‘The Prank of the Good Little Virgin of Via Ormea’ by Amara Lakhous (Review)

IMG_5459As you may have noticed, many of the books I review on the blog could be placed towards the ‘serious’ end of any imaginary literary spectrum, but I do read the odd lighter book (comparatively, anyway).  One of those I enjoyed a couple of years back was by Algerian-Italian writer Amara Lakhous, a clever romp about race relations, organised crime and a pig with a football scarf, and today’s post sees Lakhous back with another novel set in Turin, with a trickier conflict for his protagonist to resolve…

The Prank of the Good Little Virgin of Via Ormea (translated by Antony Shugaar, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) takes us back to Turin several years after the events of Dispute over a Very Italian Piglet.  Having saved poor Gino’s bacon (literally), journalist and part-time cultural ambassador Enzo Laganà is now happily involved with his Finnish girlfriend Tania and living in the same Turin neighbourhood.  However, that’s not good enough for his overbearing mother, and her sudden trip north to visit her son makes Enzo realise that a new campaign in the matrimonial wars is underway, with Aunt Quiz and Tania herself supporting Mama Laganà in the quest to get her son married at last.

Matters on the home front have to wait, however, when disturbing news reaches the small community.  A fifteen-year-old girl has reportedly been raped, and her family is in mourning for the loss of her innocence and the attack on their family values.  The alleged perpetrators are two boys from the local Roma community, and despite vehement denials as to their guilt, the girl’s family is desperate for blood.  Having made the situation worse with a front-page article his boss forced him to write, Enzo is reluctantly pulled into the conflict, knowing that this time there’s more than just a pig at stake…

This is Lakhous’ fourth novel, the second featuring the jaded, streetwise journalist Laganà, and the writer has stumbled upon an excellent formula of throwing together a disparate bunch of characters, stirring in a controversy and then leaving it all to simmer.  I reread the previous book a few days before starting this one, and I was very happy to be reimmersed into Laganà’s world, once again making the acquaintance of people like voice actor Luciano Terri, Mario Bellezza (a fascist with an ironic family name…), Sam the Arab singer and Natalia, Enzo’s Ukrainian cleaner.

However, while Dispute… always had a light tone (despite dealing with deaths during a mafia war), this sequel quickly becomes a little darker.  Despite his misgivings, Laganà files a report on the alleged assault, but after his boss alters it, replacing all the conditional statements (I’d imagine it’s really the subjunctive in the original Italian) to strengthen the unsubstantiated claims, Enzo realises that he’s only made things worse:

A crime reporter’s work is very similar to that of a fire-fighter.  People call both of us in times of emergency, and they expect us to do our jobs in a hurry.  Still, there is one substantial difference: While the firefighters’ job is to put out the fire, we reporters are asked to pour on the gasoline.  It’s a funny job we do, isn’t it?
p.26 (Europa Editions, 2016)

With Luciano in a rage at what his friend has done, especially after the consequences of a march on the gypsy camp, the reporter is forced to investigate further, soon discovering that there’s much more to the ‘good little virgin’ than meets the eye.

There is another major difference here from the previous novel, though, one revealed early in the book.  Where Dispute… was all told by Laganà in the first person, this book has two alternating narrators, with the even chapters told by Patrizia (AKA Drabarimos), an Italian woman who has faked her identity and become a part of the Roma community.  This change in technique allows us to follow the story from two angles, as the fake fortune teller (a former bank manager) gives us insights into what is happening inside the Roma camp, showing the fear they feel at the prospect of the march on their homes and the discrimination they face every day.

For the most part, it works well, with the reader watching the two narrators approach the truth from different directions.  Enzo talks to the Italian community, liaising with the girl’s family, Bellezza’s fascists and the local animal liberation representatives (don’t ask…); Drabarimos takes part in the discussions within the camp, becoming a public face for the Roma community.  There are also amusing overlaps, such as when Enzo muses on corruption and talks about the rare example of a bank manager who used his bonus to pay back investors who lost money because of the bank’s advice.  Later, our second voice lets us into the secret of why exactly he made the gesture, one which turns out to be anything but altruistic.

However, this split voice is actually one of the book’s weaknesses too.  As much as Drabarimos’ chapters show us a different side to the story, her personal tale takes us away from the main event, which as a result moves along rather slowly.  In fact, when you consider that in a book of almost 170 (less-than-cramped) pages, almost half do little to advance the plot, there isn’t really that much here about the main idea of the book, the story of the alleged assault on the girl.  While it could be argued that this was never really the focus, it still seems as if Lakhous got distracted with tangents and didn’t really get the story back on track until it was too late, closing matters off as an afterthought.

Still, The Prank… is an entertaining read, providing insights into an ancient and often despised culture while examining extremism of many different kinds.  Laganà is forced to fight this battle on several fronts:

When it comes to holy matrimony, I have to admit that our opinions on the subject are wildly divergent.  Ah well: you can’t agree on everything.  The important thing, from my own very modest point of view, is not to bust other people’s balls.  That’s the fundamental principle underlying all civil society. (p.67)

Whether or not you agree with his views on marriage, his views on extremism should ring true:

In fact, what do extremists do?  They force other people to follow their path to salvation, the absolute truth, whether they like it or not.  Especially if they don’t.  And it’s for this very reason that extremists are a real fucking pain in my ass. (p.67)

Which seems as good a motto as any and sums up many of the writer’s views.  In terms of society’s ills, you can always count on Laganà to play his part – however, I wonder just how long he’ll be able to hold out against his mother’s wish to get him settled down…

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