Finding the right book for the right occasion can be difficult at times, but sometimes it just happens. Recently, I had to spend a day at the local shopping centre while my car was being given a once-over, so I needed something short(ish) that I'd be able to read while 90s power ballads were playing in the background and kids were running around screaming.
Who'd have thought that it would be good too? ;)
Amara Lakhous' Dispute over a very Italian Piglet (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) is a short novel set in Turin towards the end of 2006. Enzo Laganà, a journalist with a sense of humour and a liking for the finer things in life, is caught out when some murders occur in Turin - mainly because he was in bed with his girlfriend in Marseilles at the time. He manages to cover his tracks by coming up with a theory of an Eastern European mafia war, giving himself time to get back to Italy undiscovered.
However, Enzo's white lie hits a chord with popular sentiment, and the story spirals out of control, with the public desperate to know more about the conflict between Romanian and Albanian criminals. As Enzo desperately tries to backtrack (and find out what's really going on), he gets involved with a beautiful film-maker and a couple of grumpy detectives. And that's without even mentioning Gino. Gino? He's a pig...
Lakhous' novel is a clever story, a tale of a city built on corruption and racial discrimination. From the very start, as we learn about Enzo's Calabrian roots, we see that ethnic diversity will play a large role in the novel, with each group despising the next to arrive. Even Enzo's Ukrainian cleaner is caught up in the trap:
"Natalia can't stand the Romanians, it's impossible to make her change her ideas or at least sow some healthy doubts in her mind. The more I go on, the more convinced I am that prejudice is an incurable disease. There is no medicine or preventive measure that works. What can we do? Maybe we have to reluctantly accept living with prejudice. That likable genius Albert Einstein wasn't wrong: it's easier to split an atom than a prejudice."
p.92 (Europa Editions, 2014)
This racial tension, however, is exactly what makes it easy for Enzo to get away with his exclusives - including getting an actor friend to provide the voice of the 'Deep Throat' informers!
The second main story, though, is that of the piglet, and it's a very good one. When a video surfaces of a pig running through a local mosque, it's seen by the local Muslim community as a calculated insult, and only one man can be the culprit. You see, everyone knows that Joseph from Nigeria keeps a pet pig in his apartment, and there's no chance of porcine mistaken identity. There's only one pig around who likes wearing a Juventus scarf...
It's up to Enzo, in between fake meetings with informers, to keep the peace and try to negotiate a solution to the problem. In doing so, he has to talk to Joseph, the local Muslim community, animal welfare activists and the local right-wing leader, all in an attempt to (literally) save Gino's bacon. As Joseph solemnly states:
"Enzo, the important thing is for Gino to emerge from this business with his head held high." (p.128)
What can Enzo do? He can't leave a fellow Juve fan in the lurch ;)
As you may have realised. Dispute... is a very funny book, but the humour hides some serious issues. Lakhous looks at the vicious circle of racism towards new arrivals in the city, despairing of ever really being able to achieve harmony in a world of differences. The incident with the pig is just a small example of the kind of misunderstandings that arise in a multicultural society.
However, the real story is hidden deeper within the book, and anyone with a passing knowledge of Italy might be able to guess where the real problem lies. The harder Enzo digs in attempting to solve the puzzle of the murders, the clearer it becomes that far from being a matter for outsiders, this issue is a very Italian affair. Gradually, Enzo realises that he needs to be very careful who he trusts, no matter how friendly (or beautiful) they are...
This is Lakhous' third book, and all have been brought into English by Ann Goldstein and Europa Editions; on the basis of this one, I'm very keen to try the others. It's a clever work, one which deals with some heavy themes by surrounding them with some pig-shaped antics, fitting a surprising amount into 160 pages. I highly recommend it - especially if you're hanging around a shopping centre waiting for a call from the local mechanics...