Tuesday, June 19, 2012
I'm Not Scared
I'm Not Scared - Niccolò Ammaniti
Right from the start of this book we are immersed in the world of children, a world of innocence, cruelty, fear and half understood elements of the adult world around them. The world is partly the world of fable, in as much as witches and monsters form part of the child narrator's understanding of the world. I will try to keep the plot out of this post as it is driven by a simple yet involving plot which I don't want to spoil for anyone.
This is in part a horror story, in part a rite of passage story showing how a child's understanding of the world grow and the horizons of his vision expand. The way something can suddenly APPEAR in the world of a child, despite having been there all along, is beautifully illustrated early on when the children go to explore the farm on which some legendarily vicious pigs live. They intend throwing a hen in to the pigs to "see how they tear it apart."
"'But papa will kill me if we take one of his hens,' Remo wailed.
It was no use, the idea was a really good one." Ideas, if powerful enough, give birth to their actuality.
Baking in the oppressive heat, the kids run through empty fields over a hill, a hill they have only just noticed. "It looked like a panettone. A huge panettone that some giant had placed on the plain. It rose in front of us a couple of kilometers away. Golden and immense. The wheat covered it like a fur coat. ... Goodness knows how none of us had noticed it till that moment. We had seen it, but without really seeing it." I love the way the hill is covered with wheat and it is from wheat that panettone is made. They think they will surely be able to see the distant sea from this towering peak.
We are drawn into the wonderfully realized child's perspective which is the main strength of this book. The tensions between the group of friends, the way curiosity and boredom can pave the way to danger, the still permeable membrane between fact and fantasy, the way a child's perspective is changed by the sudden realization of what it is they are looking at. Or the sudden realization that the ground underneath your feet isn't quite as solid as you thought it was.
The hen ends up not being fed to the pigs but used to mark the conquest of the panettone. This is the idea of Skull, the violent, bullying 'leader' of the small band of kids."They had done it. They had impaled the hen. It was there on top of a stick. Legs dangling, wings outspread. As if, before yielding up its soul to the Creator, it had abandoned itself to its executioners. Its head hung on one side like a ghastly blood-soaked pendant. Heavy red drops dripped from the parted beak. And the end of the stick emerged from the breast. A swarm of metallized flies buzzed around it and clustered on the eyes, on the blood." This reminded me forcibly of Lord of the Flies and sets us up for an exploration of the cruelty of children.
And this is explored, but not the central plank of the book. Family, poverty, isolation, community, power and the slow death of childhood in the arms of awful truth are all explored as Ammaniti. As these issues are excavated by the unfolding of the plot I constantly found images of startling clarity, which managed to reflect the mind of the narrator without the need to explicitly state his thoughts.
He makes a terrible discovery, but is not sure what it is, initially. The need to know draws him back, inexorably. He wonders if the witches have been there: "It was silent and still. Nothing seemed to have changed. If the witches had been there they had tidied up afterwards." It is easier to understand some things as the work of witches rather than the work of men. As the book progresses we are drawn further into the life of the village and the guilt that hangs over it.
One night he is woken by the sound of the sea. "I looked out of the window. A combine harvester was clattering along the moonlit crest of a hill. It was like a huge metal grasshopper, with two bright round little eyes and a wide mouth made of blades and spikes. A mechanical insect that devoured wheat and shitted out straw. It worked by night because in the daytime it was too hot. This was what was making the sound of the sea." I love the richness of this description. The sense that things are not always what they seem is reinforced and the idea of harvesting at night is redolent with echoes of criminality.
The small wisp of a village is painted as an oppressive place. The sort of place that could bring out the worst in someone. This is highlighted in the description of Skull's older brother:
"Felice Natale was Skull's big brother. If Skull was bad, Felice was a thousand times worse.
Felice was twenty. And whenever he was in Acqua Traverse life was hell for me and the other children. He would hit us. puncture our football and steal things from us.
He was a poor devil. Friendless, womanless. A guy who bullied children, a soul in torment. And that was understandable. No twenty-year-old could live in Acqua Traverse without ending up like Nunzio Scardaccione, the hair tearer."
Fortunately for the narrator Felice has left Acqua Traverse but unfortunately "he had popped up again like a poisonous weed. In his diarrhea-coloured 127." The fear of the narrator's childhood has been replaced by pity now, we notice, in the mind of the adult narrator. Felice is a victim.
Family is not always a safe sanctuary, a point which becomes clearer and clearer as the book progresses. Too many absences, as he explores the secret he has stumbled across mean that the narrator ends up in trouble at home. "I remember it as if it were yesterday. All my life, whenever I've listened to La Traviata, I've seen myself lying with my bottom in the air, over my mother's knee, as she sat straight-backed on the sofa, beating the living daylights out of me."
As the story gets darker the boy announces the list of monsters he must face nightly, in the style of a Carny. "The Wicked Witch, hunchbacked and wrinkled. The four-legged werewolf with his torn clothes and white fangs. The bogeyman, a shadow who slithered like a snake among the stones. Lazarus, a corpse-eater, devoured by insects and enveloped in a cloud of flies. The ogre, a giant with small eyes and the goiter, great big shoes and a sack full of children on his back. The gypsies, fox-like creatures that walked on hens' feet. The man with the circle, a guy with an electric blue tracksuit and a circle of light that he could throw a long, long way. The fish-man, who lived in the depths of the sea and carried his mother on his shoulders. The octopus boy, who was born with tentacles instead of arms and legs." He imagines his stomach opened up and all this menagerie of fear walk into it, thinking it a circus. After this he closes the wound and with his hands across his stomach he can sleep. There is a physical actuality to his fears of the supernatural but the supernatural is only a way station towards understanding reality, which can be just as terrifying, and harder to wake up from.
The narrator will have to find a way out, a way which will be difficult and dangerous. "I was immersed in ink. I could hardly see the road and when I couldn't see it I imagined it."
This is an enjoyable, dark excavation of the subterranean; of how the desire to escape can be the hardest captor to evade. I've noticed that there is a film version of this book - must try to get a copy.
I'm finishing with a link to Brendan Muldowney's wonderful short film Innocence, which covers some similar territory to I'm Not Scared.