Amara Lakhous

"Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 19, 2008)

“I’m sure the murderer of Lorenzo Manfredini is one of the immigrants….All you have to do is take a walk in the afternoon in the gardens in Piazza Vittorio to see that the overwhelming majority of the people are foreigners; some come from Morocco, some from Romania, China, India, Poland, Senegal, Albania. Living with them is impossible. They have religions, habits, and traditions different from ours. In their countries they live outside or in tents, they eat with their hands, they travel on donkeys and camels and treat women like slaves. I’m not a racist, but that’s the truth.”

Clash of Civilizations  Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous

Algerian author Amara Lakhous, now an Italian resident, pens a sly satire of an immigrant’s life in Italy, using the murder of a young man in the elevator of an apartment building adjacent to Piazza Vittorio as the catalyst through which he explores the hidden and not-so-hidden prejudices of Roman residents toward “outsiders.” The victim, Lorenzo Manfredini, also known as the Gladiator, drew nasty pictures, wrote obscenities, and urinated in the building’s elevator, earning the enmity of every resident. When the police investigate, each of the residents and merchants in the immediate vicinity tells his story, revealing hidden agendas and casual resentments against immigrants. Amedeo, a respected resident thought to be an Italian volunteer helping immigrants deal with Roman bureaucracy, is sought for the crime. No one has seen him since the murder.

Lakhous cleverly creates twelve unique voices, with each person telling “the truth according to…” These separate voices alternate with “wails” from Amadeo, as he gives his own “take” in response to each statement. Amedeo is not, in fact, an Italian, though he speaks Italian like a native, and his running commentary on life in the apartment building and in Rome as an immigrant sees it points up the contrasts between what people say when they think he is Italian and what they say and do about their immigrant neighbors behind their backs.

Gradually, as each person provides additional information, the reader understands characters like Parviz Mansoor Samadi, who has escaped from Iran, leaving his wife and four children behind, an alcoholic now widely regarded as seriously disturbed; Benedetta Esposito, “the oldest concierge in Rome,” a Neapolitan whose suspicions of all immigrants is influenced by their behavior with regard to the temperamental elevator; and Iqbal Amir Allah, from Bangladesh, whose observations about Amedeo’s understanding of his Muslim customs lead him to say that “Signor Amedeo is as good as mango juice.” The owner of a local bar, a neighborhood fish seller, and a police inspector assigned to investigate the murder also give their impressions of Amedeo, of the other residents of the building, and of immigrants in general.

Lakhous gradually reveals key information about both the victim and the supposed perpetrator through the commentary of Amedeo, and the reader will change some of his/her perceptions as the plot becomes more complex. The sympathies one develops for the immigrants is matched by the understanding one evolves for those long-time residents who resent the privileges they feel the immigrants have been granted. Often hilarious, the novella carries an edge, and though the author is not heavy-handed with his satire, his points are obvious--and repeated--as each character reveals prejudices and reactions to prejudice.

The conclusion takes a somewhat different tack. Police inspector Mauro Bettarini, believing that “truth is like a coin: it has two faces,” gives two different possibilities to explain the murder, and as the novella comes to a close, the light, satiric tone and style change. The novella becomes less straightforward, more impressionistic and more ambiguous, and readers may be surprised by the end result. (Translated by Ann Goldstein)

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Read a chapter excerpt from Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio at author's website

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About the Author:

Amara LakhousAmara Lakhous was born in Algiers in 1970. He has a degree in philosophy from the University of Algiers and another in cultural anthropology from the University la Sapienza, Rome. He recently completed a Ph.D. thesis entitled “Living Islam as a Minority.” His first novel, Le cimici e il pirata (Bedbugs and the Pirate), was published in 1999. Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio is the winner of Italy’s prestigious Flaiano prize.

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