his creation Domenico Stasi, but it’s a clever device for exploring the lines between fiction and reality and how the two can sometimes mix.

As the narrative slips backwards and forward between the two voices of the two Domenicos — sometimes this is seamless, at other times it’s quite a jolt — we are taken on an electrifying ride that feels like a psychological thriller on one level and a deeply philosophical mediation about the state of the world on another. Indeed, it’s a weird kind of page turner in the sense that you want to find out what happens next — will Domenico get himself arrested or badly hurt or perhaps even killed? — but at the same time you’re forced to contemplate all kinds of issues, including war, violence, capitalism, socialism, religion, education, what it is to get old and the lines between guilt and innocence.

Personal responsibility

A constant refrain is to what extent we bear personality responsibility for the state of the society we live in. If we are unhappy about the divide between the rich and the poor, or the injustices that go on around us, do we become complicit if we do nothing about the situation? And if we do decide to do something, is it ever okay to be violent, to rise up against the powers that be and perhaps take innocent people’s lives to make a point?

Stasi, in particular, often muses about the need to make a decision, because indifference simply breeds more problems down the line — in other words, the past always catches up with the future.

I spent a lot of time underlining lengthy paragraphs in this book because they so eloquently captured my own thoughts about justice and poverty, for instance, and I came away from this rather clever novel feeling a slightly richer person for having read it.

Finally, I should add that if you liked Laurent Binet’s HHhH, then you may well enjoy this one too.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Setting

‘Me and You’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Me-and-you

Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 155 pages; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes it is the shortest books which pack the biggest punch — and this is especially true for Italian author Niccolò Ammanitis latest novel Me and You. In just 155 pages, Ammaniti takes us into the world of a teenage boy, who deceives his parents into thinking he is going on a skiing trip with friends, only to have his world turned upside down by the discovery of a family secret.

A tale of deception

When the book opens Lorenzo Cuni is 24 years old and staying at a hotel in Cividale del Friuli, in northern Italy. He has a piece of paper with him that was written by his sister Olivia ten years earlier, when she was 23.

The story then backtracks to February 2000, when Lorenzo was 14 and a bit of a loner. His wealthy parents, deeply troubled by his behaviour, have sent him to a psychologist, who has diagnosed him with “an inflated sense of self-importance”. But it’s clear that Lorenzo doesn’t have any social skills and finds it difficult to make friends — not without want of trying.

One morning I was at home with a fake headache and I saw a documentary on television about insects that mimic other insects. […]
I had been going about it the wrong way.
Here’s what I had to do.
Imitate the dangerous ones.
I wore the same things they wore. Adidas trainers, jeans with holes in them, a black hoodie. I messed up the parting in my hair and let it grow long. I even wanted to get my ear pierced but my mother forbade me. […]
I walked like them, with my legs wide apart. I threw my backpack on the ground and kicked it around.
I mimicked them discreetly. There’s a fine line between imitation and caricature.

When he hears a group of teenagers he longs to be friends with talk about a ski trip they are going on, he goes home and tells his mother he has been invited to go with them. He then sets up an elaborate scam in which he spends the week hidden in the never-used basement of the family home with his computer games, a copy of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and plenty of food and drink.

But when his much older half-sister, whom he barely knows, unexpectedly unlocks the door to the basement, Lorenzo’s secret looks set to be exposed. What he doesn’t realise is that Olivia, whom is estranged from the family, has secrets of her own to keep…

The book’s biggest punch, however, comes at the very end, when we discover exactly why Lorenzo is in northern Italy ten years after his week in the basement.

A simple prose style

I’ll admit that the faux naive writing style initially grated, but once I realised that it is deliberately written as if by an immature 14-year-old, I got swept away by the story. By maintaining a certain level of tension throughout, Ammaniti has crafted quite a page turner — for instance, I kept waiting for Lorenzo’s mother, who checked up on him via mobile phone almost every day, to find out his secret.

But the story’s real strength lies more in what is not said: why is Olivia estranged from the family? Why is Lorenzo so (sickeningly) sentimental about his mother? Why does he have so much trouble fitting in at school? These allow room for the reader to figure things out — to read between the lines, so to speak — and to join the dots without Ammaniti having to spell every single little thing out.

This might be a highly condensed story, but it deals with big themes — family, shame, deception, and our need to be accepted by our peers and loved by those closest to us. And it beautifully captures that time on the cusp of adulthood when our childish view of the world is changed forever.

Me and You — which reminded me somewhat of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, one of my favourite reads from last year — is Ammaniti’s fourth novel. His first, I’m Not Scared, has also been reviewed on this site.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Everyman's Library, Fiction, Italo Calvino, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’ by Italo Calvino

If-on-a-winters-night-a-traveler-2

Fiction – hardcover; Everyman’s Library; 304 pages; 1993. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler was Italian author Italo Calvino’s much lauded 16th novel. A rather clever, knowing book, it pokes fun at reading, writing and publishing. From its opening passage, I suspected it was going to be a rather enjoyable read:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

But sadly, I found this book so clever as to be pretentious, and so contrived as to be patronising. Most of all I just found reading it an incredibly frustrating experience.

The nub of the novel, which was first published in 1979, is this: a reader tries to read Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler but discovers that the book is faulty. He takes it back to the shop for a replacement, only to discover the replacement book is also faulty. And therein lies the pattern: in alternate chapters we follow the reader’s adventures as he tries to  track down a perfect copy of the book. This is interspersed with the actual text of the books he acquires, none of which turn out to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.

Confused yet? I found it excruciatingly perplexing in places, particularly as the reader’s side of the story is told in the second person, so the “you” feels like it is being addressed to you personally, even though it becomes increasingly clear that that is not the case. It gets worse when characters associated with the reader, including the enigmatic Ludmilla who also bought a defective copy of the book, cross-over so that they also appear in the text the reader is reading, blurring the lines between the reader’s life and the fiction he reads.

Essentially, this is the type of novel that just gets your brain in a complete muddle. And while I’m not averse to this kind of post-modernist technique, where the author also appears as a character (think Paul Auster or J.M. Coetzee), and where different literary styles and genres are “sampled” in the one novel (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), I found If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler rather exasperating.

It doesn’t help that the alternate chapters of the book, which are presented as opening chapters of what is supposed to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (but never are), is that they all end abruptly at a climatic moment, so you are left dangling and never find out what happens next. This happens 10 times. (At one point Calvino compares sex to reading, so perhaps these abrupt endings are his idea of a joke about failing to climax.)

Each of these 10 chapters are written in a different style or genre, so Calvino gets to show off his ability to write a satire, a romance, a thriller and so on. But unfortunately each chapter does not feel sufficiently different to the one that precedes it, so the “trick” failed to truly work.

The saving grace, for me anyway, is the illuminating insights and ideas Calvino presents about the intertwined and ever-changing relationships that authors and readers have with books. He makes it clear that every author is looking for the perfect reader, and every reader is looking for the perfect book. He makes other statements about different readers wanting different things from books, and that every time we read a book we bring with it our own prejudices based on our life experience. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that our enjoyment of reading a book can be influenced by something as inconsequential as to where we are sitting (or lying) when we read it and what is going on in our personal lives at the time.

While I admire Calvino’s ambition, his ideas, his ability to turn our notion of a novel on its head, this book clearly wasn’t for me. The elegant prose and the courageous experimentation (with its nod to James Joyce), couldn’t make up for its lack of narrative drive, detailed descriptions and rich characterisation. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is one of those books that takes you right out of your comfort zone; it’s intelligent, a little bit witty, a little bit cynical but ultimately it’s too emotionally shallow to offer any real insight into the human condition.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Doubleday, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Paolo Giordano, Publisher, Setting

‘The Solitude of Prime Numbers’ by Paolo Giordano

Solitude-of-prime-numbers

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday; 352 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A novel written by a particle physicist that features mathematics and numbers may not be all that surprising. But what is surprising about Paulo Giordano’s debut, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, is the age of the author — he’s just 26 — and the outstanding success, both critically and commercially, that the book has garnered.

According to the publisher, the book has sold more than 1.2 million copies across 34 countries since its publication in Italy last year. It has topped the Dutch and Spanish bestseller lists and scooped five literary awards, including Italy’s premier literary award, the Premio Stega.

Earlier this year, I heard the author interviewed on BBC Radio 5’s Book Reviews with Simon Mayo show, and everyone on the panel raved about it. I decided then that I really ought to read it, because surely it couldn’t be that good? Or could it?

Well, I’m afraid to say that you’ll get no dissident voice from these quarters. The book is a delight. It’s literary without being pretentious, which probably explains its extraordinary success. But it also tells a wonderful story about two intriguing characters, Alice and Mattia, and their intertwined destinies.

Both Alice and Mattia are loners, who have been scarred by childhood tragedies. Alice suffered a terrible skiing accident which has left her with a pronounced and permanent limp, while Mattia abandoned his mentally disabled twin sister in a park to go to a party, and when he returned she was gone, never to be found. These two irreversible episodes have manifested themselves in psychological conditions: Alice is anorexic, Mattia is a self-harmer.

Interestingly, Giordano doesn’t sensationalise or glorify their conditions, they’re merely character traits and never explored in any great depth. Indeed, Alice is so successful at hiding her illness that no one, not even the closest of family members, ever seems to notice it. (This, I admit, annoyed me a little: how could you not notice someone shoving food in napkins or fainting, because they’re so undernourished?)

The story, which spans 24 years, follows these two characters from childhood to adulthood, as they grapple with their lives and make decisions about their futures. The third-person narrative keeps the momentum going by toying with the idea that Alice and Mattia are destined to be together.

Mathematicians call them twin primes: they are pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbours, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. […] Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.

I won’t spoil it by revealing whether they do, in fact, get their acts together, because most of the fun of reading The Solitude of Prime Numbers is discovering whether they will ever become truly romantically involved. What I will say is this: the ending is not the predictable one that seems to loom at around the 290-page mark, which only made my love for this book all the stronger.

This is by no means a perfect novel, but it’s an extraordinarily human one, melancholy and inspiring by turns. It also comes across as being very wise, particularly in terms of familial relationships, friendship, marriage and parenthood, as if Giordano is much, much older than his years. He also has an uncanny ability to get inside the head of a teenage girl who is desperate to be liked by her peers, and the scenes in which Alice is bullied at high school are incredibly authentic.

Assuming Giordano continues to pursue a writing career, rather than a scientific one, then he will definitely be one to watch in the future. But in the meantime, I suspect his debut will continue to sell like hot cakes, as indeed it should.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Setting

‘I’m Not Scared’ by Niccolo Ammaniti

ImNotScared

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 225 pages; 2003. Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt.

Books about childhood that truly get inside the mind of a child are difficult feats to accomplish. How do you recapture the innocence, that naive sense of wonder, that wide-eyed outlook on life untouched by greater human experience without talking down to your reader or coming across as if you’re trying too hard?

Whatever the trick, Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti has achieved it. In spades.

The somewhat ludicrously titled I’m Not Scared is a delicious treat, one that transports the reader back to that time when the adult world was incomprehensible and the best thing about life was riding your bicycle throughout the long, hot school holidays that lay ahead every summer.

Set in a small Italian village enclosed by scorched wheat fields, the story is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, Michele Amitrano, who hangs out with a small group of local children, including his younger sister. One day, during a dare to race up a remote hilltop, Michele stumbles upon a sight that the others don’t see: near a dilapidated farmhouse he finds a young boy chained in a hole hidden under a sheet of corrugated iron and a mattress.

Later — and this isn’t a plot spoiler — we learn the boy has been kidnapped, and that some of the adults in Michele’s village, including his parents, are involved. This floors Michele, whose sense of childhood justice is outraged. He vacillates between sharing his discovery, or keeping quiet. He chooses the latter… with devastating consequences.

The beautiful thing about this book — aside from the well-paced plot and the gentle telling of the story — is the writing. In stripped back prose Ammaniti reveals so much about humans and the sometimes emotionally strained relationships between children and adults — and always, despite the heavy drama, humour is not that far away.

‘Papa! Papa!’ I pushed the door and rushed in. ‘Papa! I’ve got something to …’ The rest died on my lips.
He was sitting in the armchair with the newspaper in his hands looking at me with toad’s eyes. The worst toad eyes I had seen since the day I had drunk the Lourdes water thinking it was aqua minerale. He squashed his cigarette-end in his coffee cup.

Similarly, his descriptions of the rain-starved Italian countryside are so vivid you feel as if you are standing there with the sun beating down on your back.

The stream was always dry, except in winter, when it rained hard. It wound its way between the yellow fields like a long albino snake. A bed of white pointed stones, incandescent rocks and tufts of grass. After a steep part between two hills, the stream widened out to form a pond which in summer dried up into a black puddle.
The lake, we called it.
There were no fish in it, nor tadpoles, only mosquito larvae and water boatmen. If you put your feet in it, you took them out covered in dark, stinking mud.

I’m Not Scared bears striking similarities to the more recent The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: both novels are about young boys finding themselves face to face with counterparts in dire life-and-death predicaments, both feature innocent narrators being confronted with the worst of human nature. But where The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has a neatly drawn heart-wrenching ending, I’m Not Scared packs a powerhouse punch which leaves the reader to make up their own mind as to what really happened.

Finally, a word of warning: if you intend to read this book make sure you’ve got a few clear hours to do so, the storytelling is so rich and vivid you won’t want to abandon it until the final, devastating climax is reached. I read it in one sitting, completely unaware of the ticking of the clock, a perfect Sunday afternoon treat.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Italy, Massimo Carlotto, Orion, Publisher, Setting

‘The Colombian Mule’ by Massimo Carlotto

ColombianMule  

Fiction – paperback; Orion, New Ed edition; 184 pages; 2004. Translated from the Italian by Christopher Woodall.

Somehow the Colombian knew he was fucked the moment he met the cop’s gaze.

So begins Massimo Carlotto’s hardboiled Italian noir novel The Colombian Mule, which opens with Arias Cuevas being detained at Venice airport with a belly full of cocaine. When Cuevas describes his drug-smuggling contact — “about fifty, medium-height, a bit fat, with light brown hair” — the Italian police arrest the wrong man. Is it a case of mistaken identity, or are the police bending the law for their own means?

Enter Alligator, an unlicensed private investigator, and his band of borderline-corrupt cohorts, who wants to discover the truth behind the arrest and bust the drug smuggling ring in the process. But in this seedy underworld peppered with shady characters — greedy, violent and immoral — the normal rules of engagement do not apply.

Set in Venice and the grimy industrial surrounds of Mestre, this short but action-packed novel delivers a deftly woven storyline that blurs the line between those who break the law and those who enforce it. It is a dark, violent but ultimately compelling novel  told in a clear, succinct style that grips from the first carefully measured word.

Think The Sopranos meets Goodfellas — without the Americanised gloss — and you might get some idea of the beauty and brutality contained within the pages of this not-for-the-faint-hearted novel by an Italian master. Just don’t expect to view (romantic) Venice in the same way again…