Clash of Civilizations on the Upper East Side
Notes from uptown, from our colleague Mary Norris:
After a reading from “Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio” last night at the Italian Cultural Institute, I was waiting for some friends and suddenly noticed that the man in the cap standing opposite me was Amara Lakhous, the author. Lakhous is an Algerian who lives in Italy, where the politics of immigration are especially ugly right now. He wrote the book first in Arabic and then in Italian, a language that he thinks of as his foster mother. (The English translation, by The New Yorker's Ann Goldstein, has just been issued by Europa.) The novel is ingeniously constructed, with monologues by a gallery of characters, most of them immigrants to Rome (the ones from Milan and Naples also count as immigrants), punctuated by the “Wails” of the main character, Amedeo, himself a translator, who has been accused of murder.
“The book seems very good,” I said, in Italian, when I recognized Lakhous. And then I had a bright idea: I pulled my copy out of my bag and asked him, “Puoi firmare?” (“Can you sign?”). I fished in my bag for “uno strumento”—this made him laugh; I couldn’t think of the word for pen—and handed it to him. “Un incontro felice,” he wrote (“A happy encounter”; it sounds better in Italian), and signed it, “Con stima” (“With respect”), with his last name: Lakhous.