In the 1974 Italian comedy “Bread and Chocolate,” Nino Manfredi played an Italian guest worker in Switzerland who’s stripped of his papers after he’s caught urinating in public.
That movie was a funny and sad depiction of Italian immigrants only one generation ago, when Southern Europe could seem as poor, backward and needy as Africa or parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East do today.
Now, of course, Italy is a magnet for immigrants from all over: Albanians, Croats, Senegalese, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Syrians and Tunisians. For the world’s frightened and dispossessed, Italy beckons — and repels — with the same shimmer of unattainable wealth and impenetrable privilege as Britain, Germany or France. Unlike those nations, however, Italy was never much of a colonial power; the Impero Italiano in places like Eritrea and Libya failed to achieve the same kind of power or durability. Until recently, Italy’s culture was far more homogeneous than that of those other European nations, and so was its literary fiction.
That has changed, but it hasn’t always been noticed from afar.
“Divorce Islamic Style,” a new novel by Amara Lakhous, is a delightful way to set the record straight, a whimsical and at times heartbreaking look at the Muslim immigrants who work in pizza kitchens and live in communal apartments near Viale Marconi, a crowded, commercial part of Rome that tourists rarely see.
It’s hard to find the lighter side of Islamic terrorism or the subjugation of women, but as the title suggests, “Divorce Islamic Style” does it by scaling those themes down to the size of two ordinary people, Issa and Sofia, who cross paths in ways that can verge on the farcical. They tell their tales in alternating first-person narratives, so the story unfolds like a duet — one in which the singers are in different sound booths and don’t know when and where their voices overlap.
“Issa” is really Christian Mazzari, an Italian citizen fluent in Tunisian Arabic who is recruited by the Italian secret service to go undercover as a Tunisian immigrant and infiltrate a possible terrorist cell. He uses his new identity to hang out in the Muslim community, but he proves better at making friends than finding incriminating information. Mostly, he asks his handlers to help down-and-out roommates with their visa troubles.
“Sofia” is really Safia, the wife of an Egyptian architect who has worked as a pizza maker since he migrated. Theirs is an arranged marriage, which Sofia accepted because it would take her away from Egypt. But life in Italy is no dolce vita: her husband, a devout Muslim, demands she wear the veil and not work. “In the early days it seemed to me that I was still living in Cairo,” she says. “I saw so many Egyptians around that I wondered, a little astonished and bewildered, ‘Where is this Rome?’ ”
Lakhous, who was born in Algiers and moved to Italy in 1995, has asked that question before — in his previous novel, “Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio,” which examines a murder from the viewpoint of neighbors including a rage-filled Iranian émigré and a crabby Neapolitan concierge. The novels are different, but both concern identity and misidentification.
Sofia, like Issa, is leading a secret life: behind her husband’s back, she works as a hairdresser in clients’ homes. While Issa goes undercover to unmask terrorists, Sofia is herself a kind of insurgent, secretly rebelling against an oppressive husband.
Sofia is the more foreign of the two, yet also more immersed in Italian culture. Issa (whose real name, Christian, is especially loaded in a book about religious and cultural identity) is assimilated to a world far beyond Italy, sprinkling his account with references to Donnie Brasco and John Belushi.
In the original Italian text, both Issa and Sofia sometimes quote French sayings — probably a reflection of the author’s education in French-speaking Algeria. The English version, beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein, cuts back on Issa’s French without sacrificing any immediacy. Even some of the best translations have phrases that sound forced. This doesn’t.
French and British literature have long been enriched by the biculturalism of authors like Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amin Maalouf, Gaitam Malkani and Monica Ali. With talented new writers like Lakhous, who creates characters equally at home — and equally lost — in Arabic, Italian and French, Italy is closing the gap.
by Alessandra Stanley