Ferocious journey to Italy’s wasteland
NEW generations of writers can sometimes find it hard to be taken all that seriously in countries where there is an established and powerful literary canon and the situation in Italy has been no exception. Young Italian writers in the latter decades of the 20th century had to try to be heard above the still-current reputations of Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese and Italo Calvino, for example. In this way, Italian literature was as ripe for a mauling as the music world was ripe for punk in the mid-1970s.
The Giovani Cannibali ( the Young Cannibals) literary movement, which really took force in the mid to late ’ 90s, presented a clear opposition to the literature of the past and concentrated on reflecting contemporary Italian life to Italian readers without recourse to romantic or historical inflections.
By and large, these new writers have been offering portraits of urban life and popular culture distinguished by one distinct characteristic, alienation, and in so doing have been able to find a voice for that vast generation ( or now, generations) of Italians who take little solace in their country’s cultural heritage.
Niccolo Ammaniti, born in 1966, has been seen as one of the leading protagonists of this movement, and is certainly the most internationally successful. Two English translations of his fiction have topped the bestseller lists, I’m Not Scared and Steal You Away, and the former was turned into a much admired feature film.
Any talk of a movement inevitably invites thoughts of po-faced seriousness, but this is another of the canonical standbys eschewed by these new writers. The Giovani Cannibali, and Ammaniti in particular, write with a freshness and vitality, not to mention a gross humour, that reflects modern pulp fiction and pulp cinema at its finest. And I mean that as a compliment.
Ammaniti’s latest novel, The Crossroads , is no exception. The portrait it paints of Italian life is so bleak, and sometimes so crudely hilarious, that it should invite the fall of yet another Italian government.
Seen mainly through the eyes of an adolescent named Cristiano Zena, the book is set in a dreary northern industrial town where jobs are scarce and hope even scarcer.
The main pastimes are drinking, fighting, watching game shows on television and, for some, planning easy crimes.
Cristiano lives with his father Rino, and together they wage a defensive war against the do-gooders of the social welfare system ( exemplified here by a sad buffoon named Beppe Trecca), who are just waiting for the chance to remove Cristiano and place him into civilised care. The family home is therefore cleaned thoroughly every month just before Beppe’s visits. Before that, the Zenas live in a squalor of empty beer cans and putrid pre-packaged food that will turn even the most hardened readers’ stomachs.
Rino is a layabout, a tattooed rage-aholic, whom his son loves and fears for looking more like Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson than that ‘‘ pansy actor who played James Bond’’, as Cristiano puts it ( the one before Daniel Craig, I suspect). Rino is also a neo-Nazi and has inculcated plenty of extremist thought into his young son’s head.
A scene where, in a school written exam, Cristiano spontaneously pours out a rant on the worth of Adolf Hitler and how good it would be to have him in Italy today is both hilarious and terrifying. You get the feeling this is not so much comedy as a genuine strand in some elements of Italian political thought.
Rino has two best friends: ‘‘ Quattro Formagi’’ ( named because of his love for pizza), literally electrified into moronitude, and Danilo, bitter and twisted, and whose small daughter choked to death on a bottle top.
Somehow the three come up with the idea of a ‘‘ perfect’’ crime: a ram raid on the local ATM, sure to be stuffed full of cash.
As the night of the planned crime approaches, Rino, Quattro Formagi and Danilo steal a beautiful beast of a modern four-wheel-drive, but their ecstatic communion with Sting singing An Englishman in New York is interrupted by a satellite security station operative asking through the speakers for the car’s security code to be given, or their satnav will be used to alert the police.
This is the most minor of the things that will go wrong on a night of a howling tempest, all of the disasters foreshadowed by the movie Dog Day Afternoon , playing on tiny portable TV screens across similar industrial towns.
The violence turns out to be appalling. The