Tuesday, October 4, 2011

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

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, by Amara Lakhous. Published 2008 by Europa Editions. Fiction. Crime Fiction. Translation.

Sometimes you start reading a novel thinking it's pure comedy, and then it turns out to have some darker themes going on just under the surface that make you think a little harder than you expected to- and you enjoy a book all the more for it. Such is the case with Clash of Civilizations in Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, a short Italian novel about an apartment building in Rome, where people from all over Italy and all over the world find themselves living together. Or not living, in the case of the dead guy in the elevator.

Author Amara Lakhous tells the story from alternating perspectives, making Clash of Civilizations one of those fun books where we get to see the characters from different points of view, learning about their foibles and ways of thinking. A sad man who talks to the pigeons becomes, from another point of view, a potential drug dealer or terrorist; a woman who loves her dog a lot is, through a different set of eyes, a high-maintenance fusspot. And so on.  But who is that pesky dead guy, and how did he get there? After a certain point we catch on that these are no idle narratives; the speakers are speaking to someone; they're being interviewed, and their unnamed interlocutors are trying to find the whereabouts of Amedeo, their neighbor, a man they all believe to be a Roman but whose story is very different, and very sad.

A Clash of Civilizations is a lively portrait of Italy as non-Italians seldom think of it- a diverse, multicultural center of world civilization, with tensions between Italians and non-Italians but also between folks from different parts of Italy. We see regional stereotypes play out alongside more predictable racial or religious ones, and how people cross signals and misunderstand each other, even when each person is entirely confident of their own point of view. It's fascinating and fun, but there is a darker side too. Some of these misunderstandings are tragic rather than funny, and there is more than one ruined life in the wake of it all.

So this is a book that will make you laugh at first, but then it will make you think, too. It reads quickly and it's very engaging, and it's a great choice for the literary fiction reader looking for edgy European fiction with a comic sheen. Lakhous has a new book coming from Europa this winter, and after reading Clash of Civilizations I'm definitely going to be on the lookout for it.

This book counts towards the Europa Challenge.

Rating: BACKLIST

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.