As God Commandsby Niccolo Ammaniti Translated from Italian by Jonathan Hunt
The award-winning new novel by Niccolò Ammaniti is “a rollickingly dark horror-comic, a grueling piece of fun” by a “fearsomely gifted writer” (The Independent)
From the internationally best-selling author of I’m Not Scared comes a dizzying and compulsively readable novel set in a moribund town in industrial Italy, where a father and son contend with a hostile world and their own inner demons.
The economically depressed village of Varrano, where Cristiano Zena lives with his hard-drinking, out-of-work father, Rino, is a world away from the picturesque, light-drenched towns of travel-brochure Italy. When Rino and his rough-edged cronies Danilo and Quattro Formaggi come up with a plan to reverse all their fortunes, Cristiano wonders if maybe their lives are poised for deliverance after all. Perhaps the beautiful and aloof Fabiana will take notice of him, and perhaps he will no longer have to worry about child services coming to separate him from his dad. But the plan goes horribly awry. On a night of apocalyptic weather, each character will act in a way that will have irreversible consequences for themselves and others, and Cristiano will find his life changed forever, and not in the way he had hoped.
Gritty and relentless, As God Commands moves at breakneck speed, blending brutal violence, dark humor, and surprising tenderness. With clear-eyed affection, Niccolò Ammaniti introduces a cast of unforgettable characters trapped at the crossroads of hope and despair.
“Ammaniti, a wonder at creating graphic black comedy, keeps the plot rolling while pushing his characters to their absolute limits. . . . If the Coen brothers ever wanted to go Italian, this’d be prime adaptation material.” —Publishers Weekly
“Punk-rock desperadoes and a daft father-son tragicomedy team run riot through the mess and splendor of today’s Italy . . . [in the] latest from Ammaniti. . . . Propulsive from the first page, [As God Commands] is stunningly, disturbingly entertaining adrenaline fiction. . . . A speed-of-light montage of family-and-friend dysfunction. . . . Ammaniti relentlessly creates a poetics of perversity, an anthem of anger for working-class Italy: bollixed and laid-off by Internet modernity, appalled and titillated by the omnipresence of Britney Spears, fearful of the crash of Italy’s currency, the corruption of politicians and the onslaught of immigrants. Not at all pretty, but darkly, ferociously beautiful—a triumph for Europe’s hottest novelist.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“When it comes to crime novels, the word ‘grit’ suggests both authenticity and earthiness—rude language, rough humor, animality, graphic details. It’s the intrusion of the body—physical reality—into an otherwise cerebral exercise. . . . Niccolò Ammaniti’s As God Commands . . . is as gritty as it is suspenseful. . . . [Ammaniti has] immense gifts for pacing, psychological clarity, and singular detail. His steely, quick-moving prose suits his unsavory material—he’s in and out like a knife thrust. . . . Highly cinematic . . . In a literary season full of angels, watch Ammaniti, who aligns us with the beasts.” —Regina Marler, Los Angeles Times
“[As God Commands] shows the gritty side of [Italy] not seen by tourists. . . . The issues raised here range widely, from alienation, violence, drug use, hunger, and joblessness to the role of religion in today’s world. . . . An excellent book discussion choice. . . . A powerful novel, cinematically written, with touches of unsentimental emotion and comedy . . . The masterly Ammaniti creates powerful characters not easy to forget.” —Library Journal
“Niccolò Ammaniti is one of the bright stars in modern Italian fiction. . . . As God Commands is another exercise in nail-biting suspense by a master at raising anxiety. . . . It’s compulsive reading, with the helpless reader gobbling up hundred-page chunks at a time, the stuff of soap operas told with gusto by an Italian Dickens, in a plot that’s never going where you think it’s going, plunging along eagerly from climax to climax, littered with poetic moments and human touches. Ammaniti offers up a fascinating gallery of flawed, unpredictable human beings pondering how their impulsive mistakes, unexpected opportunities, misunderstandings, and defiant braveries reveal the inscrutable will of God.” —Nick DiMartino, Shelf Awareness
“It is impossible not to be gripped. . . . Ammaniti has produced a forceful portrait of contemporary Italy . . . his Italians are tough, status-obsessed, and never quaint. And yet for all the harshness of his world, warmth bubbles up between the cracks.” —Financial Times
“Ammaniti is a modern-day Dickens: he takes a ruthless snapshot of degradation, arousing horror, shock, and tears.” —La Repubblica (Italy)
“Extraordinary . . . The characters are dissected with a sly sense of humor, compelling you to follow them wherever they go. Ammaniti sketches a cruel picture of adolescence and laments the Italian landscape where beauty and nature have lost out to business parks and megastores.” —Nrc Handelsblad (Holland)
“Acclaimed novelist Niccolò Ammaniti has been widely praised for his bone-chilling stories about adolescent boys on the verge of manhood. . . . In his newest work, As God Commands, Ammaniti once again visits familiar territory with his customary skill and bravado. . . . A highly charged narrative . . . Stark and simultaneously intense . . . The core of this novel is the deep rifts that often separate so many fathers and sons, the muted aggressiveness and competitiveness, the feeling of dread that permeates; the feeling that at any moment, things could spin wildly out of control. . . . One can’t help but be enthralled by [Ammaniti’s] keen insights into the degradations that mar so many familial relationships.” —Elaine Margolin, Denver Post
“Ammaniti strikes a masterful balance between farce and tragedy.” —Die Welt (Germany)
“One of Italy’s brightest literary stars . . . [Niccolò Ammaniti’s fiction offers] an artful, interstitching of plots and cinematic, horror-dazed images.” —The Observer (UK)
“[As God Commands] is a rollickingly dark horror-comic, a grueling piece of fun.” —The Independent (UK)
“A black thriller with the momentum of an action-packed Hollywood movie.” —Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“Niccolò Ammaniti is the best novelist of his generation.” —Il Giornale (Italy)
“Ammaniti is a born story-teller.” —L’unité (Italy)
“Both classic and modern, As God Commands has the authenticity of a great novel.” —El Cultural (Spain)
“A tragicomic story by a writer at the top of his form.” —Le Figaro (France)
“Energy and danger spray off [the page] like water from a choppy sea. . . . Very hard to put down.” —Daily Mail (UK)
Longlisted for the 2011 the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award
An October 2009 Indie Next List Selection
“Wake up! Wake up, for fuck’s sake!”
Cristiano Zena gasped, and clutched at the mattress as if the ground had opened up under his feet.
A hand clamped around his throat. “Wake up! You know you should always sleep lightly. It’s when you’re sleeping that they fuck you over!”
“It’s not my fault. The alarm clock didn’t . . .” the boy murmured. He twisted free of that vice-like grip and lifted his head off the pillow.
But it’s night time, he thought.
Outside the window everything was pitch-black, except where the streetlamp shed a yellow cone of light, into which snowflakes as big as balls of cotton wool were falling.
“It’s snowing,” he said to his father, who was standing in the middle of the room.
A shaft of light crept in from the hall, picking out Rino Zena’s shaven head, his beaky nose, his moustache and goatee beard, his neck and one muscular shoulder. Instead of eyes he had two black holes. His chest was bare. Below, his army trousers and paint-splashed boots.
How can he stand this cold? thought Cristiano, stretching out his fingers toward the bedside lamp.
“Don’t turn it on,” said Rino. “It’s annoying.”
Cristiano curled up under the warm tangle of blankets and sheets. His heart was still pounding. “Why did you wake me?”
Then he noticed that his father was holding the pistol. When he was drunk he often got it out and wandered around the house pointing it at the television, the furniture, the lights.
“How can you sleep?” Rino turned toward his son.
His voice was hoarse and dry, as if he had swallowed a handful of chalk.
Cristiano shrugged. “I just do . . .”
“Congratulations.” His father took a beer can out of his pants pocket, opened it, drained it in one swig and wiped his beard with his arm, then crushed it and threw it on the floor. “Can’t you hear him, that bastard?”
There wasn’t a sound. Not even the cars that flashed past the house day and night so close that if you closed your eyes they seemed to be going right through the room.
It’s the snow. Snow deadens noise.
His father went over to the window and rested his head against the pane, wet with condensation. Now the light from the hall caught his deltoids and the cobra tattoo on his shoulder. “You sleep too deeply. In wartime you’d be the first to get it.”
Cristiano concentrated and heard in the distance the hoarse bark of Castardin’s dog.
It was a sound so familiar his ears no longer registered it. Like the buzz of the neon light in the hall and the leaky toilet.
“About time . . . I was starting to worry.” His father turned back toward him. “He hasn’t stopped barking for a second. Not even in the snow.”
Cristiano remembered what he had been dreaming about when his father had woken him up.
Downstairs in the sitting room, next to the television, there was a large phosphorescent fish tank containing a squishy green jellyfish that spoke a strange language, all Cs, Zs and Rs. And the amazing thing was that he could understand every word.
What time is it? he wondered, with a yawn.
The luminous dial of the clock radio on the floor showed three twenty-three.
His father lit a cigarette and snorted: “I’m fucking fed up.”
“It’s half stupid, that dog,” said Christiano. “With all the beatings it’s taken . . .”
Now that his heart had stopped pounding, Cristiano felt sleep pressing down on his eyelids. His mouth was dry and full of the taste of garlic from the takeout chicken. A drink of water might have washed that foul taste away, but it was too cold to go down to the kitchen.
He felt like resuming the dream about the jellyfish from where he had left off. He rubbed his eyes.
Why don’t you go to bed? The question was on the tip of his tongue, but he checked it. From the way his father was pacing around the room there wasn’t much chance of him calming down.
Cristiano ranked his father’s rages on a five-star scale.
No, three to four. Already in the “approach with caution” area, where the only strategy was to agree with everything he said and keep out of his way as much as possible.
His father turned around and kicked a white plastic chair, which hurtled across the room and fetched up against the pile of boxes where Cristiano kept his clothes. No, he had been wrong. This was five stars. Red alert. Here the only thing to do was to shut up and blend in with your surroundings.
His father had been in a filthy mood for the past week. A few days earlier he had lost his temper with the bathroom door because it wouldn’t open. The lock was broken. For a couple of minutes he had fiddled with a screwdriver. He had knelt there, swearing and heaping curses on Fratini, the locksmith who had sold it to him, the Chinese manufacturers who had made it out of tin, and the politicians who allowed such crap to be imported, as if they all were standing there in front of him. But it was no good, the door just wouldn’t budge.
One punch. Another one, harder. Another. The door had leaped on its hinges, but hadn’t come open. Rino had gone to his bedroom, got the gun and fired at the lock. But it still hadn’t yielded. The only result had been a deafening bang, which had left Cristiano dazed for half an hour.
There had been one good thing about this: it had taught Cristiano that, contrary to what the movies would have us believe, you can’t open a door by shooting at its lock.
In the end his father had started kicking the door. He had smashed it in, shouting and tearing out strips of wood with his bare hands. When he had got inside the bathroom he had punched the mirror, and shards of glass had gone everywhere and he had cut his hand and had sat for a long time dripping with blood on the edge of the bath, smoking a cigarette.
“What the fuck do I care if it’s half stupid?” replied Rino, after thinking it over for a while. “I’m fucking fed up with it. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow.”
He came toward his son and sat down on the edge of his bed. “Do you know something that really shits me? Stepping out of the shower in the morning, soaking wet, and putting my feet on the freezing cold tiles, and at the risk of breaking my neck.” He smirked, loaded the pistol and held it out to him by the barrel: “I was thinking that what we need is a nice new dogskin mat.”