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)

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

  1. Wonderful review–I have this book and you make me want to pull it out right now and start reading. As a matter of fact I might just do so over my break that starts in just a couple of days. I love books that are so descriptive of a particular time or place that you feel like you can see them–I’m very visual, too, and I like to imagine the story in my mind as I read (maybe why I read so slowly). I’ve not read a lot of Italian authors–something I hope to do more of next year. Have you read Elena Ferrante? I like her work, but it is sort of stark and passionate (but not exactly in a happy passionate way). Did you live in Italy when you were young? My grandfather came from Lentini, Sicily, but unfortunately he died when I was very little. I have vague recollections of him speaking in Italian when I was really small–probably when he was angry! 🙂

    • It’s a beautiful book, it really is and I am not surprised they turned it into a movie… We sepnt a lot of time in Italy on holidays but my parents were always turned towards everything French and Italian, radio, TV, music they would listen to. We would listen to Travitata on Sunday mornings and later Parole would be on the radio. My mother was from Northern Italy, some small place near Bergamo. I like Elsa Ferrante. I discovered her recently but can’t remember the title. I read it in a German translation. It’s very diffcult to find Italian books here. Surprinsingly. After all it is one of our four languages and one of the three official ones. My mother didn’t speak Italian very often, we spoke mostly French and German but yes, when she was angry she used it too.

  2. A moving review, Caroline. I think I know someone who’d like this one, apart from me.

    I can’t recommend anything in Italian literature. I have only read Italo Calvino, Lampedusa. Have you read Milena Agus ? (Mal de pierres) It was really powerful.

    PS : According to your latest comment, I think you don’t live that far from me…

    • Thanks. The book moved me. I got Milena Agus but haven’t read her yet. I have no idea where you live, in Lorraine, I thought. The comment gives it away, I agree. I live in Switzerland, in Basel actually. I was born here, my father met my mother here, he was on his way to South America and stayed. I spent all holidays in his hometown (Paris) or Brittany (where my grandmother is from) and later went to live in Paris for several years but am back since a few years now.

  3. I’m in Lyon but I come from Lorraine, and it’s important to me. That’s why I have to be creative to explain to my children why St Nicolas comes only to our house in the whole neighbourhood or why they can’t say “ça spritze” though I say it at home because people here won’t understand them.

    • Oh, I can imagine that “ça spritze” wouldn’t be understood in Paris either. I have never been to Lyon. I thought you must be from somewhere close by because of the German…

  4. What a wonderful review, Caroline–makes me want to run out and buy the book right now.

    How fortunate you’ve been to spend so much time in Italy and France. I spent a summer studying French in Bretagne and loved it.

    • Thank you. It is a wonderful book I can’t imagine you would be disappointed. We spent long summers in the Bretagne or the South of France 6-8 weeks. I haven’t been in the South for awhile but would like to go there. My father lived in La Rochelle for a while. Very nice as well.

  5. I finally have time to read your review, been wanting to read it ever since you posted it but I always have something to do.

    It’s a beautiful review I can see how much you like it. May I say that the cover looks intriguing.
    I haven’t read any book by any Italian author yet, I envy your chance in reading many books from many different authors from many different countries. I wish I can do the same (like I did with movies)

    • I am glad I can do it, I must admit. It really is different. No matter how good the translator is, he will hardly ever manage a 100%. I have afeeling you would like this book. It has a lot in it that everybody can relate to.

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