Suffocation by a Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator

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“,,,It’s marvelous to be able to free ourselves from the chains of identity which lead us to ruin. Who am I? Who are you? Who are they? These are pointless and stupid questions” (110).

According to the July 28th article in the New York Times by Celestine Bohlen entitled “Italy’s Influx of Immigrants is a Domestic Problem Too”, 83,000 immigrants have come to the shores of Italy in 2015 alone, many of them arriving from Northern Africa and the Middle East.

I don’t know what state the country of Italy compares to in size, but I can’t imagine it’s larger than one of those landlocked states I’ve never been to like Illinois or Indiana. That is an absolutely staggering number for such a small country, and with the sudden influx of different cultures and the shortage of jobs, housing, and food as highlighted in the article, it’s not difficult to why Italy is having an identity crisis.

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I knew very little about this topic prior to learning that my youngest brother is planning a trip to Italy in the spring with his high school Latin class, as I previously mentioned in the theme post for September. But I also suddenly became inundated with Italian everything, from food to music to films to decorative paper at my job; all things Italian, including the strange acquisition of a little novel by Algerian-Italian author Amara Lakhous with an even stranger title called Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (Europa Editions is the publisher, publishing this piece in 2008).

I was left in the ultimate literary purgatory when I finished Lakhous’ novel. I couldn’t be swayed one way or the other. Sure, the writing is… okay. I mean. It’s not good. But it’s not bad. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read.  But it’s not the best thing either. It just left me feeling, well. Nothing.

Almost nothing that is.

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When I first began Clash of Civilizations, I felt first suffocation that later transformed into apathy. I felt so trapped by these people; I felt surrounded by their problems but I did not care one bit for them or the situations that led them here.

The book essentially describes a mystery of the death of cruel man nicknamed the Gladiator in the elevator of an apartment building where several immigrants live. The savior of these immigrants, all of whom hail from countries with much quieter voices on the literary world stage, for example, Bangladesh and the Philippines, is a man named Amedeo who has a questionable background himself. He is the quintessential Italian; he knows every aspect of Rome, he speaks perfect Italian, and he sacrifices his time and his money to help these immigrants succeed in any way in this new country of theirs.

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Except, spoiler alert, he is not actually Italian, shocking everyone into fear that he might be the killer of the Gladiator.

Every immigrant depicted shares their personal story before Lakhous jumps back to a journal entry from Amedeo that quite literally repeats everything you just read in the section before, except from Amedeo’s point-of-view, all of which contain something he calls “wails,” literally the sound of him wailing on the page. It’s repetitive, dull, and choking.

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But is this how immigrants trapped in other countries feel? Is this deliberate? Was I meant to feel how someone with poor language/cultural skills dropped into foreign land and left to their own devices would feel?

Tricky, Lakhous. But underlying plot devices and change in point-of-view do not make up for poor writing and atrocious characterization.

It is difficult to feel anything for the characters in this novel. They all sound the same, they all speak the same, and they all act the same, even though they are all meant to be from different countries. There is no variance in the writing; at least attempt to give them an accent or anything so that they can be differentiated between one another. There were several passages where I could not differentiate between one characters

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Of course, as the old technique goes, none of the characters are reliable in their accounts, but this technique of narrative unreliability seems to backfire. It further alienates the readers from the characters and the story line, and it becomes incredibly difficult to care or read on. Several reviews seem to think the writing is humorous, but I challenge a fellow reader to show me something so uniquely clever and funny in any of the accounts in Clash of Civilizations.

Obviously, this is much more of an accurate depiction of modern day Italy and the issues this country faces. I do not argue that heavy immigration is causing a host of social issues in Italy and other countries around the world. We see this now with the mass migration of Syrian refugees flooding into Europe. These are topics we need to discuss, but I argue there are better novels to accomplish this goal.

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Fear sort of strikes my heart that certain critics have compared Lakhous’ writing to that of Camus’, asking the terrifying question, “Do we have an Italian Camus on our hands?” It is truly astounding to me this connection can even be made. The only similarities these novels contain are the daunting details of the lives of foreigners and the fact that the authors came from the same general area of the world. Blasphemy at its highest.

 

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2 thoughts on “Suffocation by a Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator

  1. Thanks for the detailed review, life is shorter than my reading projects I’ll not follow this one. Did you see the film? Some of the weaknesses in narrative and character you speak of could be corrected by this medium and the unreliable narrative a popular theme in itself (Usual Suspects for instance).

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    • Cheers to the endless reading project! I did not get a chance to see the film, but I totally agree that the medium could solve these problems. Clash of Civilizations just seems like an idea more appropriate as a screenplay rather than a novel.

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