The Crossroads

The Crossroads

by Niccolo Ammaniti

Canongate HK$143

In the chilling opening scene of this novel, a 13-year-old boy trudges through the snow to shoot the barking dog that has been keeping his father awake at night. From there things just turn weird.

Niccolo Ammaniti, a rising star of horror, is again turning his pen to the secret life of Italy's small towns. The Crossroads is set in Varrano, an indistinguishable hamlet on the vast industrial plains of northern Italy. Here forests serve as the backdrop for outlet malls and the residents are praying for an economic recovery, none more so than our heroes, 'the only residents living on less than 600 euros a month'.

There is Rino Zena, a middle-aged neo-Nazi whose love for country and violence is surpassed only by his devotion as a single father to 13-year-old Cristiano. Joining him in unemployment are his mates Danilo Aprea and Quattro Formaggi, a half-wit named after his favourite pizza topping. Together they while away the hours sipping grappa to the flicker of reality television and concocting a plan to lift themselves out of poverty: a daring ATM robbery.

The plot spans less than a week, but despite all appearances this is not a crime caper. As the robbery approaches, each man is guided off course by what he perceives to be the intervening hand of fate. They set out on divergent pursuits, which range from the psychopathic to the devotional, and often elide the difference between the two.

Ammaniti has a natural affinity with the macabre and it is a quality that permeates his prose. The tone of his narration is breezy and understated (for which Jonathan Hunt's translation is owed much credit) but his metaphors and similes are often conspicuously lurid. Danilo, for example, is the town drunk in a town of drunks and has 'a stomach as swollen as that of a drowned cow'. However, at times this stylistic touch proves more distracting than evocative.

The characters' paths cross again on, yes, a dark and stormy night that is the novel's climax, but the most compelling action takes place inside the characters' minds. Ammaniti has a neat touch for shifting perspectives and it is on display in this novel, which unfolds in twists and turns and can genuinely wear the label of psychological thriller. Particularly well sketched is the newly pubescent Cristiano: an innocent child at the centre of the sprawling plot, he perfectly embodies the perversions and naivete of boyhood.

Ammaniti has a sadistic imagination and at times his fiction reads like a Hobbesian nightmare in which the weak are tortured for sport. But there is also beauty amid the bleakness. His portrait of a father-son relationship that would conventionally be described as dangerously dysfunctional is surprisingly sympathetic. Just as horror can be found in banal places, love can take root in the most inhospitable environments.