There’s nothing to do here — no houses to rent, no air-conditioned hotels, no esplanade to walk along, no cafes to sit in drinking of an evening. In the summer the plain gets as hot as a gridiron, and in winter an icy wind stings your ears.
Home to 12-year old Pietro Moroni, a lad we meet in the throes of anxiety on the day the end-of-year exam results are published. It is an unmitigated disaster. He is the only one to fail. As he slumps to the floor, the question is why he is so broken?
This first section, all of five and a half pages long, induced in me a state of anxiety for Pietro that never really diminished. As the timeline went back six months, and Ammaniti began to fill in the blanks, my anxious state returned whenever Pietro appeared on the page. Unsupported by his family (his father a drunker waster, his mother, beaten into subservience, and his elder and unintelligent brother dreaming only of escape to the Arctic), Pietro is left to fend for himself. Except he believes that when bullied and at the end of a beating, he should curl up into a ball and wait for the storm to subside. His only friend is Gloria, from a rich family and, therefore, cushioned from the stress of Pietro’s existence.
In a parallel storyline, Graziano Biglia, has decided to put his womanising drug-fuelled days behind him by returning to his hometown to marry and start a designer jeans shop. His story injects some welcome light relief into the novel and yet there is always a sense that he is here to help Pietro. In fact, they meet only the once in an episode that is a long time coming and which lasts for the literary equivalent of just 5 minutes. While that event is seminal in the boy’s development, Biglia’s role is not as Pietro’s saviour. Rather he is there to start something that it is Pietro’s destiny to complete ….something as unexpected, as it is devastating.
Ammaniti’s style is playful, exhuberant and always vivid. His character descriptions capturing the essence of and the contradictions within his personalities in just a few sentences:
To see Mimmo Moroni (Pietro’s brother) from a distance, on the green hillside, sitting under a long-branched oak tree with the sheep grazing beside him and that pink-and-blue sunset gilding the woodland leaves, you felt as if you’d stepped into a painting by Juan Ortega da Fuente. But if you drew nearer you discovered that the shepherd boy was dressed like the lead singer of Metallica and that he was weeping as he munched some Mulino Bianco Crumbly Delights.
The pace is unhurried. Some set pieces stretching for 30 pages and more and one, in particular, with absolutely no bearing on the main plot. Two stoned rich kids are pulled over and bullied by a cop envious of the Mercedes they are driving. It may be a metafictional tangent, at the end of which the driver “turned on the ignition, slotted the R.E.M. album into the CD player and drove off out of this story” but it belongs. This is Ammaniti and he writes to his own delicious rules.
At 405 pages, Steal You Away is a long novel but I would happily have Ammaniti double its page count.
I’ve now completed all 3 Ammanitis translated into English. All of them 4-star or above. Please let there be more in the offing.