Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I'm Not Scared / by Niccolo Ammaniti; trans. from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt

In the sweltering Italian summer of 1978, residents of the sparse hamlet of Aquo Traverse do their best to keep cool and comfortable. Adults mainly stay inside, dissuaded from their normal tasks and irritable to be around, while children are left to explore on their own, largely unsupervised as they roam the surrounding countryside. On one outing, 9-year-old Michele Amitrano accepts a dare to enter an abandoned farmhouse alone. What he finds there, lying in a hollowed-out portion of the foundation, is what he presumes to be a corpse, that of a boy around his own age though he doesn't tell his friends or let on about anything out of the ordinary. Someone must be told though as news of this sort is obviously noteworthy and, soon afterwards, Michele discloses the situation to his father only to have the elder Amitrano mysteriously brush him off, actually telling him to forget the whole thing and indicating (in aggressive fashion) that this is the last he wants to hear about it. A confused Michele, too curious to stay away, ultimately returns to the scene and discovers that the boy in question is in fact not dead, only deathly weak, disoriented and mostly unable to account for his presence. In the following days, with aid from the food and water Michele brings him, a pieced-together story of kidnapping, ransom and cover-up involving every adult, Michele's parents included, in the small village is recounted. The evidence of the abducted boy, what he's able to recall and the mutual conspiracy by practically every grown-up he's ever known are largely out of Michele's reach. From his limited perspective, the situation's not only unfathomable but contradictory. And yet he knows something must be done. At a moral as well as developmental crossroads, Michele decides to act. Will it be the right move?

There are lots of coming of age novels. There are lots of growing older novels. There are lots of recollective, anecdotal stories written by grown-ups of early youth and confronting reality. But there are precious few truly great 'books about childhood written for adults'. This is one of them. Not a thriller, not suspense. Not nostalgia, not YA, not an abuse testimonial and probably not even a kid-centered horror tale à la Stephen King's It or "The Body" (those had relatively happy endings) though similar elements are involved. I'm Not Scared is something different, something inadvertently real and starkly rendered, not too far removed from Italian Neorealism itself in which self-consciousness in storytelling is intentionally absent. It's incredible how convincing Ammaniti is in writing the mindfulness of a nine-year-old. Michele's a character with not a lot of maturity but not a lot of despair, possessing plausible fears and believable errors. He's curious and at times impetuous without the foresight to know different and always, always in the moment. At no point is he looking at things with adult goggles. Ammaniti has been on the radar as a celebrated Italian novelist since the mid-nineties and this book clearly defines why. It's not one to miss. (FIC AMMANITI)

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