Sep 15, 2008

Just Read: Niccolo Ammaniti - How God Commands


I discovered Niccolo Ammaniti by pure chance - a friend got me Steal You Away for my birthday a few years ago. She had no idea who he was, or whether the book was any good - she just liked the title. I liked it too, but expected a corny romance lurking behind it. Boy, was I wrong...
So, a few years down the road, Steal You Away is one of my favorite books of all time, and I've just read my third Ammaniti book called How God Commands. I've never been more disappointed that I don't speak a word of Italian than now. This book is so brilliant that now I want to read everything Ammaniti has ever written (unfortunately, a lot of his books haven't been translated into any of the languages I speak). You know how sometimes you can't put a book down? Well, I stayed up until four a.m. reading this one, although I knew I had to get up at 6 for work...
Like Steal You Away, How God Commands also depicts a small town in the middle of nowhere, in Northern Italy. We follow six days in the lives of a handful of its inhabitants, with the 13 year old Cristiano and his neo-Nazi dad Rino as the lynchpin. Cristiano's mother left when he was a child, and now it's just him and his dad. The father is an unemployed violent drunk who hates the whole world except for his son. The two, who love each other more than anything, live in constant fear that Rino is going to lose custody over his son and that Cristiano is going to be sent to a foster family.
The other inhabitants of the town are Rino's loser friends - Quattro Formaggi and Danilo, Fabiana - a pretty girl from Cristiano's school, Beppe Trecca - the father and son's social worker.
Quattro Formaggi (a nickname he got because of his love for pizza) is the town fool, often abused because he can't speak and walk properly as a consequence of a high voltage power shock. Danilo is a drunk dreaming of the day his wife will come back to him. Fabiana is the cool girl at school, who experiments with drugs and goes out with boys but longs to leave her suffocating hometown or at least to lead a more innocent life again. And Beppe is a pious social worker who lusts after his best friend's wife.
As Rino, Danilo and Quattro plan to steal an ATM (yes, not rob it, but tear down the wall of the bank and actually steal the whole thing), all their lives intersect on the night of the worst storm in years.
In his masterful storytelling, Ammaniti manages to create an atmosphere of impending doom, with the night of the storm as the moment of Apocalypse, and yet there are few writers that make me laugh as much as he does. Coming from me, that is a huge compliment - I seldom laugh out loud while reading, but I had tears of laughter running down my cheeks last night. The secret of Ammaniti's humor is that, like everything in his books, it's so ridiculously lifelike, and stems from the wonderfully colorful and detailed characterization. From the very first page you believe these people as if they were standing in front of you, with all their hopes and dreams and quirky little idiosyncrasies. Yes, all the characters are losers, but the most lovable losers you've ever met. They trudge through their tragicomic little lives, so undignified in their hilarious and, more often than not, heartbreaking struggles that you find yourself truly caring for them. But Ammaniti, like life itself, is merciless and, as in his other novels, doesn't deal them a very good hand. You never see it coming though. All the twists are so unexpected, and yet, in retrospect, so perfectly plausible.
When you've finished reading this bittersweet, poignant masterpiece, you will see that
Ammaniti argues that life is often not fair, that provincial life will drag you down like quicksand, that maybe God doesn't exist, or, if he does he is just a cold, impassive observer. And you will agree knowingly, feeling a little sad, and a little lost, and loving life that little bit more.

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