by Niccolò Ammaniti, translated by Jonathan Hunt.
Canongate, 261 pp., £12.99, August 2017, 978 1 78211 834 3
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The novel​ that made Niccolò Ammaniti internationally famous, his fourth, Io non ho paura (2001, translated into English by Jonathan Hunt as I’m Not Scared), is set in the long hot summer of 1978, in an isolated hamlet surrounded by cornfields in an unspecified part of southern Italy. The narrator, nine-year-old Michele Amitrano, is quick-witted, observant, brave and good – everything the child hero of a storybook ought to be – but he doesn’t think of himself as any of those things, so is able to describe the monstrous events of his childhood in an unassuming sort of way. Michele is remembering what happened as an adult, twenty years on, but this level of ironic distancing makes less difference to the overall effect of the novel than the disconnect between the simple story that Michele thinks he’s telling and the more intricate one we can’t help reading through it. The nine-year-old’s voice is captured in part by Ammaniti’s use of tenses: Io non ho paura is narrated in the perfect (passato prossimo) and imperfect tenses, rather than the preterite (passato remoto) of conventional fiction.

The six children who live in Acqua Traverse’s five houses aren’t exactly friends – on the contrary, there’s a lot of animosity between them – but they play together every day, outside in the punishing heat, because there’s no one else to play with. The youngest is Michele’s little sister, Maria, who’s five; the oldest, Antonio Natale, known as il Teschio (the Skull), is 12. As the novel opens, the children are racing up a hill through a field of wheat. Everything has to be a race because il Teschio says so, though most of the others would rather it wasn’t. There’s never a prize for the winner, but the loser has to pay a forfeit. Maria falls and twists her ankle; Michele hesitates, but goes back to help her. The brother and sister are the last to reach the summit, where they find that the others have impaled a live chicken, stolen from a farm earlier in the day, as a flag of conquest.

Maria is exempt from the forfeit because she’s so young, and Michele persuades the others that he should be spared, too, because he wouldn’t have lost if he hadn’t gone back to help his sister. So the punishment falls on 11-year-old Barbara, the only girl among the older children. The day before, il Teschio had made her unbutton her shirt and show the boys her chest. Now he tells her to drop her trousers. Michele heroically – though he doesn’t see it as heroism – steps up to pay a forfeit in her place. There’s an abandoned, tumbledown farmhouse hidden in a dip over the brow of the hill. Il Teschio decides that Michele has to climb up to the first floor, make his way through the collapsing house, clamber out of a window and down a tree on the far side. He nearly manages it – the description lasts several tense pages – but then, trusting his weight to a dead branch, he falls to the ground on his back. Miraculously, he is unharmed: he has landed on a mattress. And beneath the mattress there is a sheet of green corrugated plastic. And beneath the sheet of corrugated plastic there is a pit in the ground. And in the pit there is something awful.

For several days Michele keeps the secret, spending more and more time by himself, taking solitary cycle rides out to the farmhouse. He wants to tell his father, a lorry driver who’s often away for long periods but has returned home unexpectedly, but he keeps missing his chance – until he suddenly suspects that his father may in fact have something to do with the horror in the pit. So it’s partly with relief, and partly with fear, that Michele discovers il Teschio’s older brother, Felice Natale (Hunt doesn’t translate his name as ‘Happy Christmas’), lurking at the farmhouse. Felice is a liar and a sadist, who used to delight in torturing the younger children before he left the hamlet, they’d hoped for good. He looks all right until he opens his mouth: he never lost his milk teeth, which are small and widely spaced ‘like a newborn crocodile’s’ (Ammaniti has an eye for grotesque physical detail). But the relief is short-lived: a sinister and revolting old man, allegedly a friend of his father’s from Rome, comes to stay, and Michele has to share a bedroom with him. Soon he discovers that all the adults of the village, one way or another, are complicit in the crime he has uncovered.

Michele may feel as if he’s living in a place remote from history and the outside world, but readers and the adult narrator know that the action of the novel doesn’t take place in a political vacuum: it’s set during the period of violence known as the ‘anni di piombo’, or years of lead; 1978 was the year that the ex-prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped (non-spoiler alert: it isn’t Moro’s remains that Michele finds in the pit). Something’s got to give, and at last, just as the weather breaks – Ammaniti isn’t afraid of a thundering pathetic fallacy – Michele feels himself compelled to risk everything to do what’s right, heading out into a storm in the middle of the night towards the novel’s satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion.

Ammaniti’s most recent novel, Anna, published in Italy in 2015, has a certain amount in common with Io non ho paura (he wrote three other books between them). We are introduced to the eponymous heroine as she’s running along the motorway between Palermo and Trapani, pursued by a pack of stray dogs. The year is 2020, and the entire adult population – certainly of Sicily, and probably the whole world – has been wiped out by a mysterious virus. Wildfires have ripped through the countryside and the deserted towns. It may or may not be a coincidence that the Mezzogiorno in the late 1970s, at least as imagined by Ammaniti (born in Rome in 1966), with bands of feral children roaming through a hot, decaying landscape, should so closely resemble his idea of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The symptoms of the mysterious disease, known as ‘la Rossa’ (Hunt calls it ‘the Red Fever’), are described in ghoulish detail – it sounds a bit like bubonic plague – but the mode of transmission is left unexplained. I’m no expert but the epidemiology seems implausible; like the children, I found myself thinking that surely at least some adults must have survived. Still, that’s hardly the point. The illness, dormant in children until they reach puberty, when it kills them, is a narrative device for creating a world in which life expectancy is drastically reduced and new births are impossible, a world populated only by declining numbers of children. Anna is 13, so presumably has only months to live – unless, hope against hope, she is immune? The story is told in the third person, so, unlike with Michele in Io non ho paura, there’s no guarantee she will survive. Ammaniti, not to the novel’s benefit, abandons her point of view occasionally: there are three extended flashbacks from other characters’ perspectives – a stray dog, a dead boy and Anna’s younger brother, Astor.

Anna looks after Astor in a farmhouse hidden in the woods. She goes out scavenging for supplies, which are harder to find as time goes by; to keep Astor safe at home, she has convinced him that he will be killed by monsters or poisonous fumes if he leaves the sanctuary of the ‘magic wood’. Their mother’s skeleton – they’ve decorated the bones with elaborate doodles – is laid out on her bed upstairs. The children have developed other new traditions, too, such as the eccentric way they celebrate Christmas (whenever they feel like it, since they don’t have a calendar) and dancing to George Benson’s version of ‘The Ghetto’ with strange moves of their own devising.

In some ways Anna is older than her years, required to take on adult responsibilities in a world where there is no one to help her; she’s also a seasoned drinker. In other ways, her development is arrested at the age she was – nine, like Michele in Io non ho paura – when the virus began its rapid global spread out of Belgium, of all places (chosen, I suspect, as a deliberate alternative to Congo, a sly rebuke to all the disaster movies that unthinkingly cast central Africa as the default source of mysterious plagues; I don’t think it’s a jibe at the EU). She still describes herself as being in year three, on the rare occasions she meets another child she was at school with. Astor, who never started school, is only just learning to read. He’s a reluctant pupil, but Anna now feels there’s some urgency to it: their mother, as she was dying, filled an exercise book with important information, including the injunction to teach Astor to read so that he can use the exercise book when Anna dies. But he hasn’t got beyond effortfully spelling out the words on the sides of cans and jars, to determine whether or not their contents are edible. Memories of comfort food play an important part in the novel, for the metaphors that Anna and Ammaniti reach for as well as a way of conjuring the world that’s been lost. She meets a boy whose legs remind her of cotechino, a kind of thick, pink sausage traditionally eaten with lentils on New Year’s Eve. One day, Astor falls ill, not with la Rossa – he’s still too young – but with a bloated stomach, vomiting and high fever. Anna goes out in search of antibiotics, according to her mother’s instructions in the exercise book. Compelled to take risks she normally wouldn’t, and make alliances she would usually avoid, she gets into trouble and has to spend the night away from the farm. Getting home to discover their sanctuary violated and Astor gone, she sets out to find him.

Anna has pretty much everything you could hope for from a post-apocalyptic picaresque adventure story: close brushes with death; a wide variety of monsters, some more obviously monstrous than others; magical towers (in a neat updating of Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills, Anna climbs up inside a wind turbine); enemies who become friends; friends who become enemies; violent fights, with other children, with dogs and once, breathtakingly, with an octopus on the seabed; a series of quests for a cure that prove more or less elusive and illusionary. They are all told in vivid, fluid Italian, for the most part captured well enough in Hunt’s English version.

The publisher makes the obvious comparisons with Lord of the Flies and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; other parallels would include The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, not to mention George Miller’s series of Mad Max movies. I was also reminded of L’uomo verticale by Davide Longo (2010, published in English in 2012 as The Last Man Standing, though ‘The Upright Man’ might have been a better title). One of the pleasures of Longo’s book is the specifically Italian flavour of its dystopian future: the smell of unharvested grapes fermenting on the vines; the importance of olive oil as a scarce commodity in the post-apocalyptic economy. But where Longo’s book takes a depressingly conservative turn – after escaping a truly creepy community that conceals, beneath its superficially petty bourgeois suburban values, a brutal rape culture (so far, not so fictional), his hero encounters supposedly the worst of the worst of the wasteland’s tribes, a group of young ravers (repetitive beats! the horror!) – Ammaniti’s novel, in part because its characters are all children, keeps open the possibility of utopia, however fragile.

One of the challenges facing anyone writing a novel for adult readers in which all the characters are children is how to maintain the balance between older and younger points of view. On the face of it – or on the basis of my account of it – Anna could seem to belong to the slightly patronising category of ‘young adult fiction’ (which didn’t exist when, say, Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye were written). It doesn’t, however; this is partly because it’s nastier and less predictable than something like the Hunger Games trilogy, but also because YA books aim to expand a teenager’s sense of the world and their place in it, while Anna is more interested in showing adults a world from which they have disappeared, which is both alien and baffling to them, and in which they would struggle to survive.

Many of the children comfort themselves with the thought that, somewhere out there, there are grown-ups (‘Grandi’, with a capital G) who survived, who developed a cure, who would look after them. But it isn’t hard to imagine much darker possibilities. Their naive faith in the vanished world of adults is one of the surest signs that Ammaniti’s children are still children. One of the most popular myths is of the Picciridduna (picciriddu is a Sicilian word for a child; the suffix means ‘big’; Hunt translates the name as ‘the Little Lady’, which seems to get the irony back to front). The Picciridduna, they say, is three metres tall and can cure la Rossa by kissing you on the mouth. Or maybe you need to burn her alive and eat the ashes. Or maybe it’s all nonsense. In any case, the reality behind the legend, which Anna witnesses at an infernal gathering (shades of The Wicker Man) at an old spa hotel up in the hills, is both more banal and more horrifying. As she makes her way more or less steadily eastwards across the island, Anna fulfils every quest, only to find – to no one’s surprise, least of all her own – that each new promise of salvation is as empty as the last. The novel leaves her more or less where it found her: walking on a motorway, looking out for herself and her brother, with a big fierce dog padding along behind. And with the lingering possibility that perhaps, one way or another, they will manage to save themselves after all.

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