Books: No place of safety

A Game We Play by Simona Vinci, trans. Minna Proctor Chatto & Windus, pounds 10, 144pp; When Sian Williams read this novel with a view to translating it, she had to fight off tears. Yet she argues that we should all face its horrors
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The Independent Culture
WHEN THIS first novel was published in Italy in 1997, it split the literary establishment noisily into two - although the writing has a stature that was recognised even by its detractors. Its author, 27-year- old Simona Vinci, numbers among her favourite writers Ian McEwan, for his stories, Marguerite Duras, for her style, and the veteran novelist Lalla Romano, whom she describes as the most contemporary of Italian writers.

Vinci scandalised and shocked critics and supporters alike. She did this by describing in a spare, stripped language how a group of children - Greta, Martina, Matteo, all aged 10, and Luca, just 14 - are initiated into sex and pornography by Mirko, a 15-year-old boy. Vinci does not explain, she simply narrates, but the way she enters the children's world and imagination is both tender and enormously skilful.

With the exception of Mirko, these are children who have the usual routines of school and homework, current obsessions such as Roller-blading, friends and family. Perhaps the families are not as attentive as they might be; they think their children are perfectly safe, "and if someone got distracted or wasn't looking, there was always someone else watching out for all the kids." Wasn't there?

It is Vinci's delicacy and sureness of touch which makes the horrific ending seem inevitable, and her careful details ensure that it cannot be read with indifference. The translator, Minna Proctor, deserves praise not only for capturing the voice with consummate skill, but also for entering this desolate place.

In an astonishing tour de force for so young a writer, Vinci fulfils one of the most difficult tasks of literature: to bring out the monsters which lurk inside us all and, in doing so, help us to control them.

When I was offered the possibility of translating this book, I spent the whole weekend during and after reading it on the edge of tears. It had disturbed me so profoundly that I knew that I could not manage to translate it and have to live daily with its violence. At the same time, I recognised its immense sensitivity, its strength in understatement and its power.

We are all part of this imperfect human family, and what happens to others is of importance to us all. Vinci takes us to an area from which we would much prefer to avert our eyes. When she was asked whom she would like to read her book, she replied "Every mother, to start with". A good beginning.

Set in Emilia, in summer, in and around the apartment blocks of a town called Granarolo, where the endless maize fields run right to the edge of the buildings, the sexual initiation takes place in an abandoned shed in a clearing in a field of herbs. Mirko leads the games, as they seem to the 10-year-olds, which end in the most terrible way possible. Greta is sodomised by a tennis racquet handle and bleeds to death. The children bury her in a ditch. Behind Mirko are two shadowy figures: men who bring him magazines which escalate from soft to sadomasochistic pornography. He is offered money for photographs of their games.

Children's sexuality is such a fragile and explosive subject that it is mostly avoided. Yet Vinci's harsh, lacerating fiction balances adroitly between detachment and empathy. She takes us into a world we would prefer to ignore, and she makes it unforgettable.