Ammaniti, Niccolo - 'The Crossroads' (translated by Jonathan Hunt)
The main protagonist in THE CROSSROADS, Cristiano Zena, is a teenager whose mother walked out when he was a baby leaving him with his father Rino, a drunken violent tattooed neo-Nazi thug, who does however love his son.
Rino has two close friends: Danilo Aprea whose wife Teresa left him a year after Laura, his three year old daughter, choked to death on a shampoo bottle cap, and Corrado Rumitz, known as Quattro Formaggi, because that pizza has been his staple diet for almost all of his 38 years. Quattro Formaggi was brought up in an orphanage along with Rino and had always been slightly strange until he suffered an accidental electrocution when his fishing line tangled with overhead power lines. Now he is even weirder, with nervous tremors, a limp and an even more damaged intellect.
Danilo has a plan for them to rob a bank that will make them all rich, improve their pathetic lives beyond recognition, and bring Teresa back to him.
The minor characters are interesting and include Beppe Trecca, Cristiano's social worker, who lusts after Ida, his best friend's wife and plans a new life with her. While young Cristiano looks longingly at the glamorous slightly older girls at school, Fabiana Ponticelli and Esmeralda Guerra and hopes his life will be better in the future.
On the night of a terrible storm their lives will become disastrously entangled and nothing will ever be the same again.
This is a novel with tremendous narrative drive and great dialogue as it rapidly switches from one character's perspective to another. It is also a rude, and very crude in places, story about three friends with extremely disorganised lives. Rino, Quattro Formaggi and Danilo are not very pleasant members of the "underclass". They have no regular jobs, no regular sexual partners and live a hand to mouth existence. They strongly object to their potential jobs going to African and Eastern European workers. They dream of a better life and despite their faults and crudity Ammaniti makes us feel some sense of empathy with his despicable characters. The father and son relationship between Cristiano and Rino is surprisingly movingly depicted. We almost have a vague feeling that there but for lucky fate, we could be in their situation.
But as the story develops the amount of humour gets less and the action darker and more desperate. As a story about the increasing numbers of the inadequate and dispossessed in our society it grips your interest from the start. The characters are described in amazingly sharp detail and Ammaniti has a gift for putting the reader right into the action.
This is not a book for the easily offended because it is a frightening picture taken of the inside of certain male minds and the drift into a religious insanity. Shockingly brisk at the start the pace slackens towards the end of the book and it begins to slightly lose its vitality, but it is still a brilliantly told story, if probably not one for the under 18s or the breathless over 65s.
Niccolo Ammaniti who was born in Rome in 1966 has won several prizes for fiction, including the Premio Strega Prize, Italy's equivalent of the Booker for THE CROSSROADS.
Norman Price, England
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