Thursday, 1 May 2014

'Ten' by Andrej Longo (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 14)

The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize will be announced in a few weeks' time, and here at Tony's Reading List our trip around the world is also nearing its end.  The penultimate stop takes us to sunny Naples for a look at la vita when it's not quite so dolce.  We won't be seeing too much sun either - it's really more about the nightlife...

Ten by Andrej Longo - Harvill Secker
(translated by Howard Curtis)
What's it all about?
The title is a clue for what lies within the covers as Longo's book is a collection of short stories set in southern Italy, each with a biblical twist.  You see, the ten stories are based on the ten commandments, and in lieu of a title, each story simply has a number plus the commandment at the start.  The stories don't follow the commandments exactly, but if you wait long enough, a connection usually appears.

As you would expect, several of the stories play on the role of organised crime in Naples, and there's often a mafioso lurking somewhere in the shadows.  The two stories which bookend the collection are the most obvious examples, portraying two differing encounters with the local heavies.  In the first, a local boy is trying to stay out of the way of the mafia, hoping to live an ordinary life.  Sadly, this is unlikely to happen in Naples, and events conspire to push him into the orbit of a local mafia leader.

The final story sees a more serious encounter though, as a group of teenage toughs discover that it's always worth thinking about your actions, especially when there are bigger, more dangerous people around.  A night of fun ends with serious consequences, with the book finishing on a pivotal note...

The city is an important backdrop to the action of the stories, with Longo casually sketching a picture of a squalid town, a place guaranteed to deaden any hopes the people may have:
"Under the stairs there were three junkies shooting up.  A mangy dog was wagging its tail behind a guy trying to sell a car radio.  An old man passed by, talking to himself out loud."
'Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery', p.79 (Harvill Secker, 2013)
It's unsurprising that a couple of the stories feature people who are trying to escape Naples, either by working in Rome or making plans to leave for good.  It's equally unsurprising that those plans don't really work out all that well.

The translation, by Howard Curtis, is an interesting one, in that it makes a deliberate choice to relocate Naples vocally to London.  The working-class accents and slang are deliberately reminiscent of the criminal underclass of the British capital.  For an English reader, echoes of the Kray twins (or, at a lower level, the Mitchell brothers from Eastenders!) are unavoidable.  I wonder if there's an American version floating around, with a Goodfellas vibe instead ;)

For me, though, the stories which feature the gangsters are less interesting than those where the disappointment is more subtle.  One of my favourite stories is one where nothing really happens - a dad just takes his son out to an amusement park for the day.  The problem is that the dad is obviously a man caught up in some heavy business, and every excursion into public is fraught with tension:
"I don't know how much a seven-year-old really understands.  He nodded and gave me a big hug.  And as he was hugging me, with his heart beating fast inside his chest, I could feel the cold gun pressing into my thighs, and I realised I couldn't do anything more for him.  My one hope was that he never became like me.  My only hope."
'Thou Shalt Not Kill (p.76)
It's a moving moment, where we begin to understand the wider implications of the bravado described in some of the other stories.

While Ten takes us on a trip around Naples, the visit is rather fleeting.  The book runs to 151 pages of very large print, and if you're in a hurry, you can easily knock it off in an hour.  What remains afterwards are a few confused impressions of the trip - fights, drugs, music, cars.  Oh, and an overwhelming feeling of relief that you've made it out in one piece.  It might be a nice place to visit, but...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No.  I enjoyed this book, but the more I think about it, the less highly I rate it.  Some of the stories are rather obvious (particularly the mafia-heavy ones), and many of them blur into each other.  A few do stand out, but Ten is a little too light-weight to be considered for the main prize.  I waited five weeks for my library to get this to me - it wasn't really worth that much of a wait.

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
While there are several other slim books on the shortlist, this is one of the slightest, in terms of both volume and content.  I also feel that while there's nothing really wrong with the book (it's a great, quick read), it really suffers in comparison with Yoko Ogawa's Revenge.  Now *that's* how to write a series of nasty, interlinked stories ;)

And, so, dear reader, we head off again on the last leg of our journey.  The final stop for 2014 will be in Poland, where we get to trudge through the snow to witness a rather tension-fraught meal.

I hope there's something for us to eat too - I'm starving...