Thursday, 10 April 2014

Clash of Civilizations over and Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous (4/5)

First published: 2006
Original title: Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio
Original language: Italian
Translation to English by: Ann Goldstein, 2008

Page count: 131


The back says: A small culturally mixed community living in an apartment building in the center of Rome is thrown into disarray when one of the neighbors is murdered. An investigation ensues and as each of the victim's neighbors is questioned, the reader is offered an all-access pass into the most colorful neighborhood in contemporary Rome. Each character takes his or her turn “giving evidence,” recounting his or her story - the dramas of racial identity, the anxieties and misunderstandings born of a life spent on society's margins, the daily humiliations provoked by mainstream culture's fears and indifference, preconceptions and insensitivity. What emerges is a moving story that is common to us all, whether we live in Italy or Los Angeles.

This novel is animated by a style that is as colorful as the neighborhood it describes and is characterized by seemingly effortless equipoise that borrows from the cinematic tradition of the Commedia all’Italiana as exemplified by directors such as Federico Fellini.

At the heart of this bittersweet comedy told with affection and sensitivity is a social reality that we often tend to ignore and an anthropological analysis, refreshing in its generosity, that cannot fail to fascinate.

I say: What an absolutely delightful read. This is social satire at its finest and most hilarious. I laughed out loud a lot.

As well as shaking my head at some of the nonsense that was spouted.

In total we are dealing with 11 testimonials from people who are all somehow connected to the elevator in Piazza Vittorio; some because they live in the apartment building, and others because they deliver goods or have friends there. The 12th person we hear from is the detective that has been handed the case, and as usual with detective stories, the person I thought had murdered “The Galdiator” wasn’t the one. It doesn’t really matter that much since the murder is more of a plot device to get the characters to show their prejudices against and little quarrels with each other.

And there were many of them.

When I was studying Conflict Resolution at uni The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington was referred to in pretty much every class. As wiki simplifies it, it is the theory that people's cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world, which is what Lakhous is embodying in this novel. There is no need to have read Huntington to get the message, I just thought I’d put it out there as an explanation of the title.

At the heart of this story is the elevator and the one person that everyone gets along with, Amedeo, whom they all assume to be Italian because he speaks the language like a native. Amedeo himself never gives a clear answer as to where he is from, but responds with a vague “south”. He is also the only one who doesn’t use the elevator – until one of the tenants gets so overweight they forbid her to use it. Here we naturally segue into what the elevator symbolises; which I’m not going to go into because it will entail spoilers.

The humour and satire of the novel lies in the different parts of roman society that the characters represent and how they interact. We have the immigrant who seemingly hates Rome, but is unable to go back home; the immigrant without papers and therefore afraid to report crimes against her for fear of being deported; the old native lady that blames the immigrants for everything bad that happens; and so on (I can’t name all 11 characters). At the end of each testimony we are treated to excerpts from Amedeo’s journal where he speaks about their relationship. As a result we get to know all the characters through their own, Amedeo’s and their acquaintance’s eyes which leads to equal parts hilarity and frustration. Prejudices run rampant and I couldn’t help but consider how I view myself and those around me.

4/5 because it is more profound than one initially thinks.

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