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Detectives Beyond Borders: "the stories are heartbreaking, though the comedy predominates."

Date: Dec 12 2008

from Detectives Beyond Borders

Amara Lakhous' house of mysteries

For a moment I thought that after fifty-eight years, critics had found a new touchstone for discussing the elusiveness of truth. I'd read several references on blogs to Amara Lakhous' novel Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, and not one had invoked Rashomon. I needed to verify my impression, though, so I did a quick online search. Sure enough, two American newspapers, cautiously and safely erudite, reliably behind the times in that way that American newspapers have, compared the novel to Akira Kurosawa's movie. I am unsure whether this is testament more to the movie's power or the critics' laziness.

In the book, an obstreperous tenant of a Roman apartment block has been murdered, another tenant has disappeared, and, one at a time, ten neighbors and a police officer tell their stories, comment about one another, and speculate about whether the missing man is guilty of the killing. The neighbors include immigrants, internal and external, and their mutual misperceptions form the book's comedy and its mystery as well. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, though the comedy predominates.

The mystery inheres in the clashing interpretations the tenants offer based on circumstantial evidence and on their own imaginations, backgrounds and prejudices. And the mystery only intensifies after the vanished man's fate is revealed.

Lakhous was born in Algiers and, according to his publisher, recently completed a Ph.D. thesis on “Living Islam as a Minority.” I'd suspect, though, that of his novel's immigrant characters, he has special affection for Johan van Marten, a young Dutchman who wants to make a movie about the apartment building and its residents. (Clash of Civilizations ... is one of the titles he proposes for his film.) Van Marten offers a simple and highly amusing solution to a linguistic puzzle that others had misinterpreted, and Lakhous also has him give voice to one of the great sports metaphors in all crime fiction.

Sport also figures in the book's most amusing example of Italians' suspicions of migrants from elsewhere in their own country:

"Sandro told me that Naples fans can't stand the Olympic Stadium because of the banners of the Roma fans, which display a special welcome. For example, last year during the Roma-Naples game there was a banner that said `Welcome, Naples fans, welcome to Italy!'"

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