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from the November 2008 issue

Speaks about “Clash of Civilizations”

"Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio" could be called a book about translation. It's the story of people from different cultures trying to live together in one place—a country, a city, a square, an apartment building, an elevator, even. Different customs, different languages, different foods. It takes place in Rome, in the neighborhood around Piazza Vittorio, where immigrants from all over the world have settled; the dominant culture, the host, so to speak, is, of course, Italian, and the immigrants have to learn to adapt, to follow its rules. But the Italians also have to learn to adapt, to understand and accept the immigrants. (Iqbal, the Bangladeshi grocer, says, "I can distinguish between racists and tolerant Italians: the racists don't smile at you and don't answer if you say ciao, or good morning, or good evening.") The main character, Amedeo, has attempted to translate himself literally from one culture to another—from the Algerian Ahmed to the Italian Amedeo. Can Ahmed, an Arab from Algeria, really become the Italian Amedeo? Having worked as a translator in Algeria, he is able to learn Italian well enough to speak "like a native"; he has married an Italian; and he knows Rome geographically better than a taxi-driver and historically better than a professor at the university. He has apparently succeeded in this translation; the Italians accept him as one of them. The other immigrants, who have, to varying degrees, been able to fit in, see him as a peculiarly sympathetic Italian, who is able to soothe their homesickness and solve their problems.

The plot centers on a mystery: one of the tenants of an apartment building in Piazza Vittorio is found murdered in the elevator. Amedeo, not coincidentally, it seems, has disappeared and is accused by the police of being the murderer; in addition, the police claim that he is an immigrant. ("If Signor Amedeo is a foreigner, as you say, then who's a real Italian?" Benedetta, the building's concierge, says.) Each of the main characters is given a chapter in the form of a police deposition, in which he or she expresses shock that Amedeo could be an immigrant; insists that he could not be guilty and speculates on who the murderer really is; and also draws a picture of his or her life and relations with the other characters.

Perhaps the least well-adapted of the immigrants, Amedeo's opposite, is the Iranian Parviz. He hates Italian food, Italian cooking—the novel opens with a rant against pizza and pasta—and this basic trouble underlies his difficulties with all other aspects of Italian society: he cannot be understood, is constantly in trouble with the law, and although he was a cook in Iran, he can't keep a job in an Italian restaurant. He is as intolerant in his way as any of the Italians. Among the Italians, it is Stefania who is most open to other cultures: she runs a travel agency, teaches Italian to immigrants, and is married to Amedeo. Benedetta, the concierge, although she herself is an immigrant, from the south, and Professor Marini, an immigrant from the north, both rail against the—non-Italian—immigrants, considering them responsible for what they see as the degeneration of Italian society.

Amedeo has somehow managed to enter into the life or imagination of each of the other characters—as a kind of extraordinary translator trying to clear up misunderstandings and reconcile very disparate languages. But while the translator is successful with others, he is uneasy with himself. He locks himself in the bathroom at night and, as he puts it, "wails": writing in a notebook, he comments on the lives and troubles of his fellow-immigrants, and on the difficulties of his own "translation." Although he has ostensibly become Italian, Amedeo is inwardly filled with conflict.

Like all translations, "Clash of Civilizations" presented linguistic—and cultural—challenges for the translator. Johan Van Marten, a young Dutch student who wants to make a neorealist film in which the residents of Piazza Vittorio will play themselves, goes around saying, "Non sono gentile"—"I'm not nice." It's mysterious to everyone why he says this—it seems to be the mistake of one who doesn't know the language—but it turns out that "Gentile" is the name of a famous Italian soccer player and coach, and Johan is reacting to an insult from his father, who is angry at his son and considers Gentile the primary enemy of the sport. In order to avoid a footnote, which is one way of solving such double meanings, I decided to use the original in the first place it occurs, with the translation, and subsequently to use just the Italian. (He says this quite a few times.) Contrarily, terms in Arabic that might cause problems for the reader were footnoted in the Italian book and are also given footnotes in the English. The various Italian cultural references—Umberto Bossoso (Bossi), Aldo Moro, Christian Democrats—have been left unexplained, in the hope that even if they aren't familiar the reader will understand, or figure them out, from the context.

Each chapter of "Clash of Civilizations" is entitled "The Truth of…" and each narrator gives his version of the truth. But is truth translatable? Or is truth what is lost in translation? In one of the more brutal incidents, Parviz sews up his mouth, because he feels there is no way of communicating the truth: words are useless. Amedeo says, "I thought of telling Benedetta everything I know about Iqbal, then I thought twice: to what end? It's really pointless to know the truth." As he smoothes the future for the other immigrants, he himself is tortured, with increasing intensity, by thoughts and dreams of his previous life. Has he lost his own truth?

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