Let the Games Begin by Niccolo Amaniti, translated by Kylee Doust
In his home country Italy, Niccolo Ammaniti is a popular success, both critically and commercially. With his latest, Let the Games Begin, Ammaniti bites the hand that feeds him and refuses to let go. This is the work of a man fed up with the bunga bunga of Berlusconi's Italy and perhaps even more despairing of whatever will come next. Ammaniti's novel positions the Italy today, rife with criminal corruption and commercialism, as an overstuffed cornucopia just at the point of spilling out. Let the Games Begin is part farce and part speculative fiction, with Rome serving as a Caligulan dystopia. One feels obligated to support him, if not congratulate him, on such a bold endeavor. Ultimately, and unfortunately, it comes up short and the reader is forced to sit by and watch.
One of the problems with Let the Games Begin is the feeling, which increases as the novel progresses, that Ammaniti so greatly enjoyed this forceful juxtaposition of characters and set pieces that he forgot to unite them within the narrative. For a novel barely over 300 pages, it feels swollen and stretched, with the plot being a butterfly bandage that just can't keep the novel's skin together.
The novel opens by introducing Mantos, the leader of one of Italy's satanic cults, the Wilde Beasts of Abbadon -- albeit one of Italy's less successful Satanic cults, and eternally dragging behind Kurtz Minetti's Children of the Apocalypse. Unlike Minetti, Mantos is a regular Italian guy and he prides himself on that.
A normal-looking guy. Just like all the great champions of Evil: Ted Bundy, Andrei Chikatilo, and Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal. The sort of people you would see on the street and you wouldn't even give the time of day. And yet they were the Demon's Chosen Ones.
That's a ridiculous beginning but becomes even more convoluted with a promise Mantos is forced to make in an effort to keep the four remaining Wilde Beasts from defecting. "If in a week's time I haven't brought you a serious plan, then thanks very much, we shake hands and disband the sect. All right?" This is a last resort for a man desperate to keep some element of joy in his life, even if it involves wearing hoods. For at home, Mantos is Saverio Moneta, a downtrodden furniture salesmen and father of two who married into a retail dynasty and is regularly subjected to outrageous amounts of verbal abuse by his wife and father-in-law. Running parallel to the story of Mantos is that of Fabrizio Ciba, a celebrated novelist, more famous for a television show he hosts and his good looks than any of his recent novels.
Fabrizio Ciba was forty-one years old, but everyone thought of him as the young writer. That adjective, frequently repeated by the newspapers and other media, had a psychosomatic effect on his body. Fabrizio didn't look any older than thirty-five. He was slim and toned without going to the gym. He got drunk every evening, but his stomach was still as flat as a table.
This strain of physical description, and preferred physical type, is recurrent, as if it was somehow emblematic of an Italian mindset, a fetishizing of the body as attainable and expendable commodity. For instance, Saverio's wife is Serena, "with her toned physique, those balloon tits and that caffe latte-coloured complexion." To be taken seriously, Saverio rapes his wife at sword-point after deciding to sacrifice someone to achieve the fame he's looking for. All of this in an effort to show Serena and the world "that he wasn't a cockroach with no balls." Each depiction of sexuality is fraught with violence, either the demand for sex or an arousal in the face of a woman being threatened.
Fabrizio and Mantos (Saverio) finally cross paths at a party. This is after it's become quite clear that they are counterpoints to one another. One exudes sex appeal and talks of sleeping with women on nearly every page. The other is eternally frustrated and rapes his wife. Yet, at this party, the overblown centerpiece of the novel, everyone is cast into the maelstrom. In Ammaniti's dystopian Rome, Villa Ada, a onetime park has been bought and completely overhauled, by once-poor Salvatore Chiatti. Think Jurassic Park with a more-than-liberal splash of Vegas.
The remaining 200-plus pages of the novel throw together every character we've met and a couple we haven't as Villa Ada is explored, safaris are undertaken, too much liquor is consumed, and Ammaniti strains every last bit of whimsy and enjoyment out of the novel. What's worse is the threads of allegory and social comment Amanitti continually peppers throughout the last two sections of the book. Upon seeing a writer Ciba reveres,
"See how concentrated he is... It almost looks like he's trying to find the end of his book."
"He's taking a shit."
"He's not thinking. He's shitting. You see that Vuitton bag at his feet? It's a fecal collection sack."
This is just one example of what reads as Ammaniti's compulsion to add more adjectives, more examples of debauchery, more descriptions of female flesh, arousal, bad taste, and food. There's hypnosis, dart guns, and it's exhausting. As the novel winds down, the reader is slapped across the face by a twist so ridiculous, one can't help feeling the sting, much like the poor elephants maimed and eventually killed. The disclaimer at the end of the novel reads, "No animals were harmed or mistreated during the writing of this novel." One wishes Ammaniti were as concerned about his readers.
Let the Games Begin by Niccolo Ammaniti, translated by Kylee Doust