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Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

September 3, 2012

To get to anywhere from here, first we have to drive for an hour over rural, 2-lane highways to the airport in Columbus. Then we get on a flight that takes us to a bigger airport, sometimes one in the opposite direction from where we want to go. After some connection time, we get on a flight headed to our destination. No matter where we’re going, it takes all day.

Flying to Portland, Oregon in order to get to Vancouver, Washington included a four-and-a-half hour flight with no food service and no in-flight entertainment. As usual, electronic books were prohibited for a portion of the flight, so the kids and I came on board with two paperback books each, one in case we finished the first one. On both flights—out and back—I finished my first one pretty quickly and went on with pleasure to my second, which was an awkwardly big book but more entertaining than anything else I had brought.

But we’ll get to that big book. Today I’ll tell you about one of my “first” books, Amara Lakhous’ Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, which came with me on the trip because it’s a slim paperback and fit well into a pocket of my carry-on bag. It was mildly amusing, but struck me as a kind of comic book written with words. Every character was exaggerated. The scenario—which appeared to be a murder mystery—was approached in terms of a series of misunderstandings from each separate character’s very narrow point of view, culminating in a completely ridiculous picture. And what’s funny about that is that each character has suffered some kind of tragedy that makes them unable to perceive the humanity in each other.

The first tragicomic character we meet is Parviz Mansoor Samadi, who says “In Shiraz I had a good restaurant. Damn those bastards who ruined me, in the blink of an eye I lost everything: family, house, restaurant, money. People keep telling me: ‘If you want to work as a chef in Italy you have to learn the secrets of Italian cooking.’ What can I do if I can’t bear pizza and spaghetti and company? Anyway, it’s pointless to learn Italian cooking. Soon I’m going back to Shiraz.”

The second is the character around whose fate the novel revolves; he calls himself Amedeo. Although he says a lot of sensitive and perceptive things and seems to be a nice guy, he has some big secret which he reveals the existence of by “wailing. Auuuuuuuu” and that gets really old, fast.

Then there are even sillier characters, like Benedetta Esposito who uses this in place of logic:
“First. Recently a lot of Chinese restaurants have opened in and around Piazza Vittorio.
Second. The gardens of Piazza Vittorio are the favorite place for Chinese children to play.
Third. They say that the Chinese eat cats and dogs.
After all those things I’ve told you, there is no doubt that the Chinese stole poor little Valentino and ate him!”

Everyone is narrow-minded, even the ones you might expect would be capable of a somewhat broader view:
“I couldn’t listen to the rest of his explanation because my role as a respectable university professor prevents me from engaging with a foreign student who intends to debate me on a matter having to do with the Italian language!”

By the time I finished the book, I was inclining it away from the view of the person sitting next to me, who had a Chuck Palahniuk novel in his lap. The conclusion is ironic, but that wouldn’t be obvious to a person sitting next to you on a plane—it would just look like prejudice, at a glance.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2012 5:42 pm

    This book doesn’t sound like something I would enjoy in the least.

    • September 5, 2012 7:39 am

      No, probably not. It may have more resonance in Italian, the language in which it was originally written.

  2. September 3, 2012 6:40 pm

    Sorry it didn’t work for you but I’m glad you tried it.

    • September 5, 2012 7:40 am

      I can see the immigration stories having more impact in the original language; maybe it’s less like a comic book in Italian.

  3. freshhell permalink
    September 4, 2012 10:49 am

    And I still have no idea what this book is about and, like E, I probably wouldn’t pick it up. I did just finish Our Strange Universe by Scarlett Thomas which is odd and wonderful.

    • September 4, 2012 2:51 pm

      ‘Odd’ and ‘wonderful’ are two of my favorite words when it comes to book reviews. 🙂

      • freshhell permalink
        September 4, 2012 3:34 pm

        It was a good book on many different levels. As a writer, struggling to finish a novel, it had some excellent advice. As a reader, it was disconcerting at first but spooled out in a wonderful way so that I was completely sucked in. Gave me a lot to think about.

        • September 5, 2012 7:41 am

          My friend Jodie at Bookgazing has mentioned that we should read something by Scarlett Thomas.

          • freshhell permalink
            September 5, 2012 7:37 pm

            If you haven’t read Our Strange Universe, you should. I’d be really curious to know what you think of it.

  4. September 28, 2012 11:01 am

    I’ve had this book on my wishlist for a while but I think yours is the first review of it I’ve read. I’m not sure I know what the book is about but it seems sufficiently strange for me to give it a go. Oh, and Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr. Y is excellent!

    • October 1, 2012 7:50 am

      If I had to say what this book is “about,” I’d say it’s about prejudice and perspective, but in a very exaggerated way. The perspective shifts, but doesn’t enlighten much.
      The End of Mr. Y is the one I am most interested in.

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