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from the November 2008 issue

An Introduction to Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

"Doesn't make any difference who we are or what we are," a cholera germ announces in one of Twain's stories, "there's always somebody to look down on!"

No recent novel illustrates the truth of this axiom with more precision, intelligence, and humor than Amara Lakhous's Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, which is exactly what the title promises, except better. It's a satirical but not unsympathetic examination of the events leading up to a murder in a modern-day Roman apartment building where immigrants, transplants, and multi-generational locals can't seem to stop arguing about the elevator. The book was a surprise best-seller, and the winner of the prestigious Flaiano and Racalmare-Leonardo Sciascia awards, when it appeared in Italy two years ago, and has just been translated from the Italian by the formidable Ann Goldstein (who also translated Elena Ferrante's remarkable Days of Abandonment).

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio presents a series of conflicting, casually bigoted, and often very funny monologues. These turn out to be witnesses's statements following the brutal killing of Lorenzo Manfredini, aka the Gladiator, who was stabbed to death in the very elevator where—according to some—he often enjoyed surreptitiously urinating.

Between each of the statements are brief collections of eight or ten journal entry fragments written by prime suspect Amedeo, aka Ahmed Salmi, who, most everyone is amazed to learn, now that he's disappeared, is not actually Italian. But he's so gentlemanly and respectful! He can debate the teachings of Jesus and tell you the history of any street in Rome! Every single morning, he orders the "three 'C's" that only true Italians know the value of: "cappuccino, cornetto, Corier della Sera"! ("I've never in my life," the proprietor of the establishment where Amedeo breakfasts says, "seen a Chinese, a Moroccan, a Romanian, a Gypsy, or an Egyptian read the Corier della Sera or La Pepubblica! The only thing the immigrants read is Porta Portese, for the want ads.")

Much of the force of Lakhous's story lies in the characters' finely-tuned rituals, impressions, and prejudices. The linguistic misunderstandings that arise are hilarious but never stray too far outside the bounds of credulity—think not "Who's on First?" but something like Italian comedy meets Hemon, Calvino, and Twain.

Parviz, a downtrodden political dissident from Iran, loathes pizza, misses his family, and has been arrested on more than one occasion for feeding the pigeons in a public park. He is confused and saddened by the Neapolitan concierge Benedetta's insistence on shouting "Guaglio'! Guaglio'!"every time he sets foot in the elevator. "As you know," he tells his anonymous inquisitor, "guaglio' means 'fuck' in Neapolitan. At least, that's what a lot of Neapolitans I've worked with have told me." (In fact, "guaglio' " means, at least literally, "boy.") Parviz continues:

In Iran, it's customary to show respect for old people and avoid bad words. That's why, instead of answering the insult with another insult, I confine myself to a brief response: "Merci!" I leave and go away without looking at her. By the way, you know that merci is a French word that means "thank you"? Amedeo told me, he knows French well.

Naturally, Benedetta's interpretation is completely different:

I say the Albanian is the real murderer. That good-for-nothing is rude when I call him guaglio'! I don't know his name, and in Naples that's what we say, but he answers with a nasty word in his language. I don't remember exactly the word he always says, maybe mersa or mersis! Anyway, the point is, this word means "shit" in Albanian and is used as an insult. What makes me even more suspicious is the fact that…[h]e's tried over and over again to convince me that he comes from a country that isn't Albania.

The only thing everyone (except the police inspector) can agree on is that the kind and learned Amedeo is the most unlikely person in the building to be a murderer. Yet none of them really knew him, so can their assessment be trusted?

Having fled tragedy in Algeria, Amedeo has been assimilated into Rome so rapidly—mastering the language and the place, and marrying his Italian teacher, Stefania—that he's nearly convinced himself he can trade in the horrors of his past for a completely new existence. "I'm like a newborn," he writes. "I need milk every day. Italian is my daily milk. Stefania is life; that is, the present and the future. I love Stefania because she is closely attached to life, I love her memory free of nightmares." His relationship with Stefania is explicitly contingent on her agreement never to inquire about the past that haunts his nights and his dreams. "My love," he tells her, "my memory is like a broken elevator. Or rather, the past is like a sleeping volcano. Let's try not to wake it, so we can avoid eruptions." Yet, increasingly, before his disappearance, he spends nights locked in the bathroom, grieving for all he's lost

"Sometimes it's best not to know the truth," he writes.

For example, I agree with doctors who hide from a patient the true nature of his illness. What stupidity drives a doctor to say to a patient, "You're going to die in two months"? Poor man, let him live his two months without the burden of knowing the hour of his end! Is the truth a remedy that cures our ills or a poison that slowly kills us?" I'll look for the answer in wailing. Auuuuuuuu…

Lakhous, who hails from Algeria, originally published the book in Arabic, as How to Be Suckled by the Wolf and Not Get Bit. He spent a few years rewriting, and to some degree re-conceiving, the story in Italian. "I have always refused to take part in any feud between languages," the multi-lingual author has said.

I learned French at the age of nine or ten, beginning in third grade…Kateb Yacine called French "le butin de guerre" (spoils of war), but he was of an earlier generation, born in colonial times. For me French is a great instrument of discovery. At fifteen I read Flaubert and was filled with admiration for Madame Bovary…For those of us who came after colonialism was ended, French was a positive element.

Thanks to the Koranic school, when I began grade school I already knew the alphabet. We were required to speak classical Arabic with our teachers. Algerian dialect has many components. It's a very rich language, but it was forbidden to use dialectal Algerian or Berber with the school director or our teachers. We children were allowed to speak it only among ourselves.

This going back and forth between languages is very important…I'm writing my next novel in Italian from the start. Since it takes place in Italy, it wouldn't make sense if people spoke Arabic. The choice of a language is an aesthetic decision, not a political one.

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio is fascinating in its inconsistency of perspective. Due to the multiple narrators, it reads both like a love letter to Rome, and a scathing indictment of it.

Perhaps this narrative double-mindedness originates with the author's own complex relationship to his adopted city. While Lakhous is extremely "pessimistic about the possibility of integrating immigrants [into Italian society]," he has also said that, in Rome, "everyone feels at home, even foreigners living among foreigners. I believe that the city's warmth and hospitality is a reflection of its history."

It's almost an insult to a work of literature to call it timely, but Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio is hugely relevant to our cultural moment.

The ethnic stereotype, driven underground in the 90s by the PC movement, thrives anew in the age of Borat, Ali G., and Sarah Silverman—often, at least ostensibly, "ironically." On the one hand, given the potential chilling effect of political correctness on meaningful discussion, maybe we're better off being conversant in stereotyping. On the other—and this is an open question—how much does the sort of flip, knowing invocation of stereotypes that's become so rote in this decade really advance our understanding of why people look at and relate to each other in the ways that they do? How do we feel about a world where "The Great Shlep" is exalted by progressives?

Lakhous's Clash of Civilizations invites these questions and more. "'The worst that can arise between two societies is indifference,'" the author has said. "[R]oads with intersections produce surprises and reveal new routes to travel down. That is how genuine understanding and wisdom is born.'"

There's a great deal to talk about this month—long-winded though this introduction is, I haven't even scratched the surface—and I'm flexible on focus. Please let me know which points of the book interest you. Also, if you're in New York City on November 6, please join us at Idlewild Books for a discussion between Ann Goldstein and fellow translator, PEN American Center Translation Committee head Michael F. Moore.

Read more from the November 2008 issue
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