Let the Games Begin
by Niccolo Ammaniti; translated by Kylee Doust
Black Cat; 320 p.
David Grann, one of the great storytellers and detectives of the amazing in life, tweeted after the DOMA decision that on that day, “I feel like I am inside of history.” Without any explanation, I think we all understood his comment. History, of course, continues to occur every second, but it happens out there, in another country, to other people, and we participate as spectators. Consequently, we tend to live lives as managers of ritualized excitement and inevitable boredom. Ironically, much of the boredom in life emerges from what we categorize as technological progress. Our lives, purposefully so, have become sterile and largely innocuous in our day-to-day routines. Morality is something out there, not in here, in which rules and guidelines dictate our every move. Niccolo Ammaniti, the Italian writer and author of the newly translated Let the Games Begin, captures this paradox of progress and the challenges of boredom.
The book centers on two contrasting protagonists. Fabrizio Ciba, an accomplished writer, boozehound, and womanizer with an absurdly inflated ego tries to write his next great novel, to no avail. While attempting to take advantage of a young intern, he overhears his publisher discussing letting him go due to lack of progress on the new novel. This sends Ciba into a drunken and sloppy tailspin, leaving him despondent and craving the solitude of the Italian coast. Saverio Moneta, a nobody languishing in a loveless marriage and beholden to his boss/father-in-law, attempts to remake himself as the leader of a demonic cult that worships Satan; this cult’s big plan is to kill a pop star in front of the world. (The Satan parts feel strange initially, but provide much of the comic relief in the book.) In Ammaniti’s world, all of the characters are like Moneta, in that they are volcanoes craving to burst:
He was frustrated. Too downtrodden, too remissive, too nice with everyone. She liked him that way. He reminded her of one of those draft horses that pull the carriage and take beatings for their whole lives and then die, cut-down with fatigue. Deep inside, though, she knew that Saverio carried in him a hell that burned day and night.
The book moves at a brisk pace through the initial set of blunders until the culmination at a once-in-a-lifetime, larger-than-life lavish party thrown in a privately owned wildlife park by one of the richest men in the world. The two protagonists’ stories converge at the party, where Ciba tries to find a suitable woman and Moneta tries to murder the pop star. There, all hell (almost literally) breaks loose, unleashing the animals and group of ex-pat Soviets hiding in the sewer system from the Communists. (Yes, this is the real plot.) Things get a little unruly and purposefully absurd towards the novel’s end with an orgy of violence and sex that South Park would respect. Ammaniti inserts twists on twists, and deaths galore, but it never feels as if he lacks control. Ciba is revealed as the boorish creep we all knew he was, and Moneta receives redemption in his learned ability to care about other people more than his bruised ego.
Ammaniti crafts a playful satire of ego, celebrity culture, our obsession with meaning, and the nature of progress in the Western world. Like Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, the book reads like an intellectual’s beach-read: romantic, full of plot and characters, but also teeming with ideas, symbols, dense metaphors, and complex satire. Ammaniti weaves together history and Biblical stories as a kind of blueprint for the plot. Specifically, as the party devolves into chaos, it undergoes a reverse Genesis into a hellish Eden where wild animals roam free and destroy the progress of Man:
That great body of water opened up an abyss in the ground and smashed through a tuff rock tunnel in the catacomb that passed right under the lake and began to fill with water just as if it were a huge pipeline. It took less than three minutes to flood the first floor of the ancient Christian cemetery, and dragging with it everything it found in its path – bones, stones, spiders and mice – it threw itself spitting and gurgling down the steep staircases dug tirelessly with the Christians’ rudimentary chisels, and onto the floor below. There the water, hindered by the narrow diameter of the staircases, seemed to lose power. But then a huge slab of tuff rock crumbled like a sandcastle beneath a wave and the water forged a new course that allowed it to express its unstoppable rage and to drown everything in its path.
In a sense, there is an old-school cynic in Ammaniti that sees the world in an endless cycle in which, despite our pretensions to progress, our wealth, our technology, our sexual freedom, we still revert back to the chaos of Eden. In this increasingly sincere artistic world, it’s nice to be reminded of our potential for primal living, the persistence of our collective idiocy as a prod to humorous humility.