Niccolo Ammaniti ‘As God Commands’

–Three stars.
Cristiano ranked his father’s rages on a five-star scale. No, three to four. Already in the ‘approach with caution’ area, where the only strategy was to agree with everything he said and keep out of his way as much as possible.IMG_1102 His father turned round and kicked a white plastic chair, which hurtled across the room and fetched up against the pile of boxes where Cristiano kept his clothes. No, he had been wrong. This was five stars. Red alert. Here the only thing to do was to keep shtum and blend in with your surroundings.

Who would want to be Cristiano Zena, brought up in terror by a violent alcoholic father who taught him that the only thing in life that counts is the bond between father and son. Ammaniti, in stubs Strega Prize winner, takes us on a trip into the consequences of Berlusconi’s impact on Italy. Rino Zena has drifted out of work in the new Italy, and is a Nazi sympathiser. His two friends are Quattro Formagi, an unstable halfwit who has been watching the same pornographic film for many years in private so that he knows the lines and is hovering between reality and fantasy, and Danilo Aprea a drunken night watchman whose life fell apart at the accidental death of his child, that spends his nights stalking his ex-wife at her home or on the telephone. And to complete the background, this is Italy, there is religious mumbo jumbo throughout:

–God comes down hardest on those that are weakest, you’re a doctor and you need to know it’s important Enrico, evil is attracted by the poorest and the weakest, when god strikes he strikes the weakest.

When the story does go off the rails each of the pals falls fowl of his own particular weakness, Danilo wants money for no real purpose, Quattro Formagi thinks he recognises one of the actresses in his old American porn film (a school friend of Cristiano’s):

–Quattro Formagi on the saddle of the Boxer was climbing back up around the hairpin bends of the Saint Rocca woods, a fire burned in his shoulder, every rut that he crossed was agony, but that too was a sign that god was with him, just like the holes in padre Pio’s hands.

Rino’s known weaknesses are violence and misplaced loyalty, we discover another weakness that Ammaniti throws in unexpectedly and as for Cristiano, Well you’ll just have to read it, how far can you take filial loyalty? This is not a book with hope as a central theme.

First Published in Italian as “Come Dio Comanda” in 2006 by Mondadori
Translated into English by Jonathan Hunt and published as ‘The Crossroads’ in 2010 by Canongate Books
Also published in English as ‘As God Wants’ in 2009 by Black Cat

Paolo Giordano ‘The Human Body’

—In the years following the mission, each of the guys set out to make his life unrecognizable, until the memories of that other life, that earlier existence,img_1064 were bathed in a false, artificial light and they themselves became convinced that none of what took place had actually happened, or at least not to them.

Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body was written using his experience as an embedded journalist in an Italian peace mission in Afghanistan. The title loses its double meaning in the translation being both a body and a military unit in the original Italian, this story investigates a military unit by following a number of individuals through the senselessness and boredom of their mission, their ill preparedness for the intense stress caused by a mission outside of their base that goes terribly wrong and how this incident transforms them, illustrated by the opening quote.

In particular we meet the squad leader René, a career soldier respected by his men and who when he is not on mission is a Gigolo with a string of middle aged paying customers, the loud mouthed Cederna and his young acolyte, the “virgin” Ietri, as well as Mitrano who is bullied by Cederna, Zampieri the only woman in the unit who has continually to prove herself and Torsu, who from the mission outset has health problems. When they arrive in Afghanistan they are joined by Egitto the garrison Doctor has decided to stay on for another mission, Paolo Giordano talks us through everyday bored military life as here in a discussion between Cederna and Ietri

—The embarrassing truth is that Ietri has never been with a woman, not in the sense that he considers complete. No one in the platoon knows this and it would be a disaster if they were to find out. The only one who knows is Cederna; he told him about it himself one evening at the pub when they were both smashed and in the mood for confiding. “Complete? You mean to say you’ve never fucked?” “Well, not . . . fully.” “A goddamn little virgin! Hey, I have a new name for you: verginella…. Listen up now—it’s important. The tool down there is like a rifle. A 5.56, with a metal stock and laser sighting.” Cederna shoulders an invisible weapon and aims it at his friend. “If you don’t remember to oil the barrel from time to time, it will end up jamming.” Ietri looks down at his mug of beer. He takes too big a swig, begins to cough. Jammed. He’s a guy who’s jammed. “Even Mitrano manages to shoot his wad every now and then,” Cederna says. “He pays.”

For their peacekeeping mission they are stationed in an inhospitable landscape, their base camp is on the top of a hill, isolated from the country they are there to help in order to provide its own safety:

—The truth is, as in all of the operations since the start of the conflict, the clearing of the area has only been partial, the secure zone extends for a radius of 2km around the base, some dangerous pockets of guérillas remain within this zone and outside of the zone it’s hell…***

After several moral sapping isolated months on the hill top, peacekeeping, they are forced to leave their base in convoy to escort some Afghan  lorry drivers who have had their lorries taken from them through the inhospitable zone which surrounds their hill. Paolo Giordano conveys to us just how easy a target they actually are, up to and including the moments of the tragedy.

A study of futility, the smallness of our individual lives and the impossibility of the peacekeeping mission in this inhospitable territory.

First Published in Italian as “Il corpo umamo” in 2012 by Arnoldo Mondadori.
Translated into French by Nathalie Bauer as ‘Le corps humain’ and published by Seuil in 2013
Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel as “The Human body”and published by Viking Penguin in 2014
*** My translation