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Bookstore People: "Clash is a novella packed with themes. The most obvious is racism and immigration; apparently the inability to like people different from yourself is universal."

Date: Jul 6 2009

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that after reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog I wanted to read more translated fiction. Since then Claire and I have received several lovely books from small publishers of translated work. Today is the first in a new weekly series, Translated Tuesday, to share the bounty with you. Each week we’ll introduce our readers to a translated work of fiction, mostly by living writers. We’re planning on running the series at least through the summer.

First Book: Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (or as I referred to it, Elevator Fighting in Rome)

After learning about Europa Editions, publisher of translated works in United States, including The Elegance of the Hedgehog and also Old Filth, I decided to read one of their Italian translations, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous. It is the perfect book to introduce this series because the beloved character, Amedeo, is a translator who loves his work: “translation is a journey over a sea from one shore to the other. Sometimes I think of myself as a smuggler: I cross the frontiers of language with my booty of words, ideas, images and metaphors. ”

The setting for Clash is an apartment building in an immigrant section of Rome. One of the tenants, the Gladiator, was murdered. The mystery is less about who murdered the disliked thug, but who really is the much admired neighbor, Amedeo, who disappeared the day of the murder. Each chapter in the novella is told in the voice of a different tenant followed by a few of Amedeo’s journal entries reflecting back on that character.

Racism and Immigration
Clash is a novella packed with themes. The most obvious is racism and immigration; apparently the inability to like people different from yourself is universal. The apartment building is a combination of immigrants and Italians who in one form or another fight over the elevator. The Milan professor dislikes the southern Italians, the Roman bar owner dislikes anyone from Naples, and the concierge (joined in some degree by the other characters) hates all immigrants:

All you have to do is take a walk in the afternoon in the gardens in Piazza Vittorio to see that the overwhelming majority of the people are foreigners: some come from Morocco, some from Romania, China, India, Poland, Senegal, Albania. Living with them is impossible. They have religions, habits, and traditions different from ours. In their countries they live outside or in tents, they eat with their hands, they travel on donkeys and camels and treat women like slaves. I’m not a racist, but that’s the truth.

The term racist is thrown around several times, either a character claims not to be a racist before or after saying something truly ignorant, or it is used as an insult. There is an awareness that the comments are wrong, but not enough to stop the thoughts and misunderstandings. The theme reflects aspects of modern day Italy, but it isn’t limited to that country, much of what is said and felt could be from an American character as we as a society grapple with our own feelings of discrimination and immigration. I found it compelling and thought provoking in an nonthreatening way to read about our problems in the setting of a another culture.

Truth
Amara Lakhous layers the theme of truth throughout the book. The superfical story line is about discovering the truth of who killed the Gladiator. Each chapter is titled “The Truth According to [the name of the character]” and just the title indicates that truth is dependent upon viewpoint. Each character says in one form or another that it can’t be true that Amedeo is the murderer. Each character describes specific instances with Amedeo which Amedeo then reflects on in his journal, not disputing the facts of the interaction, but throwing the same scene in a different light; so which is true? Both, of course, because truth can be variable.

But what is the truth about Amedeo? Everyone loves him, but no one knows him. All of the Italians think he is Italian due to his language skills, graciousness, and knowledge of Rome history and streets. He’s an immigrant from Algiers. His wife knows nothing of his past, “I said to him, “Amedeo, my love, I don’t want the past I want your present and our future.” Only now am I opening my eyes to the truth: I don’t know who Amedeo is.” The different view points, including Amedeo, sculpt a portrait of Amedeo, but with enough rough spots to still question, how well can we ever know anyone, maybe even including ourselves.

Interesting Bits to Look Out for when Reading Clash
I loved the use of the elevator throughout the book. The professor from Milan sees it as a symbol of civilization that should be well cared for, while the murdered thug pees in it. Another tenant finds it the perfect metaphor for life, sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, sometimes you’re stuck. Benedetta uses it as her source of power and scourge of her life. Amara Lakhous weaves the elevator throughout the book in clever ways.

The more you know about soccer (really football), the better you’ll understand the book. If you don’t know much about soccer (notice my hand waving), you’ll learn a bit. Here’s a heads up: catenaccio is a defensive tactic that while not invented by the Italians was used by them in decades past. It is said to have changed soccer from a sport to a spectacle because it prevents goals. That’s enough to understand its literal and metaphorical use in the book, look it up for more technical information that I couldn’t even follow. Oh, Gentile is a soccer player of some renown, he’s introduced once in the book and then his name is used as a bit of a pun.

A book that refers to literature and culture warms my heart. There are too many to name, but the one that keeps swirling in my head causing me to think of the book in new lights is Scheherazade.

Clash is a thought provoking and entertaining look at a section of modern Italian society, a peek well worth spending the time to read.

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