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i'm not scared

11 may 2017

Niccolò Ammaniti's I'm Not Scared is one of those novels where you can't bear to watch what will happen next, because it can only get worse.

Our narrator, Michele, is only nine years old when the events of the novel take place. Ammaniti establishes early on that Michele will not only survive the grisly story, but transcend rural poverty in a matter of a few years, and become a distinctly middle-class Italian. The device is blunt but effective: near the start of the story, Michele is exploring a decrepit old house. He becomes transfixed with the idea that he must jump down from a height, and the experience "reminds" him – proleptically, because he's talking in retrospect as an adult – of a similar urge to jump off a ski lift, a decade later (21-22). So in a matter of a paragraph or two, we establish that Michele will grow up affluent enough to take up skiing in the north, though he starts the novel pedaling around on an Nth-hand bike in a hamlet in the south of Italy – and, more basically, that he will survive the horrors that await him in that rickety house.

I'm Not Scared is a story of physical dangers, but its greater scariness (despite the narrator's claims) is psychological. Narrator Michele and the boy Filippo are doppelgängers of a peculiarly depressing kind. Michele, oppressed by life in his tiny hamlet, by his awkward and violent friends, by his mercurial father, finds Filippo chained up in that abandoned house. For a while, Filippo is his secret, almost his invisible, imaginary friend. Then Filippo's situation becomes far too real. He is being held for ransom by a group of gangsters – prominent among whom is Michele's own father.

I won't spoil the rest of this relatively short novel by explaining how, or even if, the situation works out. The plot of the story consists of Michele resolving to avoid Filippo's prison and always circling back to it. The drama, meanwhile, consists of Michele realizing that his life is a prison; that his father, however lavish with gifts when it's a matter of bribing Michele into silence, is a vicious criminal who will hurt Filippo if needed and kill him if there's no other resort.

I'm Not Scared is a page-turner and an exercise in suspending disbelief. For all its local-color detail and frequent lyricism, it is a stripped-down story that stays focused on its time, place, and action. It's a model for the aspiring storyteller.

Ammaniti, Niccolò. I'm Not Scared. [Io no ho paura, 2001.] Translated by Jonathan Hunt. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2003.