Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

Amara Lakhous’ excellent Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio is this month’s Words Without Borders Book Club pick, and I’m leading the discussion.

If you order the book now, you’ll be at less of a loss for something to do once the ballots have been counted, the colors on the map are filled in, and the liquor bottles are gathering rainwater out by the curb.

Here’s the beginning of my introduction:

“Doesn’t make any difference who we are or what we are,” a cholera germ announces in one of Twain’s stories, “there’s always somebody to look down on!”

No recent novel illustrates the truth of this axiom with more precision, intelligence, and humor than Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, which is exactly what the title promises, except better. It’s a satirical but not unsympathetic examination of the events leading up to a murder in a modern-day Roman apartment building where immigrants, transplants, and multi-generational locals can’t seem to stop arguing about the elevator. The book was a surprise best-seller, and the winner of the prestigious Flaiano and Racalmare-Leonardo Sciascia awards, when it appeared in Italy two years ago, and has just been translated from the Italian by the formidable Ann Goldstein (who also translated Elena Ferrante’s remarkable Days of Abandonment).

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio presents a series of conflicting, casually bigoted, and often very funny monologues. These turn out to be witnesses’s statements following the brutal killing of Lorenzo Manfredini, aka the Gladiator, who was stabbed to death in the very elevator where — according to some — he often enjoyed surreptitiously urinating.

Between each of the statements are brief collections of eight or ten journal entry fragments written by prime suspect Amedeo, aka Ahmed Salmi, who, most everyone is amazed to learn, now that he’s disappeared, is not actually Italian. But he’s so gentlemanly and respectful! He can debate the teachings of Jesus and tell you the history of any street in Rome! Every single morning, he orders the “three ‘C’s” that only true Italians know the value of: “cappuccino, cornetto, Corier della Sera“! (“I’ve never in my life,” the proprietor of the establishment where Amedeo breakfasts says, “seen a Chinese, a Moroccan, a Romanian, a Gypsy, or an Egyptian read the Corier della Sera or La Pepubblica! The only thing the immigrants read is Porta Portese, for the want ads.”)

You can read the rest here, and sample an excerpt from the novel here.

Also, in the current issue of Words Without Borders, translator Ann Goldstein discusses the challenges of translating the novel, PEN American Center Translation Committee chair Michael F. Moore looks at the characters’ sweating and swearing, and the author is interviewed by Suzanne Ruta in Scheherazade, C’est Moi?

Finally, if you’re free this Thursday, November 6, Idlewild Books is hosting a conversation between Goldstein and Moore.


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