Niccolò Ammaniti: I am not scared (2004) aka Io non ho paura (2001) An Italian Novel of Crime, Adventure and Coming of Age

One relentlessly hot summer, six children explore the scorched wheat-fields that enclose their tiny Italian village. When the gang find a dilapidated farmhouse, nine-year-old Michele Amitrano makes a discovery so momentous he dare not tell a soul. It is a secret that will force Michele to question everything and everyone around him.

Someone has offered me a gift and this person is called Niccolò Ammaniti. The gift consists of a trip to the distant land of childhood memories, of hot summers long gone. No words will be able to convey how much I liked this novel, however I am conscious that it is also a very personal experience. It has a lot to do with my cultural background (my mother was Italian) and similar childhood experiences (apart from the crime element). This novel is pure magic. A magic that I have only encountered in Italian novels so far. It’s a magic that comes from the almost cinematographic power of descriptions. This is a novel I didn’t read, I saw and experienced it. It is sensuous and descriptive like not many. And gripping. Imagine what a combination. And touching as well. (I really have to hold myself back or I will get this year’s prize for cheesiest book review.) And did I mention melancholic? Italian novels tend to be very melancholic, with bitter-sweet undertones, there is always a mix of tears and laughter. I laughed quite a few times when reading Io non ho paura.

I am not scared evokes a scorching hot summer, in the little Italian village of Aqua Traverse. The heat is suffocating, the air has acquired a density that feels like cotton, the heat feels dangerous and relentless. All around the village oceans of yellow wheat extend and in the far distance are rolling hills and little mountains. Michele, his little sister and their friends play outside all day long, they venture into places that are yet unknown, populated by ghosts and ogres, witches and demons, all fruit of their imagination. Childhood politics, with their petty punishment and ostracizing of the weakest are rendered masterly. One day the children explore an abandoned ruinous house and Michele discovers a little boy in a dug out. He won’t tell anyone what he has found, keeps it to himself. Michele learns later that the child is held hostage until his mother will comply and pay a huge ransom. Things are not exactly what they seem in peaceful Aqua Traverse and more than one illusion will be lost at the end of this summer.

Michele, the narrator, is a boy of 9, or rather, the grown up Michele, looking back on his childhood self, is the narrator. This is one of the most beautiful narrative voices I have come upon in a long time. Naïve, perceptive, and precocious at the same time.

The descriptions of an typical Italian village, Italian family life in the 70ies is spot on.

Some of the most wonderful passages are descriptions of moments Michele spends in utter solitude. At night he cannot sleep, the heat is too intense, he stands at the open window, looks out into the full moon night. Everybody is asleep, he seems to be the only one on earth, he hears the sound of little owls and crickets in the windless night…

There is another wonderful instance in which he imagines himself dead and how he would enjoy to attend his own funeral. I always used to think such thoughts as a child and these solitary moments are also very familiar. Enchanting moments of blissful loneliness.

Michele is a highly imaginative child, everything around him is full of mysteries but there are also discoveries that are sobering like when they climb a mountain that they had suspected to be full of magic and it is quite ordinary close-by.

Ammaniti, an author of the so-called letteratura pulp movement, influenced by Tarantion’s Pulp Fiction, is an astonishingly original writer. He mixes genres like the adventure and horror story with crime and elements of the coming of age story. He combines all sorts of elements from popular and sophisticated culture alike. He mentions an Italian pop song like Parole at the same time as La Traviata.

What I liked best are the masterful descriptions of the landscape and the weather.

I haven’t read anything in Italian lately, another reason why  this was a particular pleasure for me. I think it is one of the most melodious languages and being my mother’s native language it brings back childhood memories…

Other Italian authors I love are Bassani, Tabucchi and Pavese. Which are the ones you would recommend?

Io Non Ho Paura (Stile Libero)