Posted by: biblioglobal | May 23, 2013

Italy: What does it mean to be Italian? (Book-from-every-country #40)

A Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

By Amara Lakhous. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio was written by an Algerian immigrant to Italy, Amara Lakhous. So should it count as a book for Algeria or a book for Italy? Well, the back cover of the book quotes an Italian reviewer saying, “This is the first time that a writer born outside of Italy has created a text that can be considered thoroughly Italian.” But then after I finished the book that I learned that it was actually originally published in Arabic. Lakhous then rewrote it in Italian, apparently modifying the text to incorporate dialects from different parts of Italy* and adding more references to football (soccer)!

Obviously I’m categorizing this book as Italian. And, really, it’s pretty clear that that’s the right category for it. But it’s interesting to question whether this book “counts” as Italian since the question of what it means for a person to “count” as Italian is central to the book.

On one level The Clash of Civilizations is a murder mystery. One of the residents of an apartment building has been found dead in the elevator. Another resident, named Amadeo, has disappeared and is suspected of the murder. Each chapter brings in a new perspective on the murder and on Amadeo. First, one of the residents of the building or nearby neighborhood tells what they know about Amadeo. Then, the next chapter consists of a selection of Amadeo’s journal entries about the narrator of the previous chapter. The various narrators fall somewhere in the spectrum between being ‘a character’ (in the “He’s quite a character” sense) and being a caricature. That’s obvious from the very first paragraph, narrated by an Iranian immigrant who hates pizza, which also gives a good sense of the book’s humorous tone:

“A few days ago- it was barely eight o’clock in the morning- sitting in the metro, rubbing my eyes and fighting sleep because I’d woken up so early, I saw an Italian girl devouring a pizza as big as an umbella. I felt so sick to my stomach I almost threw up. Thank goodness she got out at the next stop. It really was a disgusting sight! The law should punish people who feel free to disturb the peace of good citizens going to work in the morning and home at night. The damage caused by people eating pizza in the metro is a lot worse than the damage caused by cigarettes. I hope that the authorities do not underestimate this sensitive issue and will proceed immediately to put up signs like “Pizza Eating Prohibited”, next to the ones that are so prominent at the metro entrances saying “No Smoking!” I would just like to know how Italians manage to consume such a ridiculous amount of dough morning and evening.”

The Piazza Vittorio is a real location in Rome and is known as an area with a large immigrant population. About half of the book’s characters are immigrants and about half are Italian, many of whom resent the immigrants. On the other hand, the Milanese resent the Neapolitans and vice versa almost as much. They all love Amadeo though, and are shocked at the suggestion that he too might be an immigrant (and/or a murderer). After all, he speaks perfect Italian, loves Italian cinema, drinks cappuccino, and knows the layout of Rome better than a taxi driver. Does that make him Italian? Or perhaps just more Italian than the Italians?

While a lot of the sentiments expressed about immigration in this book are very similar to ones we hear in the United States (“They’re taking our jobs!”, “They’re criminals!”, “They can’t speak the language!”), there are some things about the immigration debate that are very different in Italy. In the U.S., a common refrain in our conversation about immigration is the fact that we (nearly) all come from immigrant ancestors. It’s a useful reminder that probably makes it easier for most people to empathize with more recent immigrants. I hadn’t really thought previously about the fact that in many countries, such as Italy, that aspect of the debate is absent. Italy, historically, had a lot of emigration (to the U.S. among other places), but not much immigration until the last few decades. That also means there’s not a historical example to point to and say, “See, it turned out all right with that group of immigrants. And the ones before that. And the ones before that.”

(The origin of immigrants is different too. I was puzzled why the building concierge kept thinking that the Iranian immigrant was Albanian. Why Albanian of all things? It turns out that until recently Albanians were one of the largest groups of immigrants to Italy.)

The Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio reminds me a bit of the curious incident of the dog in the night-time (crossed, perhaps, with The Westing Game), a book which I also very much enjoyed. The opinionated, first-person, almost stream-of-consciousness style feels very similar between the two. It also shares the characteristic of being a fun, light-hearted read that turns out to have a more serious message underneath.


* I can’t spot the Italian dialects at all. I don’t know if that’s because I don’t know anything about the differences in speech patterns between Milan and Naples or if the dialects didn’t make it into the English translation.


There’s an interesting interview with Amara Lakhous at Words without Borders:


  1. Reblogged this on Reinventing Algeria.

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