Where do migrants live? Amara Lakhous's Scontro di civilta per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio.
In order to develop a complex discussion of the relations between urban space and migration literature, it is necessary to begin with Benvenuti's concept of "perceived" space and apply it to a narrative structure in which proximities--which she terms "zone di contatto" ("contact zones")--create the context in which change can be enacted. In Benvenuti's words, these innovative spaces "consentono di riarticolare la segregazione e di costruire nuove identita ibride e nuovi spazi trasgressivi" ("allow for a re-articulation of segregation and the construction of new hybrid identities and new transgressive spaces"). The "zone di contatto" are border areas, that is, locations where cultural exchanges are enacted. They are spaces in which new communities, identities, and transgressions can be performed. In my book, Migration Italy: The Art of Talking Back in a Destination Culture, I focused on literature as the space where change can be imagined. In a more recent article in Italian entitled "Comunita, diritti umani e testi multiculturali" ("Community, human rights, and multicultural texts"), I have used the articulations of the concept of proximity in the work of both Giorgio Agamben and Lisa Lowe in order to consider literature as a context in which the space of proximity can be verbalized and where contact among communities can be narrated. Benvenuti focuses in particular on how fiction can inflect perceptions of the "real," and therefore on the impact that imagined spaces can have on the construction of the urban space that we encounter in our daily experiences. She adds:
Il discorso letterario e artistico e dunque una delle forme discorsive che interagiscono con la percezione e la produzione dello spazio e lo modificano: questo l'assunto centrale della geocritica, un metodo di studio dei luoghi che propone una prospettiva multifocale, ovvero l'analisi di piu sguardi su e rappresentazioni di, un luogo, ed esige un'attenzione polisensoriale, che non indulga alla centralita del visivo, ma tenga presente il corpo in tutte le sue possibilita percettive.
(Therefore, literary artistic discourse is one of the discursive forms that interact with the perception and production of space and consequently modify it: this is the central assumption in geocriticism, which is a methodology to study locations. Such methodology proposes a multifocal perspective, that is, an analysis of a number of gazes focused on a specific location and its representations. Geocriticism demands a multisensorial attention that does not only focus on the visual, but rather takes into consideration the body and all its perceptive possibilities.)
Benedetti theorizes a literary context in which the body is articulated as an agent that modifies the space it inhabits. This fictional context allows for interpretations of the ever-changing relations of the subject with the space he/she inhabits.
This essay explores the many valences that migrant characters acquire in a novel in which space--in particular that urban space that is the city of Rome--plays a fundamental role. Amara Lakhous's Scontro di civilta per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio (Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio), written as a mystery novel narrated in the first person, focuses on bodies moving in and interpreting a space.2 This is a space in the process of transformation because it is being inflected by otherness. The novel becomes a locus, one in which a square in the city of Rome becomes a location of change authored by migrants who reject the drawn boundaries of the world they inhabit in order to appropriate a new way to walk in and about migrants' spaces in Italian cities. In particular, each character in this novel perceives space as a malleable context inevitably hybridized by that difference that migrants embody. The monologues that narrate their existence in spaces become the narratives of individual perceptions of cultural transformations in space.
For the migrants in this novel, Rome acts as a network of spaces and locations, a network in which exclusions create the map of the city. Lakhous describes his migrant characters as excluded from using an elevator, mistreated at a police station because they are unable to express themselves fluently, and expelled from historical sites since they do not qualify as tourists. The goal of the novel is to portray singularities that modify over-codified contexts in which being "others" carries connotations of inferiority. What is at stake is the appropriation of urban space interpreted by a multiplicity of migrants coming from very different cultural contexts. In fact, the city reveals itself as a fluid entity composed of spaces to which migrants want to assign new meanings. The modification of space aims to construct new proximities. The novel juxtaposes macro-space and micro-space, for it deals simultaneously with the urban entity of Rome and with one apartment building and its inhabitants. The structure of the narrative does not allow the readers to linger on the macro or the micro. Instead, the narrative zooms in and out: from a large square to an elevator, from the historical center of Rome to the kitchen where a migrant washes dishes. Consequently, the text narrates how spaces get constructed, defined, and defended. The urban space of Rome is thus filled with the anxieties and the tensions inherent in acts of appropriation between the native and the non-native. What is at stake is the construction of new urban proximities.
For Giorgio Agamben, proximity involves a new ethos that defies hierarchies and dichotomies. His subject is at the center of a "comunita che viene" ("coming community") in which "l'essere che viene e l'essere qualunque" ("the coming being is whatever being" 1/1). Agamben offers a definition of the subject as that which "non prende, infatti, la singolarita nella sua indifferenza rispetto a una proprieta comune (a un concetto, per esempio: l'essere rosso, francese, musulmano) ma solo nel suo essere tale qual e" ("relates to singularity not in its indifference with respect to a common property (to a concept for example: being red, being French, being Muslim,) but only in its being such as it is" 1/1). The "whatever being" that Agamben describes is that entity that cannot trespass because in a "coming community" space is not divided between those who belong and those who do not. Lakhous's novel creates a temporary space in which the protagonist can imagine himself as that "whatever being" who can walk, access, and exit, showing irreverence toward those limitations and legal borders that others have set. The goal is a transgressive remapping of the space of urban life.
In Lakhous's novel, the remapping of migrants' lives in Rome is presented in a series of monologues that are called "verita" ("truths"). They are intended as individual interpretations of space, as geographical locations and indicators of social standing. Voices of migrants such as Parviz Mansoor Samadi, Iqbal Amir Allah, Maria Cristina Gonzalez, Abdallah Ben Kadour are combined with the truths delivered by natives such as Elisabetta Fabiani, Antonio Marini, Sandro Dandini, Stefania Massaro, and Mauro Bettarini. Johan Van Marten, neither a native nor an immigrant, tells of his cultural project in Rome and highlights his privileged status as a long-term European visitor to Rome. Lakhous plays with a concept of truth that turns multiple and weaker, and proves directly connected to individuals' perceptions and affective relations with and in the space they inhabit. These monologues subvert stereotypes and easy dichotomies, assisted in this by the recurring "ululati" ("wails") of the protagonist Amedeo/Ahmed. Each "truth" is followed by a chapter called "a wail" in which Amedeo/Ahmed comments on the preceding testimony. Amedeo/Ahmed is a privileged observer and narrator who embodies a double identity. His in-betweenness allows him to become a mediating reader of difference.
The novel opens with a first "truth" presented as the first-person narrative of Parviz Mansoor Samadi, a political refugee from Iran. Parviz is definitely not a tourist: monuments and postcard-like attractions are not part of his experience of Rome. He introduces himself by talking about being in the subway at eight in the morning. He casts himself as an accidental commuter in a contained space that becomes for him Italian culture in a capsule. The subway car that he inhabits for a short trip is a place of prohibition: "Vietato fumare" ("No smoking" 11/14). He wants to modify the imperative and rewrite it as "Proibito mangiare pizza" ("Pizza eating prohibited" 11/14). His wishful revisions go straight to the heart of Italian stereotypes: if Italians are really pizza eaters early in the morning, something should be done for those who are "different" and hate the smell of the epitome of the Italian pie. Parviz's aversion to pizza is humorous and is directed to the Italian readers who can witness the reinterpretation of the traditionally innocuous Italian dish by an immigrant. In this uncanny transformation of the familiar into the unfamiliar, the reader experiences the familiar subway car as permeated by an "unfamiliar" smell that gives the Roman context a new (olfactory) meaning and turns the familiar into something to be policed. From the particular and the contained, this process of re-reading expands and maps the above-ground space that many migrants inhabit. Parviz is an agent who can only imagine those micro transformations that could mark space and inflect what is "naturally local," native, and taken for granted.
Parviz's narrative fragmentation of the city wants to respond to other fragmentations within the body politic. He speaks about a Mr. Roberto Bossoso, leader of the Forza Nord party, whose linguistic particularities in Italian prove that he and his cohorts do not belong to the Italian national context (14/15). Forza Nord is a party that places location at the center of its political agenda based on separation and the policing of immigrants; this is done in the name of undefinable traditions and communities claiming the right to belong to and possess that space called Italy. Parviz experiences the country by inhabiting its anonymous corners: a subway car, the kitchens of restaurants where he works, and, later, an elevator. The spaces he can frequent become a map whose borders are drawn by the imposed politics of exclusion. His discussion of Mr. Bossoso, reflecting the collaboration between the Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi's political party Forza Italia, promotes a voluntary fragmentation whose lines of demarcation indicate a protectionist, elitist, and racist politics of privilege. Standing for a larger discourse on belonging and unbelonging in contemporary Italy, Parviz's truth sees the city as a complex text that he reads for survival, interprets in order to become an active participant in its redrawing, and uses as a distorting mirror to understand Italian cultures and their contradictions. Parviz claims an interpretative position that contrasts conservative approaches to geographical space. He employs a multifaceted and multicultural re-reading that contemporary cultural criticism has embraced.
In his essay, "Through the Looking-Glass: Research on the Italian City in Historical Perspective," Sergio Pace discusses the city as an interdisciplinary entity "viewed as a complex phenomenon, existing within a vast social, economic, political, cultural, and geographic network the representation of which cannot be limited to its internal morphologies" (19). Scontro di civilta per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio emphasizes the need to understand a western city transformed by migration--and not solely by external immigrations. The character of Benedetta Esposito, the Neapolitan portinaia (a doorwoman who stereotypically makes it a point to know everyone in "her" building, a busybody in charge of enforcing condominium rules), reminds readers of the 1960s and 70s, when the pace of internal migrations that began after the war accelerated and redefined the human landscape of Italian cities. The impact of internal migrations on local communities is still visible in Italy but is gradually obscured by new immigrations and, at times, by new defensive political alliances in communities that only apparently ignore the lines of demarcation between Northerners and Southerners. As an internal other, Benedetta uses words in a language that more recent migrants (as well as Italians from other regions) cannot understand. Her term "guaglio," by which she means "hey, you," is understood by Parviz as "cazzo" ("fuck"), transforming all conversations between the two of them into a context filled with awkward misunderstandings (17/36). Benedetta's language dominates a particular space, namely the common area of the apartment building that she polices. Within that space, she tries to impose a decorum that is, according to her, threatened by foreign identities transiting through her own corner of Rome. Parviz does not understand her and she accuses him of peeing in the elevator because he takes it every time he visits a friend.
What we witness here is a recycling of stereotypes. Italian racism labeled immigrants from the south to the north of Italy as unclean, as people who used bathtubs as containers for growing parsley. Benedetta, a Southerner victimized by stereotypes, uses them in turn to victimize the new migrant. Her logic is direct: somebody is peeing in the elevator and it must be Parviz, the new immigrant. Parviz thinks of the elevator as his own personal think-tank and cannot understand why Benedetta wants to restrict its use. Parviz's presence is threatening: it can signal a new potential proximity between old and new migrants. His otherness can create a new proximity and hybridize space. Benedetta fears that it might re-awaken dormant processes of othering against Southern Italian and modify the paradigm of belonging that she has appropriated.
Space is defined by language in this context, and language traps the protagonists in this novel as much as space does. Enclosed in a subway, Parviz becomes the other, marginalized in his otherness by a smell that embodies Italy for him. Benedetta speaks Neapolitan, a language that has trapped her in a very particular job and location since only standard Italian allows mobility. Controlling space for her has become a way to measure her identity as the one who belongs even in an unfriendly linguistic context. Parviz's Italian is poor and he turns to French in his interactions with Benedetta: "merci" ("thank you") is his response to her "guaglio." At the ufficio stranieri (the immigration office), he cannot make himself understood sufficiently to explain that he is a refugee not an immigrant. Entangled in language and enclosed in space, Parviz takes needle and thread and sews his mouth shut in protest (25/22). Ironically, his rebellion ends up silencing him completely and limiting even more his ability to make himself understood in an alien space where people cannot imagine his desperation. Trapped by his words, Parviz performs his feeling of imprisonment in otherness. He is truly unable to inhabit any space: he left his family and his restaurant in Iran because he feared for his life. He was not allowed to express himself in the past and he is unable to inhabit a new language. He is trapped and when he enjoys the movement of the elevator he finds that even that space is policed.
The elevator actually functions as a central character in this novel. The entity that defines movement in the novel is the elevator: it indicates one's insertion within a structure where people live. It is the locus of modernization for Benedetta, something to be preserved and protected more than used. Benedetta sees it as a status symbol that some people do not deserve. She oversees an apartment building with an elevator and therefore she wants to keep it as a symbol of belonging to the "acceptable" class, the middle class as she imagines it. In an urban context in which the access to the city is fluid and largely undefined, for many of the novel's characters the elevator becomes the door to the city. Encased in a tower, the elevator allows the coming and going of tenants and visitors. It is a threshold through which human experience passes. It is the place where we encounter all of the characters in this novel. The elevator embodies the common rhetoric used in political discourses on migrations; it is a rhetoric that tends to continually open and close, allowing and disallowing movement and access. Benedetta sees the elevator as an entrance into a culture and a community that she has to monitor as she attempts to control the space other people can appropriate. As an outsider, she defines her level of belonging by her ability to exclude others from gaining access to movement: to the vertical motion, that is, of the elevator, symbolizing mobility, even social mobility. Benedetta guards identities at the elevator and appropriates the right to name: Maria Cristina, who is Peruvian, becomes a Filipina (Philippine) because that fits within Benedetta's economy of meaning, grounded in what she is familiar with. Iqbal from Bangladesh becomes a man from Pakistan; it does not matter to Benedetta that, for historical reasons, he actually harbors hostile feelings against Pakistan. The disappointing spectacle of the recycling of stereotypes dominates the universe that Benedetta, along with many other native Italians, finds reassuring.
The protagonist, Amedeo (whose legal name is Ahmed), resists Benedetta' s rigid selections in complex strategies of differentiation. He acts as a touchstone for the discussion of "truth" in the novel, both in terms of narrative and characterization. On the narrative level, Amedeo/Ahmed has the role of interpreting the "truths" according to the other characters because his monologues (termed "wailings") follow each character's story. His repeated wailings are both screams against injustice and attempts to mediate Italian culture for the others. His wailings are spaces where identities can be mistaken so that hybridizations can take place. In terms of characterization, Amedeo/Ahmed acts as a foil for the other characters, especially those with a migrant identity: he, too, is a foreigner, but one who defies all attempts of identification and stereotyping. He speaks Italian fluently, has married an Italian woman, and has apparently integrated to the point that he is taken by most to be an Italian. Amedeo/Ahmed defines his own origins as the "sud del sud" ("south of the south," 107/77). Thus he creates a generic location that the locals can interpret: some think he is from southern Italy, others refuse to accept that he is an immigrant. He has escaped all stereotypes and circumvented the expected routes of migration, but his difference has also become invisible for most people in this novel. Since difference is an important component of any future and, hopefully, "coming community," the novel also describes Amedeo/Ahmed's search for a complex identity in space that is not grounded in cultural mutilations.
The narrative significance of Amedeo/Ahmed's fluid identity becomes evident in his relationship with the elevator and its guardian: he is the one character who won't ride in it. He sidesteps confrontations with Benedetta by taking the stairs; he avoids the label of otherness by embracing natives' ignorance and the identity they assign to him. The character of Amedeo/Ahmed creates commentaries that clarify and connect the ups and downs of all the other characters. He refuses to ride the elevator because it embodies for him the enclosed space of death. The elevator is in his view a metaphor of memory. More precisely, his memory is a broken elevator that cannot be called and whose doors cannot be opened. We have to wait until the end of the novel to discover that Ahmed's fiancee, Bagia, was killed in Algeria (158/107). He reacted to the tragedy by leaving the country without informing his family, performing a disappearance from which he emerged by inscribing himself in a new space and a new language by marrying Stefania, a travel agent and teacher of Italian, and becoming Amedeo.
Because an immigrant is not expected to speak Italian well, Ahmed accepts the identity of Amedeo assigned to him by Sandro Dandini, another resident of the building and the owner of the bar where Ahmed as Amedeo eats daily a very Italian breakfast: a cornetto and a cappuccino. He belongs because he can answer questions in the right way: Sandro is a fan of the soccer club Roma and Amedeo/Ahmed tepidly embraces Sandro's enthusiasm. In addition, the very Italian space of the bar becomes a home for Amedeo's identity. It is the context in which he, like many Italians, reads the newspaper Il corriere della sera, a national newspaper that, like many other dailies, often places in black and white migrants as criminals on its front page. His is a linguistic and spatial appropriation based on what he self-consciously terms "the three Cs"--cornetto, cappuccino, and Corriere della sera--and which involves a complex manipulation of misunderstandings about difference (132/99). Amedeo/Ahmed is for many an illegible text, but he is an open text for Sandro Dandini. Sandro's reading is erroneous and highlights the obsession with definitive construction of categories; this need corresponds to the obsession of old dichotomies between native and non-native, between the right to individuation/singularity and the over-codified identity of a mass of others.
Amedeo/Ahmed is a hidden threat because he is illegible and therefore can lay claim to space; his right to be in one place, rather, is never questioned. He passes but at the same time he is the hybridizing agent that turns spaces like Piazza Vittorio into new proximities that allow new alliances. While other migrants can be recognized and physically expelled and an attempt can be made to contain their cultural contaminations, Amedeo/Ahmed passes as a native and helps the immigrants find jobs, learn Italian, and acculturate. His position allows him to help and be critical of both immigrants and natives. He inhabits a distance that is narrated in his wailings and that, in turn, also function as a synthesis that is both spatial and cultural.
The narrative revolves around Amedeo/Ahmed's position as a privileged other whose identity is questioned when he disappears and is accused of having killed the Gladiator, an unpleasant character who lives in the building. The Gladiator stands as the antithesis of Amedeo/Ahmed and incarnates all the negative stereotypes of the uncouth, vulgar, offensive, pathologically self-centered Roman. (At the end of the story we discover that he is involved in illegal dog-fights.) Sandro Dandini despises him because he is a fan of the Lazio soccer team. In the apartment building, the Gladiator is loathed as much as Amedeo is loved. None of the other characters can believe that Amedeo/Ahmed is an immigrant and nobody can believe that he is a murderer, though his disappearance around the time of the murder casts suspicion on him. His physical disappearance, however, was preceded by another: by adapting to his new Italian name, Ahmed had disappeared. Once he is reassigned the identity of an immigrant, he becomes a criminal: a scapegoat to the police while for the people who knew him, he is the location of uncertainty. They doubt themselves as they were unable to read Amedeo's otherness. They doubt that Amedeo/Ahmed is guilty of murder, but they are unable to place the blame on someone else. For Sandro Dandini, Amedeo/Ahmed cannot be guilty because he has proved himself as a man who knows the city. In fact, he has walked Rome and mapped the city by pacing its streets and turning this new home into an understandable crossing and re-crossing of paths that are both geographical and temporal. In his horizontal explorations, Ahmed scrutinizes his present and builds his identity as Amedeo. When Amedeo is in his bar, Sandro improvises game shows between taxi drivers and Amedeo to test who knows the city better. Amedeo always wins. It could not be otherwise because his horizontal wanderings are an addiction that takes him--the only one among the migrants in this novel--to both the center and the periphery of Rome, in an attempt to privilege today's experiences and refuse the vertical movement of memory. The city for Amedeo/Ahmed is therefore divided along two lines: the horizontal explorations that turn him into a flaneur, a cosmopolitan mediator between cultures, and the vertical, repetitive up and down, of a metaphorical elevator that traps him into that process of remembering that he needs to escape.
The vertical and horizontal axes acquire additional meaning: the murdered body of the Gladiator is found in the elevator, a space that the victim privileged as a canvas on which to inscribe his not very memorable thoughts, mainly graffiti sharing his enthusiasm for soccer. He is a rapist, a criminal who organizes dog fights, an irreverent author of graffiti who imposes his thoughts on all the riders trapped in the up-and-down movement of the elevator. The murderer chose to leave the body in the elevator because it is the "centro dei conflitti tra gli inquilini del palazzo" ("center of conflicts among the building's residents" 184/128) and therefore functions as a fittingly un-restful resting place for the hated Gladiator. The elevator becomes his grave and the writing on the walls his obituary. "La Roma," in its horizontal expansion, "e innocente" ("'The' Rome is innocent," 133/95). This is the conclusion made by Sandro Dandini, whose essentialist statement refers to the notion that no fan of the Roma soccer club could be guilty of murdering the Gladiator even though he was a Lazio fan (and thus in a certain way deserved his violent end). Sandro's affirmation of innocence is a double entendre, and refers as well to the city of Rome itself. His assertion reveals a wider meaning that moves from the team to the city and serves to reclaim a space that in turn has a particular valence for Amedeo/Ahmed. His Rome is a space to which new meaning can be assigned, and a space where he can inflect his identities. Sandro claims the innocence of the city right before he reiterates his conviction that Amedeo is equally innocent. This pairing of the immigrant and the city is a prelude to a future in which Ahmed will be found innocent and the city can be "known" by other migrants and appropriated. However, in the present, it is Amedeo who is innocent according to Sandro--not Ahmed. Sandro persists in erasing part of Amedeo/Ahmed's identity in order to domesticate the other. A boundary reappears to prove that innocence is a rather elusive characteristic. Sandro is guilty of establishing limitations and categorizations that even Amedeo/Ahmed's fluid identity must confront before escaping into that meandering on the horizontal plane of Rome that leads him away from the quartiere di piazza Vittorio.
While the police are canvassing Rome trying to find Ahmed the criminal, Amedeo/Ahmed is lying in a hospital bed as the victim of a traffic accident. While in a horizontal position, a different erasure is taking place in Amedeo/Ahmed's body. Amedeo/Ahmed loses his ability to move, to be in control of the way in which he positions his body, identities, and life within the urban space of Rome. He is now marked by passivity, but at the same time agency is lurking right around the corner. The doctors in the intensive care unit believe that Amedeo/Ahmed's brain injury will cause a loss of memory, which is precisely what Ahmed has attempted to achieve all along. The novel ends ambiguously with a transformative and yet uncertain situation: while Ahmed will clearly be found innocent as he was already in the hospital when the murder took place, at the same time the reader does not know what identity Amedeo will create after the erasure of part of his more distant past. Therefore, an ambiguity of/in identity remains a fundamental aspect of Amedeo/Ahmed. The police give him back his legal identity when a John Doe in the hospital is recognized as a documented migrant from Algeria whose name is Ahmed. For Amedeo/Ahmed, the search for a relational self continues in space and time, through temporary alliances and proximities.
Ahmed's life cannot be predicated on a complete erasure of the past even if his memory is erased by the violence of the accident. His identities are still influenced by proximities. His life with Stefania takes place in a building in Piazza Vittorio, which is the location where immigrants live, congregate, open stores, purchase familiar food, and produce a new culture. The local and apparently limited square is actually a space of rich cultural exchange; it is there, in a specific and contained geographical space, but it is also elsewhere as memories, along with past and present identities, create proximities that cannot be limited. It is a place where protests, weak forms of resistance, can be performed and become visible in a public sphere that cannot ignore the contaminating and often un-definable presence of difference. It is the site of cultural clashes, but at the same time of cross-cultural collaboration like the one between Stefania, Amedeo/Ahmed's wife, and the immigrant women to whom she teaches Italian. It is the site in which orientalism is challenged. Stefania fell in love with exotic places she visited in Africa, guided by her professional mind frame: she is a travel agent. Piazza Vittorio offers her a cultural complexity that teaches her about difference beyond the limited approach of a tourist.
Piazza Vittorio is also known for another very public inter-cultural collaboration. The Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio, well-known in Italy and abroad, serves as an inter-textual demonstration of the intellectual vitality of this location. This orchestra, whose membership fluctuates following the changes in the migrant population, has achieved worldwide recognition; its music is available on CDs and DVDs that also narrate its complex structure. The orchestra is another fluid entity as a fit metaphor for migration: it synthesizes disparate musical traditions and the musical scores of present and past memories; it performs in the Piazza and all over Rome; and it keeps transmigrating through Europe and the world along routes that migrants know well.
Elisabetta Fabiani is the native who lives in Piazza Vittorio. Her life revolves around her dog Valentino (who is actually the one peeing in the elevator) and the affective relationship they have created. She is part of that geographical proximity that tends to include and not exclude. Elisabetta lives in the apartment building that Benedetta polices. Her world is rather small and revolves around her pet until it is lost. She searches Piazza Vittorio for her lost dog, firmly claiming that the Chinese immigrants have killed it for food to serve in their restaurants. She willingly participates in the construction of stereotypes, but we do not know whether it is a ruse to hide the fact that she has discovered who killed her Valentino. Antonio Marini, Elisabetta's neighbor, finds in Piazza Vittorio one of the elements that have turned Rome into a third-world country. Proximity is for him, and apparently for Elisabetta as well, a threat that cannot be ignored. The native needs to apply a strategy of scapegoating in order to explain any urban problem. Lakhous seems to embrace dichotomies in this instance because the natives express their right to be racist; but this is only momentary, as the communities he portrays are always complicated and entangled in the messy processes of cohabitation.
Another proximity resists erasure and rejects essentialism. In fact, beyond stereotypes, problems do exist and cultures do at times clash, highlighting the difficulties of cultural resolutions. Piazza Vittorio is the location frequented by Abdellah Ben Kadour, an Algerian who grew up in the same neighborhood where Ahmed lived. He embodies rigidity, a refusal to compromise with the new cultures he has encountered in Italy. His accidental meetings with Ahmed are marked by awkwardness because the latter is aware of Abdellah's condemnation of his lifestyle. Amedeo/Ahmed's rejects a fundamentalist approach to life, because his fiancee was killed by a fundamentalist terrorist act in Algeria, yet Abdellah represents a past that cannot be forgotten. His beliefs are there to stay and are to be encountered repeatedly by Amedeo/Ahmed in a future in which tensions cannot be erased--at least not in a short time.
Piazza Vittorio is definitely not a ghetto and not a center, but rather a site of dispersion that is a departure point for other journeys that are both cultural and geographical. Amedeo/Ahmed is the migrant who embraces movement in all its aspects; he embodies the traveler whose point of origin and of arrival cannot be permanently defined. He travels along vertical and horizontal lines that, however, become fragmented. He meanders along historically overcodified paths in Rome, but redraws them in a personal map. His capillary explorations of urban space have the effect of raising questions about spatial domination and access to space. These are questions that Italy is confronting from a legal standpoint and that migrants and natives ask themselves daily. From Piazza Vittorio, Amedeo/Ahmed meanders through Rome in non-linear wanderings connecting a contested territory that includes the center and the periphery. Other migrants' explorations are interrupted by exercises of official power. Parviz moves from Amedeo/Ahmed's home to the square of Santa Maria Maggiore, linking a major historical and tourist site to his identity as a desperate other. He gets drunk and feeds the pigeons in front of the church and consequently gets arrested. The police shut him up and so he sews his own mouth closed in order to perform the silencing that victimized him and that needed to be made public. He also feels that his movements and actions are censored and he chooses to lose himself in the nebulous space fueled by alcohol. The Peruvian Maria Cristina also traps herself in alcohol and overeating even as she tries to escape other restrictions. She is exploited in her job as a live-in attendant for an elderly lady and inhabits the enclosed space of an apartment in Piazza Vittorio, where she cares for her charge for long hours. During her very limited free time, she encounters her Peruvian friends at the main train station in Rome, the Stazione Termini. As stated in the text, the name "Termini" means that "il viaggio e finito" ("the journey is over" 166/117). At the same time, this particular station is a crossroads of encounters where people of different social classes, origins, ages, and identities are intertwined. It is the space where many immigrants gather since it is the location of all arrivals and departures. It is also the point from which any linear knowledge of the city becomes impossible, because the city becomes the projection of personal maps: these can be facilitated by official maps, but not documented. All the ironies involved in talking about endings can only be narrated as tortuous constructs, pointing us in the direction of new mappings of the city. Endings cannot be considered "terminations" but rather beginnings; entrapments that are self-imposed simultaneously motivate a migrant to occupy the same place that is called Termini, a place that is the beginning of individual paths for immigrants and natives alike.
In this expanding landscape of intersecting, convoluted, and zigzagging paths, there are still those who demand a more linear script. The character of Antonio Marini, a professor from Milan, would like a return to a time when access to space is regulated by written permissions and privilege; he would allow the use of the elevator solely to people who have been granted papers to use it. His narrow view is reflected in his approach to what "civilization" is (109/78). His restrictive views on access to a marginal space of privilege allowing symbolic mobility is the metaphor of a bureaucratically baroque view of the spaces that difference and privilege can inhabit; it is also, possibly, a parody of current political practices vis-a-vis immigration. The very space that Amedeo/Ahmed finds claustrophobic and tomb-like becomes the space of the law for the professor who, as the privileged native, wants to regulate access to the elevator as well as to the borders of the nation. The postmodern space that we interpret as heterogeneous, non-linear, and fluid is what most migrants in Lakhous's novel aim to create. The natives often interrupt such a project by embodying repression and applying control over space that they imagine they possess, even if it is only a minor symbol of western modernity, such as an elevator.
Marini is the outsider from the north who considers himself superior and therefore deserving of special treatment in space. This movement from North to South is traditionally both an act of acculturation and an exercise in orientalist practices centered on the idea of the south as inferior to any imagined north. On the one hand, Rome is the seat of Roman ruins and a cradle of history; on the other it is that inferior context that Marini has articulated a priori and wants confirmed. Another character from the north complicates orientalist preconceptions and definitions of the other, the migrant, and the foreigner. Johan van Marten is Dutch and therefore he is another northerner, who comes to Rome with an already prescriptive mental image of the Rome he will inhabit. A filmmaker, he wants to make a movie that recreates the "truth" portrayed in Italian neorealist films, making a film about the apartment building he shares with others (118/87). He wants to view the city through the distancing lens of a camera that can project contemporary Rome onto the past. His interpretation of the space of the city has been "mediated" by an artistic interpretation. In particular, his Rome is the Rome he saw in Roberto Rossellini's Roma citta aperta (Open City, 1945), a place torn apart by very different conflicts and cultural and political agendas. For Johan, Rome is still a neorealist text that he can dust off and re-perform on the screen. If today the metropolis is something different from the one in his view, it has to be forced back into the neorealist structure he has learned to love in that "north of the north" from which he comes. Piazza Vittorio becomes the location of an encounter between Amedeo/Ahmed, the self-proclaimed man from the "south of the south," and Johan, the northern man who is scripting his Rome by transcribing it into an aesthetic construct. The artificiality of Johan's plan becomes particularly evident vis-a-vis Amedeo/Ahmed's cultural project: the latter is as fluid and open as Johan's is a projection resisting change.
In my geocritical analysis of Lakhous's Scontro di civilta per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio, I cannot ignore that the book is also an unusual mystery novel. It is a narrative in which the plot is not driven by the desire to discover who the murderer is, but rather by the polyphonic (in a Bakhtinian sense) structure of the clash of civilizations. The novel is polyphonic in that each character is carefully developed and contributes to constantly displacing the role of protagonist in the narrative. It is a displacement that compels the reader to give his/her attention to the different transmigrations represented in the novel: Maria Cristina from Peru, Antonio Marini from Milan, Amedeo/Ahmed from an unnamed south, Parviz from Iran--to reiterate a few. The center to which the reader pays attention is unstable, demanding that his/her scrutiny migrate in a non-linear trajectory from one character's voice to the next. The frame that is also an interpretative map of the narrative is supplied by Amedeo/Ahmed's wails, which at the same time explain and complicate our view of each character's experience. The mystery lies in the multiplicity of approaches and versions of the death of the Gladiator, rather than in the discernible motive and means for the unpleasant victim's demise. Space and truth change according to the voice that defines them: truths multiply and so do the descriptions of the location in which specific episodes take place. The "truth" at the end that is the solution of the mystery is a bit disappointing. Such a disappointment helps the reader to displace his/her attention from a linear search for the solution to the various station/chapters in which each version of the events that lead to the murder is narrated.
Much has been written on Italian urban spaces and the gialli, or mystery novels, that take place in them. In her article "Crime and the City in the Detective Fiction of Giorgio Scerbanenco," Giuliana Pieri writes:
Noir fiction is by definition the locus of alienation of the individual in the urban environment. The comforting idea of collective society is replaced by the fear of the collective and social dimension of living. Society is too dangerous and corrupt and the individual is driven towards an ever more isolated position within the city.
Lakhous's novel is not noir, but a location in which any sense of community is shown often in crisis--in fact, as clashing. However, such a conflict is dealt with by borrowing from comedy. The tragedy of the Gladiator's death is mediated through narratives about other tragedies that are often mixed with humor. For instance, Parviz is arrested near the church in Santa Maria Maggiore because he is drunk and is feeding the pigeons, and the police cannot make him understand the city-wide campaign to control the pigeon population by giving the birds food that contains some sort of birth control. Humor is used to mitigate conflict in order to focus on the complexity of relations between the characters, without focusing on the cultural clashes that fill the daily press. Iqbal affirms that racists are actually people who cannot smile; Johan does not want to be called gentile ("kind") because that is the last name of a soccer player he does not like; and Elisabetta Fabiani demands that Amnesty International get involved in the search for her dog. Here humor serves to imbue the novel with hope because the community in Piazza Vittorio is simultaneously a location of fear and discrimination and a place of encounters and social intermingling. Humor pushes the narrative toward reassuring, happy endings: Parviz is released by the police, who also recognize Amedeo/Ahmed's innocence and arrest the "true" criminal. Without giving anything away, even the guilty party reveals that the crime was driven by revenge and he/she is therefore not a repeat offender or a "dangerous" threat to the local community.
Space and community in Lakhous's novel are part of a transformative project that rezones a city in order to multiply proximities as contexts in space. The inhabitants of Piazza Vittorio walk the city, re-designing the meaning of space by marking it multiculturally. Their impermanent truths narrate the city by connecting it to their experiences as migrants who can redraw Rome along transmigratory lines. A multiplicity of non-western gazes witnesses the city as non-linear transformations take place. Lakhous's internationally successful novel has been translated into many languages, and welcomes the interpretation of those many readers outside of Italy whose gaze at the city--and at the clash of civilizations in Italy--is filtered through memories. Often, these tourists would have experienced tourist Rome and considered migrants in that landscape as visible and invisible at the same time, imitating the attitude that many natives have adopted. Through this text we recognize the impossibility of ignoring the new proximities in space and communities that migration has authored in the Italian context.
Scontro di civilta per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio also connects to other textual maps that cannot be ignored. Written by other immigrant authors, by second-generation writers, and by authors who do not recognize themselves under any of these labels, textual maps of Italian cities create literary proximities that resist any attempt to imagine the country as a still life of homogeneity, linearity, and reassuring cultural stagnation. These literary proximities have created the impossibility of defining where migrants live.
Agamben, Giorgio. La comunita che viene. Torino: Einaudi, 1990.
--. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
Benvenuti, Giuliana. "La letteratura costruisce luoghi inediti: il protagonismo dello spazio." July 15, 2009. http://isintellettualistoria2.myblog.it/archive/ 2009/07/15/ giuliana-benvenuti-il-protagonismo-dello-spazio.html. Accessed March 2010.
Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Trans. William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1974.
Lakhous, Amara. Scontro di civilta per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio. Roma: E/O, 2006. --. Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. Trans. New York: Europa Editions, 2008.
Lowe, Lisa. "The Intimacies of Four Continents." Haunted by Empire. Ed. Ann Laura Stoler. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. 191-212.
L'Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio. http://www.orchestradipiazzavittorio.it/. Accessed March 2010.
Lumley, Robert, and John Foot. Italian Cityscapes: Culture and Urban Change in Contemporary Italy. Exeter: U of Exeter P, 2004.
Pace, Sergio. "Through the Looking-Glass: Research on the Italian City in Historical Perspective." Lumley and Foote 15-28.
Parati, Graziella. Migration Italy: The Art of Talking Back in a Destination Culture. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005.
--. "Comunita, diritti umani e testi migranti." Certi confini: letteratura italiana della migrazione. Ed. Lucia Quaquarelli. Roma: Morellino, forthcoming.
Pieri, Giuliana. "Crime and the City in the Detective Fiction of Giorgio Scerbanenco." Lumley and Foote 144-55.
(1) In his Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino wonders, "'But the city where people live?' you ask" (119). I am borrowing his words to construct the title of this essay. I feel compelled to state at the outset that I am an "accidental urbanist," because I am somewhat of an interloper into a discourse on cities. This is the first time the city enters as a major subject of discussion in any of my articles, but I will try with amateurish fervor to look at Amara Lakhous's city without disappointing "natural urbanists" (Lumley and Foot, "Signposts: An Introduction" 3). It is his novel Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio itself that motivates me to talk about city spaces where migrants live and get to know Rome through the fragments of experience that an unknown urban context can offer.
(2) The novel was first published in Italian in 2006 and translated into English as Clash of Civilizations for an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio in 2008. All translations are from the English edition; page numbers refer to the Italian edition first and the English translation second.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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