The Crossroads, By Niccolò Ammaniti, trs Jonathan Hunt

This is an extraordinary novel – not least in its sympathetic rendering of a neo-Nazi bank robber
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The Independent Culture

The Crossroads firmly places Niccolò Ammaniti as one of the leading Italian novelists of his generation. At home it has already won the Premio Strega, the Italian equivalent of the Booker Prize. It deserves equal success abroad. As in his previous novel, I’m Not Scared, Ammaniti explores a psychological terrain shaped by self-delusion, poverty and conflict. At the centre of a patchwork of multiple narratives is the fraught relationship between Rino Zena, a neo-Nazi and occasional labourer, and his 13-year-old son, Cristiano.

An end to their hand-to-mouth existence in the country’s industrial north might be possible, if only Rino and his two friends, Danilo (a reluctant divorcé) and Quattro Formaggi (a mentally deficient recluse who takes his name from his favourite pizza topping), can carry off a bank raid. The robbery is planned for the early hours of a stormy night and we follow the proceedings from three days before the event to three days after. That it will all go wrong is a given but the appalling route Ammaniti takes us down is still a shocking surprise.

This is the dark heart of Italy, where Berlusconi’s economic policies translate into a human see-saw of joy and despair. Yet the political posturing is played light. Ammaniti is more interested in creating characters who demand understanding. Quattro Formaggi is a few cheeses short of the full topping and capable of evil. Yet he incites pity. Rino is equally surprising: a Nazi who is both a good father and a strictly principled man. Wisely, humour is employed to temper our judgement.

The core dynamic of the book is the battle between hope and resignation. This is perfectly captured by the relationship between Danilo and his ex-wife Teresa. “For too long his life had been parked in a dusty hangar,” Danilo muses. “It was time to taxi it out onto the runway, ready for take-off.” In a country where church and state remain indelibly linked, Ammaniti shows God as the ultimate arbiter of this struggle. Prayers materialise like dice throws resulting either in absolution or damnation. In fact, it would be hard to find a more inventive, incisive examination of faith, in all its forms, than this extraordinary work.

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