Sunday, January 9, 2011

Niccolo Ammaniti writes a gripping tale about Italians falling victim to a capitalist dream.

I saw this novel in a bookstore and noticed that it had received a prize in Italy. I decided to give it a try.

As God Commands

Niccolo Ammaniti’s novel, As God Commands (406 pages, Black Cat Books, $14.95), is translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt. It tells the story of three down and out Italian pals living in a marginal town called Varrano. These guys—all in their forties—are in desperate straits. They have lost their construction jobs to immigrant labor and they all see their lives as largely behind them.

Danilo lives in the fantasy of the life he shared with Teresa before their daughter died and his wife left him to marry her employer. Danilo keeps fantasizing that he can win her back, but every time she tries to help him, he ruins things by going too far or misreading the signs. She has had just about all she can take from him.

Quattro Fromagio, the one friend who is nicknamed after a kind of pizza, also lives in a fantasy world, but his is a fantasy of pornography, which he has imbibed in the form of a video that he found in the trash somewhere. In the video, which he watches and rewatches, a young girl allows herself to be used sexually in various ways and with various persons or groups of people. All these images excite Quattro Fromagio, and although he seems to suffer sexual dysfunction, he still imagines that he can find a little heroine like the one in the film.

Rino, the most together of these three, is also out of work and largely given to drink and complaining; but he also has a young teenage son, Cristiano. The relationship between Rino and Cristiano is beautiful, and as devoted as they are to each other, they still cannot escape the world in which they are trapped. They are effective at tricking the social worker, and they have a certain amount of success with the ladies—Rino is a good-looking man, muscular and wiry, and Cristiano is handsome too, even though he is shy around the girls who approach him--but they are no match for the reality that confronts them.

The world these characters inhabit reads like something out of Beckett, and Ammaniti makes it almost as comic a world as it is tragic. The three men plot to break into a bank in order to steal an ATM machine, and they imagine running off with a lot of money and laughing at everyone who has ever put them down. The heist, though, is s total bust, and they don’t even get close to their objective. Instead, their obsessions take them in self-destructive directions, to say the least; and before the end of the novel each one of these characters has been brought low.

Cristiano seems to survive the great conflagration, but one is forced to wonder what kind of survival this will be. He seems to have lost faith in his father, and in all his friends, and in the end he is confronting a world that seems in every way to have let him down. It remains to be seen whether he can make the best of this situation, or not.

Ammaniti writes compellingly, and even in translation this novel is wonderful. It is not for the faint of heart, to be sure, but if you have a taste for gritty realism that uses humor to make a powerful point, then this may be the novel for you. I found it on the sale shelf at Powell’s in Portland.

Niccolo Ammaniti

As God Commands available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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