Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review from Col Reads: Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

With 2012 making its slow but inexorable march from “future” to “present,” people start to ask book bloggers the inevitable question: “What were the best books you read in 2011?” I don’t really want to say yet, since I like the idea of not knowing the answer until December 31 – you never know which book will be “the” book. But I can say this: the surprise book of my year, and the one I’m recommending to everyone who will listen, is Amara Lakhous’ Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator at Piazza Vittorio.

This book rocked my world.

The premise is simple. One man is dead, and another is missing. Both are residents of a rundown apartment building in an immigrant-trending neighborhood of Rome. The police, not surprisingly, believe the missing man is the murderer. But can that be? The residents of the apartment building can agree on absolutely nothing – except that Amedeo, the missing man, is not the murderer.

The book is entirely told through “evidence” in the form of transcripts of police interviews, followed by entries into Amedeo’s personal diary relating to that witness. Interestingly, the evidence actually reveals more about the witnesses than the suspect. We do learn that despite his flawless Italian, Amedeo is not Italian at all – he is an immigrant like so many of the others in the neighborhood. In fact, his name isn’t Amedeo at all, but Ahmed Salmi. And we also learn that there is something in his past that he absolutely does not wish to discuss.

It becomes clear that Amedeo has befriended a wild and quirky cast of characters. There’s an Iranian chef who loathes pizza to the point of distraction. There’s an apartment manager whose main purpose in life seems to be keeping the temperamental elevator at Piazza Vittorio clean – by keeping everyone from using it. There’s Amedeo’s Italian wife who seems unwilling to ask too many questions. There’s a little old lady who seems to like her dog more than the people in her building. And so many other people from so many different places and walks of life, all with a different idea of who killed Lorenzo Manfredi, a local tough guy known as The Gladiator.

The many emphatic and strident points of view presented in the book resemble nothing so much as dinner with a big, boisterous family – each member pushing their own version of some seminal familial event – while directing you to pass the wine! The reader takes on the role of bewildered but polite guest, trying to understand what actually happened, and wondering who is the most believable person at the table. (Seems like the nice, quiet friendly guy with great manners, but how do you know?)

This book is acerbic and sweet in turns. The characters are drawn broadly, and in some cases quite comically. The mystery delivers, but in an almost incidental way. I got so caught up in the characters that I was far more interested in what became of Amedeo than who killed The Gladiator. I would highly recommend this one for mystery lovers, although it’s a very non-traditional mystery. And I’d also recommend it for lovers of literary fiction and translated fiction.

This finishes my commitment for the 2011 Challenge -- I am a Europa Ami! I have to hand it to the folks at Europa for putting together a truly unique and diverse portfolio of titles. I have only begun to scratch the surface, so I will definitely be back for 2012. I already have my eye on the new Lakhous novel for the 2012 Europa Editions Challenge. Thanks again to Marie at The Boston Bibliophile for hosting.