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clash of civilizations over an elevator in piazza vittorio

25 october 2016

I first read Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio three years ago in Europa's nicely-produced paperback edition. I didn't write about it here then (hey, I don't have to write about everything I read), but I'm slated to "teach" the book next semester in World Lit, and figured I should make a few remarks this time through. Amara Lakhous' novel, energetically translated by Ann Goldstein, is a personal favorite of mine, a cult favorite of readers, and an excellent class text (I've heard) that just seems to get more topical as it ages.

Clash of Civilizations is ten years old now and had quite a gestation period before appearing in Italy in 2006. It speaks to a moment in European history that has now become an era, one of anxiety over the Other, the fear of a demographic sea change brought about by immigration. Lakhous, born in Algeria, seems to use his central character Amedeo (also from Algeria) as an avatar. Via Amedeo, Lakhous peers through a kaleidoscope of prejudices to glimpse the humanity of each of the eccentric, lonely characters he observes.

The thing I admire foremost about Clash of Civilizations is its sheer technical skill. The novel is told in 22 chapters. Amedeo tells half of them, each in counterpoint to one of eleven other narrators who live in and around the title apartment building in Rome. The book is only 119 pages long, giving Lakhous very little scope to draw elaborate characterizations. Each subsidiary character gets only a few pages to make his or her impression on the reader – and not only that, but to establish his or her relationship to Amedeo, to a dead guy named Lorenzo Manfredini (who being dead gets no chapter of his own), and to several of the other subsidiary eleven, and to some others who don't get a voice in the narrative. And to make matters blurrier, many of the eleven have wildly inaccurate notions about many of the other eleven, so that you have to remember not only who's who but how they're wrong about who else.

A book like this should give you a headache trying to follow it; it doesn't even come with a dramatis personae that you can use as a scorecard. Yet Lakhous' narrative is vivid, almost graphic in its clarity. As the eleven speak in turn, Amedeo comes in a few pages later to reinforce their character notes and correct their misprisions. Each of the eleven separate narratives comes chronologically at the end of the story: Manfredini has been murdered, and not only is Amedeo the prime suspect, he's not even Italian – an identity that many of them have taken for granted. But Amedeo's counterpoint chapters are told as successions of diary entries that span a much longer time, selectively devoted to the character who tells the preceding chapter. You can't write a novel like this without recourse to some sort of spreadsheet, but the genius of it is that the spreadsheet doesn't show.

Themes abound – identity, religion, immigrant status, the nature of nation, language, displacement, nostalgia, names, violence, sport, and food. None of the themes seems forced. Many seem even more urgent now than they did in 2006. Some of the eleven narrators are convinced that they are the "real" Italians in Rome; others are quite sure they're not, but don't they have a right to exist there anyway? Meanwhile, the center of the book is Amedeo, all things to all people, tolerant even of the intolerant. But he himself is a centerless creation, trying hard to lose his traumatic past, to make himself anew. Is there a real Italy? Is there a real … Britain, America, Germany – fill in your choice of a national identity in crisis. Where is the center, if everyone thinks he's the center and the others are peripheral?

There are tense, sometimes tragic moments in Clash of Civilizations, though on the whole it's a comic novel with a boundless sense of absurd good spirits. It's very early, but I sense that Lakhous' book is already a minor classic of the 21st century.

Lakhous, Amara. Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. [Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio, 2006.] Translated by Ann Goldstein. 2008. New York: Europa, 2013.