Two years ago, and quite by accident, I discovered the Algerian novelist Amara Lakous. His short but highly entertaining novel Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio easily made my list of surprise hits of 2010. Clever, funny and superbly translated by Ann Goldstein, I loved his depiction of life in a working class Italian apartment building inhabited by a quirky cast of polyglot characters from around the world. Born and raised in Algeria and he currently residing in Italy where he’s lived for a decade and a half, Lakhous, through his novel, beautifully captured the multidimensional, vibrant and overlooked world of Rome’s immigrant community.
Last week while rummage through my library’s international authors shelf what did I find but a copy of Amara Lakhous’ latest book. Published by Europa Editions in the spring of this year, his Divorce Islamic Style is another highly enjoyable tale set in the immigrant neighborhoods of the Eternal City. Once again there’s a cast of memorable international characters. Once again, Ann Goldstein lends her expertise as Lakhous’s gifted translator. And once again, Lakhous has a winner.
Whereas his previous novel Clash of Civilizations was told from the perspective of each of the apartment’s residents, in Divorce Islamic Style while there are many characters only two of them narrate the story. One, a young Sicilian named Christian, who thanks to spending his childhood in Tunisia, speaks fluent Arabic. Sweet-talked by the authorities into going undercover as a North African immigrant in hopes of uncovering a pair of al-Qaeda terrorist cells, he soon finds himself caught up in the everyday drama of Rome’s immigrant community. The other narrator is Safia, a beautiful, young housewife from Egypt. Chafing under her husband’s Islamic fundamentalist tutelage, Safia yearns for financial and personal freedom. Through her many internal monologues she intelligently and passionately questions the more backwards and chauvinistic interpretations of her Islamic faith.
The book is a lot of fun. In telling the story from two different but related perspectives, Lakhous employs a method sometimes seen on the big screen with movies like Go, Pulp Fiction and to a lesser degree the Three Colors trilogy of Red, White and Blue from director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Thanks to the capable team of Lakhous and Goldstein the action, dialog and monologue moves quickly.
Regrettably, my only complaint with the novel is its ending. Without revealing too much, while it didn’t feel phony and tacked-on (remember Bel Canto, anyone?) the ending of Divorce Islamic Style felt chaotic and anticlimactic. But fortunately that’s my only complaint. And certainly not enough to hinder me from recommending this excellent novel.