(3.5 stars) Algerian author Amara Lakhous, now an Italian resident, pens a sly satire of an immigrant's life in Italy, exploring the murder of a young man in the elevator of an apartment building adjacent to Piazza Vittorio to show the hidden and not-so-hidden prejudices of Roman residents toward "outsiders." The victim, Lorenzo Manfredini, a young hood also known as the Gladiator, had repeatedly defaced and urinated in the building's elevator, earning the enmity of every resident. As residents and local merchants tell their stories to a police inspector, their hidden agendas and casual resentments against immigrants surface. Amedeo, a resident uniformly admired by everyone, thought to be an Italian volunteer who helps immigrants deal with Roman bureaucracy, is sought for the crime. No one has seen him since the murder.
Lakhous cleverly creates twelve unique voices as each person tells "the truth according to...", alternating these separate voices with "wails" from Amadeo, as he comments on what the residents say. Amedeo, who speaks Italian like a native, provides a running commentary on Roman life, pointing up the contrasts between what people say to other Italians and what they say about their immigrant neighbors behind their backs.
As each person provides additional information about Amedeo and the victim, the reader comes to know characters like Parviz Mansoor Samadi, who has barely escaped from Iran, leaving his wife and four children behind; Benedetta Esposito, "the oldest concierge in Rome," a Neapolitan whose suspicions of all immigrants is determined by their behavior with regard to the temperamental elevator; and Iqbal Amir Allah, from Bangladesh, whose observations about Amedeo's understanding of Muslim customs lead him to say that "Signor Amedeo is as good as mango juice." The owner of a local bar, a neighborhood fish seller, and the police inspector also give their impressions of Amedeo, the building residents, and immigrants in general.
The characters' gradual revelations and Amedeo's commentary change the reader's perceptions, and as the plot becomes more complex, the novella matches the sympathies one develops for the immigrants with the understanding one evolves for those who resent the immigrants' perceived privileges. Often hilarious, the novella carries an edge, and though the author is not heavy-handed with his satire, his points are obvious--and repeated--as each character reveals prejudices and reactions to prejudice. The conclusion takes on a somewhat different tone and style as police inspector Mauro Bettarini, believing that "truth is like a coin: it has two faces," gives two different possibilities to explain the murder. The novella becomes more impressionistic and more ambiguous, and readers may be surprised by the concluding pages. n Mary Whipple
on 20 August 2009
A North African connection is revealed in Amara Lakhous's sparkling little book about a murder in a multicultural building in Rome. Lakhous is of Algerian origin but writes in Italian, and this book was quite a success in that sunny country. It comprises interview accounts by the residents of that building on the Piazza Vittorio; each interviewee reveals further information about the motivations and passions of their predecessor. And what a motley bunch of characters! The vicious thug Gladiator is the murder victim, but not before he has terrorised women in the building; there is a Milanese professor filled with revulsion at the uselessness of the southern Italian (mirroring, in fact, a desire among many northern Italians to secede from the unemployable social leeches of the south) and disdain for the immigrant; the Bangladeshi and the Iranian, each of whom has fled some terror in his past and finds some measure of acceptance in Rome; the Neapolitan concierge who resents the foreigners and hates the Milanese; and there is the elevator itself, which crystallises the residents' loathing for each other. But Amedeo, the man suspected by the police of the murder, is uniformly respected and liked by the residents; his identity comes as a surprise and eye-opener to the bigots and the welcoming alike. Lakhous is not polemical at all in this novella; rather, he likes send up stereotypes; above all, he recognises that in Rome, a foreigner is as welcome as any Italian, despite the hostility and the boorishness shown both by the native and the immigrant.