With only one week to go to the live worldliteratureforum.com author Q&A it was hightime to read Ammaniti’s 3rd novel and winner of the prestigious Premio Strega (Italy’s equivalent of the Booker Prize).
At 496 pages, The Crossroads is more than twice the length of the superb I’m Not Scared. Fortunately I motored through in just 3 sittings. That speaks volumes for the quality of the translation and also makes it a compulsive and almost unputdownable read. It is a fast paced novel that, I suggest, must be read in large chunks to capitalise on its frenetic energy and shocking content.
The dustjacket is an obvious hommage to Coetzee’s Disgrace. This is not good as Coetzee’s spare bleak style and I do not get on. Fortunately Ammaniti’s prose is far from spare, though the content has more disgrace-ful echoes being bleak and sometimes as sleazy as hell . The Crossroads paints a very unpretty picture of contemporary Italy.
It shares themes with I’m Not Scared in particular, the desperation of rural Italian life and adult cruelty. The narration is 3rd person omniscient and events are not filtered through the innocent trusting eyes of childhood. In other words, the gloves are off!
The plot centres around a bank heist. The gang are as dysfunctional a group of people as you will ever meet. Danilo Aprea, the “mastermind”, is a father grieving for his dead baby daughter and his divorced wife, Quattro Formaggi, named after his favourite food, is slow-witted, physically disabled, with an obsession for one particular American porn movie, and Rino Zena is an alcoholic slob, who forces his 13-year old son, Christiano, to commit acts of mindless violence.
This main thread is supported by a couple of fascinating subplots – the distraction of the social worker assigned to Christiano’s case and the precocity of his female schoolmates. All three plots collide on an unexpectedly stormy night. The sexual comedy at the start of the evening transforming into a nightmare of horrific proportion and consequence. Poor Christiano is the one tasked with picking up the pieces. (Note to self: ask Ammaniti at the Q&A just why his adolescents have such a tough time.)
There is definitely something filmic about Ammaniti’s writing. The scenes are so colourful and precise that reading his work is almost visual. Though never with a sense of cosiness. Even a candle-lit seduction scene is damaged by smells emanating from a faulty toilet. (An unholy adulterous stink.) Yet sometimes Ammaniti pushes too far. For instance, there are too many pages between Rino Zena’s collapse and his hospitalisation and am I really expected to believe that car keys, tossed away years ago, could be found in the torrents of a flooded river?
These minor gripes are more than offset by the complex characterisation. The bad guys all have redeeming factors, back histories that demand readerly compassion – all that is except Rino, for whom I feel an unreserved contempt. Conversely, the halos on the good have slipped. This ambiguity raises Ammaniti’s novel above the level of the usual thriller and into the arena of literary fiction.
I may have my quibbles about the sleaziness and graphic violence in these pages but there’s no doubt that this is an accomplished and rivetting piece of writing. I’d be interested if those who bemoaned the inclusion of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 on last year’s Booker longlist would begrudge Ammaniti a place (in a hypothetical world where nationality was no inhibitor). I fully expect to see The Crossroads nominated for this year’s Duncan Lawrie International Crime Dagger.