Monday, November 24, 2008

Amara Lakhous' house of mysteries

For a moment I thought that after fifty-eight years, critics had found a new touchstone for discussing the elusiveness of truth. I'd read several references on blogs to Amara Lakhous' novel Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, and not one had invoked Rashomon. I needed to verify my impression, though, so I did a quick online search. Sure enough, two American newspapers, cautiously and safely erudite, reliably behind the times in that way that American newspapers have, compared the novel to Akira Kurosawa's movie. I am unsure whether this is testament more to the movie's power or the critics' laziness.

In the book, an obstreperous tenant of a Roman apartment block has been murdered, another tenant has disappeared, and, one at a time, ten neighbors and a police officer tell their stories, comment about one another, and speculate about whether the missing man is guilty of the killing. The neighbors include immigrants, internal and external, and their mutual misperceptions form the book's comedy and its mystery as well. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, though the comedy predominates.

The mystery inheres in the clashing interpretations the tenants offer based on circumstantial evidence and on their own imaginations, backgrounds and prejudices. And the mystery only intensifies after the vanished man's fate is revealed.

Lakhous was born in Algiers and, according to his publisher, recently completed a Ph.D. thesis on “Living Islam as a Minority.” I'd suspect, though, that of his novel's immigrant characters, he has special affection for Johan van Marten, a young Dutchman who wants to make a movie about the apartment building and its residents. (Clash of Civilizations ... is one of the titles he proposes for his film.) Van Marten offers a simple and highly amusing solution to a linguistic puzzle that others had misinterpreted, and Lakhous also has him give voice to one of the great sports metaphors in all crime fiction.

Sport also figures in the book's most amusing example of Italians' suspicions of migrants from elsewhere in their own country:

"Sandro told me that Naples fans can't stand the Olympic Stadium because of the banners of the Roma fans, which display a special welcome. For example, last year during the Roma-Naples game there was a banner that said `Welcome, Naples fans, welcome to Italy!'"
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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21 Comments:

Anonymous marco said...

Glad to see the review,Peter,and glad you liked it.
I must admit it didn't make me really think about Rashomon-though some of the Italian reviews did mention it- the style is so different-plus for an Italian there's really a much closer parallel in Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto in Via Merulana/That Awful Mess in the Via Merulana with its reflection on the inattainability of truth,its work on dialects and its location at a stone throw to Piazza Vittorio.
Which reminds me we talked about that book at the beginning of our internet acquaintance -did you order it from the library? Since then I've read the article of an Italianist who decries the translation-says it's awful.

I've read a book (bought at the usual used books market) which reminded me closely of Rashomon -and The Name of the Rose then I looked at the reviews and found,inevitably,those two were namedropped in all of them -
it's Iain Pears La quarta verità/An Instance of the Fingerpost

November 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, your comment reminded me that I received notification a couple of weeks ago my library had tracked down That Awful Mess in the Via Merulana. I intended to visit the library today in any case. I will make sure to see if the book is still there.

I have not read Iain Pears, but I know he writes books with names of Italian Renaissance painters in the title, and none of those painters are Leonardo da Vinci. Anything with the name of Giotto in the title will attract my attention.

I talked with an Roman acquaintance here in Philadelphia who identified the Piazze Vittorio as home to lots of Chinese immigrants. Perhaps the area has long been home to newcomers.

November 24, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Re:Piazza Vittorio, yes definitely.Now there's also the relatively famous multiethnic
Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio
Here's their site and here a brief review in English of the documentary


The article I've read about That Awful... says that while the novel is indeed difficult to translate,the translation manages to transform even the simplest phrases in awkward ones.
A mess of the mess...very postmodern.

I looked up Pears after reading the book-I know he wrote a series of novels involving Art crimes in contemporary Italy-one is called Giotto's Hand -but this is a standalone,a 17th Century historical-philosophical (Novum Organum,etc.) mystery related from the contradictory viewpoints of four different characters (hence the Italian title La Quarta Verità)
The comparisons write themselves, really.
At times may seem insufferably long and descriptive,others unnecessarily convoluted,but in the end I liked it-though I don't know if it's to anyone's taste-as a rule,it shouldn't really have been to mine either.

November 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had the idea that the novel did fairly well. At least, I've seen and heard references to it from time to time.

I had not heard of the Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio. It looks interesting, and I always try to explore a bit of music whenever I travel.

As it happens, I've just found that the Philadelphia Orchestra is giving a joint concert tomorrow evening with an ensemble that plays Native American music, so I may get to do some exploraiton in the country where I live.

November 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, I am at my library now, where I have just borrowed That Awful Mess on Via Merulana. I must say that I've never liked the English title. "Awful mess" is not quite idiomatic, not quite affected. I just don't know what tone the title intends to convey.

I was interested to learn of those critical comments about the translation. My translation is by William Weaver, copyright 1965. Weaver is one of the more celebrated translators of Italian into English. Perhaps, if he is the translator criticized in the article you read, this was an early effort in his career.

November 24, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Hey, Peter and Marco, I was happy to see this post and though I have no idea whether the translation is crap, I think it worked well enough to give some sense of the whole situation. At least it conveyed the ambiguous character of Amadeo, a man who really seemed to be able to be all things to all people, while never quite revealing his inner life to anyone.

I actually posted a short review or something that is not really quite a review on one of my blogs, and put a link to this one in case anyone actually happens to read it. I doubt very much whether it adds substantially to the discussion, but if you'd like, you can read it here. And as I said there, Marco, I am indebted to you for showing me how to make that kind of link.

I read the beginning of the Pears book. It's very good, a bigger accomplishment than his art history mysteries. My failure to get through it has to do with my own lack of discipline, not the book. I still hope to give it another go.

November 24, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Seanag-the translation of Lakhous seems good to me,from the excerpt I've read
We were talking of the Weaver's translation (there's only this one,I believe) of Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto de Via Merulana

Pears gets better.

And I'm happy you decided to review it too

My two v-words:excess and brain

????????

Ciao,
Marco

November 25, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

I must say that I've never liked the English title.

You've been in Rome,you understand more or less the meaning and tone of the original,right?
How would you translate it?

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seanag, I suspect the translation of Clash of Civilizations ... is fairly accurate because the language seems faily straightforward. I do recall a time or two where the translation appeared to be explaining something that might not have needed explanation in the original, but these were few and unobtrusive.

William Weaver, whose translation of Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto de Via Merulana was the subject if the critical article to which Marco referred, has translated just about every major Italian writer of the twentieth century. That's why I was surprised to hear of the criticism Marco mentioned.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, I have been to Rome, and I think I understand the tone of the original. I imagine it shares the tone of something that makes a person throw up hsi hands in exasperation or gossip with great excitement to his neighbors.

I can't be sure I understand the tone of the expression, though, since I had not heard it until I heard of the novel.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"My two v-words:excess and brain"

What, does the v-word keeper want you to stop using your head, and get in touch with your feelings?

I had the v-word abilityl earlier today. Perhaps there is a theme to today's words.

And I shall flip through the Pears book the next time I visit a bookshop or a library.

November 25, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

from this article

William Weaver has written convincingly of the problems of translating Gadda, but his 1965 version, reprinted in this new edition, never begins to solve them. It’s full of false or inappropriate cognates (e.g. the unhappy use of ‘infamous’ and ‘sex’ in the passage describing Liliana’s corpse) and has a tendency to follow Italian syntax with scant respect for the rhythms and habits of English prosody, present or past. True, Gadda’s style is very strange and a challenge that most translators would be glad to pass up, but in so far as it is a play of different voices there is no chance of arriving at a satisfactory equivalent if even the most ordinary sentence in Gadda’s Italian becomes extraordinary in English. Of a woman suffering from the cold, Weaver writes: ‘There wasn’t, in her lap, but she would have liked it, the earthenware brazier.’ Of a carabiniere admiring a superior’s intuition: ‘If only he, Pestalozzi, in time, could succeed in having a scent like that!’ A commonplace bureaucratic Italian expression for a phonecall, una communicazione telefonica, becomes ‘a telephonic communication’.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

It does sound like this translation would be quite entertaining to read, but for all the wrong reasons!

I'm glad to know that I got the wrong end of the stick and that you weren't faulting the Lakhous translator, because I hadn't noticed anything particularly wrong and thought I might just have a tin ear.

Excess brain. Abilityl. My latest theory is that the word vericator is actually coming to sentience a la 2001's HAL, and is trying to show you it's capacity to be a useful citizen of our realm. However, it is currently giving me no v word at all, so perhaps it doesn't even plan to let me in to share this hypothesis.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Logan Lamech said...

Debate and controversy just makes the stories more compelling.

Logan Lamech
www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets.html

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, I just started reading the novel today. To his credit, Weaver did what I've often called on translators to do: append a short note detailing particular problems in rendering a book into a new language. I respect Weaver's decision to avoid trying to capture the novel's many Italian dialects and, especially, his asking readers to use their imagination in "hearing" those dialects.

I find Ingravallo an intriguing character so far. Now let's see what I can make of what some people seem to think is a pasticciaccio of a traduzione.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I understand that today's equivalent of HAL can fit easily on a memory stick.

I'd also suggest that the v-word generator needs to express an opinion now and then. My current v-word: nolike. Everybody's a critic.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, and translations just add one more layer to the possiblity of controversy or, as it's sometimes known, discussion.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

nolike. I laughed out loud. I feel that my hypothesis is gaining strength. And now that I see that the word vericator must express itself in extremely simple words, I now feel that 'excess brain' might just mean "I have a headache'.

v word=quito

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I thought excess brain may indicate the the v-master is a Buddhist, urging Marco to break free of bounds of intellectual desire. Or maybe it was just calling him a fathead.

Now, at least, we know that v-generator has a thing for Ecuador.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Yes, if HAL can now fit on a memory stick, he is certainly free to travel to wherever he likes. But we must hope that the v-master is a Buddhist, because if it's more like HAL at the end and is simply becoming insulting, well, put it this way: a memory stick is a lot easier to decommission than HAL was.

v word=retici Italian perhaps? At the very least psuedo-Italian. Perhaps it's trying to make amends.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I suppose planned obsolescene is easier when one can drop the old computer into a trash can with barely a ping.

November 27, 2008  

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