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Off the Shelf: "Lithe and hilarious"

Date: Nov 14 2014

A Murder Mystery About Much More Than Whodunit

By Etinosa Agbonlahor | Friday, November 14, 2014

The first thing I ever read by Amara Lakhous was a novel called Dispute over a Very Italian Piglet. Intrigued by the title (which ought to win an award for utter wit), I borrowed a copy, intending to skim through, but ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting, captivated by Lakhous’ colorful narrators and his ability to mix dry humor with concrete (almost anthropological) observations about the incredibly diverse and incredibly tensioned Italy his characters inhabit. Dispute over a Very Italian Piglet shaped the high expectations with which I approached Lakhous’ second novel, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorrio; excited and eager to see how he would weave his usual astute observations about identity, space and belonging into a murder mystery.

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorrio didn’t fail my expectations. Lithe and hilarious, the story is centered on the inhabitants of an apartment near the Piazza Vittorrio, after a man is murdered in their elevator. The victim is a brute named Gladiator who had a penchant for peeing in the elevator and sexually assaulting the Peruvian maid next door (an illegal immigrant scared of being deported if she reported his assaults to the police). Though none of the tenants quite liked Gladiator, suspicions begin to bubble about who the murderer could be.

Now you’d expect that the novel would unfold as a regular mystery, with a determined detective combing his way through evidence to find Gladiator’s murderer. It doesn’t. Instead the reader is let into the conflicting, incredibly bigoted, and hilarious testimonies of twelve tenants. And as each presents his/her testimony what emerges is a cacophony of rage and mistrust. Whether it’s aimed at North African or Middle Eastern immigrants taking all the good jobs, southern Italians with their lax sense of time, drunk Albanians hanging out in the Piazza, or the inefficient and brutish government officials, everyone in this book hates someone or something.

The only thing the tenants know for certain is that main suspect in the case, the man last seen with the victim apparently saying the words “I’ll kill you” and the very same man who disappeared after Gladiator’s body was found, a genteel Italian named Amaedo who speaks the language fluently, helped organize spaces for the wives of Muslim immigrants in the building to meet outside of their houses, rescued the Peruvian maid from Gladiator’s attacks, gave his homesick Iranian neighbor a way to connect with the Iran he so desperately misses but cannot return to, and made the elevator operator’s job easier by not taking the elevator, is definitely not the murderer. Yet, nothing in this novel is as it appears, despite the characters assertions.

The concierge, Bendetta for example, is a proud Italian with a disdain for all immigrants—especially those who won’t even learn the language or culture but hang around taking up the jobs that her unemployed son, a ‘true’ Italian, could do. Benedetta immediately suspects the ‘Albanian,’ a disrespectful drunk who insults her whenever she calls out to him in Italian, saying “guaglio” since she doesn’t know his name, he responds with something that sounds like “merssers” which is obviously some sort of Albanian insult. The ‘Albanian’ however is really an Iranian refugee (or illegal immigrant depending on who’s speaking) named Parviz whose desire to be back home in Iran with his family pushes him to recoil against all things Italian for fear that they will dilute the memories he has of his family. Parviz also can’t understand why Benedetta insists on insulting him by calling him ‘guaglio’ a word his Iranian friends have assured him means ‘fuck’ in Italian (it’s actually a generic term used to refer to a person). He however tries to ease Benedetta’s ire by ending their interactions with a polite ‘merci’, which only seems to infuriate her further.

As the tenants recount their testimonies, what begins to develop is a comedy of errors that is both light-hearted and utterly terrifying when we realize that any one of those people has a viewpoint that many of us have at some time or another thought, shared or encountered.

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorrio is perhaps the only work of fiction I’ve read that successfully explores how our ideas of who we are often are negatively reinforced by ideas of who we are not. It’s certainly the only book that’s made me laugh on one page, and then wince on the next. Ultimately what moves this book forward is not finding out who killed Gladiator, but exploring the tensioned web of misunderstandings that pervades the apartment complex and undermines the relationships the tenants have with each other. The stereotypes and misunderstandings in the novel don’t just happen because the characters are Italians, Italian immigrants or immigrants who happen to be in Italy, they occur whenever people from different civilizations meet and forget to understand or respect each other’s background. Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorrio is a little novel, short enough to be assimilated on a quiet evening, yet powerful enough to leave you with the sense that you could be doing more to understand the people around you.

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