Fe­ro­cious jour­ney to Italy’s waste­land

Ven­ero Ar­manno

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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