Algerian writer Amara Lakhous rarely mentions his homeland in “Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio,” a candidly naive novel exploring the love-hate relations between Italy and its immigrants, both external and internal. A quote, however, from Tahar Djaout, the Algerian author murdered in 1993 - almost certainly by agents of the military-backed regime in Algiers - prefaces the start of this enchanting book: “Happy people have neither age nor memory, they have no need of the past.”
Some critics have hailed Mr. Lakhous as a new Albert Camus. His writing indeed recalls “The Stranger” in its examination of alienated individuals struggling to come to terms with a potentially hostile environment.
However, the novel's setting in Rome's vibrant Piazza Vittorio square - where Mr. Lakhous himself lives - and his plot in which 10 neighbors in a Roman apartment block tell their stories after the murder of a bigoted tenant, recall more strongly still Naguib Mahfouz's epic about slices of Egyptian popular life in the “The Cairo Trilogy” of the 1950s. The rich variety of characters and psychological understanding place Mr. Lakhous in the tradition of Balzac and Dickens.
Mr. Lakhous' delicate humorous touch probes taboos in Roman society. “My hatred for pizza is beyond compare, but that doesn't mean that I hate everyone who eats it,” says Parviz Mansoor Samadi, a political refugee from Iran. “I'd like things to be clear right from the start: I don't hate Italians.” Parviz recounts movingly his acceptance like a brother by impoverished Neapolitans and Sicilians washing dishes with him in Eternal City restaurants.
The novel's hero, Amedeo, a mysterious figure “as sweet as a grape,” rescues dispossessed foreign workers from scrapes with police and other authorities using streetwise survival techniques that are more Italian than the Italians.
Through Algerian eyes, the reader is taken on a bewildering mystery tour discovering bizarre aspects of Roman plebeian culture. These are personified in characters like Benedetta, the doughty Neapolitan concierge in the building, whose free use of a vulgarism is as common in Roman demotic idiom as “Ciao!” “It's used to express rage and to calm down, and males don't have a monopoly on it.”
Mr. Lakhous explores poignantly, also, the Romans' cult worship of soccer, the difficulties of obtaining ethnic food and residency permits and the headaches created by Romans cooping up dogs in tiny apartments.
A swipe at “Roberto Bossoso, the leader of the Forza Nord party,” is evidently aimed at the raucous anti-immigrant politician Umberto Bossi, the Northern League demagogue who, the Iranian points out, speaks Italian with a northern hayseed accent harder to understand than educated foreigners.
“Labeling any immigrant a criminal, without distinction, is a deja vu,” says Amedeo, “Italian immigrants in the United States were accused of being in the Mafia and suffered tremendously. Certainly the Italians don't seem to have learned anything from the lessons of history.”
The action develops as a bigoted thug nicknamed “the Gladiator” is murdered. Amedeo is considered a prime suspect.
Mr. Lakhous pokes more gentle fun at ordinary Romans who confound Iranians with Albanians or Gypsies, or confuse Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. “Throughout history, immigrants have always been the same,” Amedeo reflects. “All that changes is their language, their religion, and the color of their skin.”
A northern Italian's jaundiced view of Romans adds more spice to the minestrone. “They're proud of their failings,” says university professor Antonio Marini, from Milan, “they aren't embarrassed to express their admiration for the woman who betrays her husband or the person who doesn't pay taxes ... .”
Asked where he himself is from, Amedeo always says simply he is from “the south of the south.” With his knowledge of St. Augustine and Roman colonialism in Africa, Marini assumes Amedeo is from Naples or Palermo. It's a shock to the Italians in the yarn to discover a cultured man like Amedeo is in fact an Algerian.
Amedeo, meanwhile, mulls the analysis of Indro Montanelli, the late conservative commentator, writing on the Northern League's threats of secession. “The crux of the problem,” Mr. Montanelli avowed, “consists in the fact that Italy was born before the Italians: that explains the fragility of Italian unity, which was imposed by a minority despite rejection by the majority.”
Italy's debate on immigration has moved on since Mr. Lakhous' slim novel - barely 145 pages but explosive - was published in Italian in 2006. These days, Romanians are the boogeymen often demonized by the far right for all being criminals, rather than Albanians during a previous wave of immigration to the peninsula or, of course, Algerians in France. However, Amedeo's conclusion remains as relevant as ever.
“Montanelli's words led me to think seriously about all this talk that aims at the integration of immigrants into Italian society,” he opines. “I wonder if there is an Italian society that truly accepts the idea of integration for immigrants.”
It is a sign of hope for Algeria that it continues to produce fine, original artists despite the horrors of the North African nation's vicious civil war that killed some 200,000 people in the 1990s, including scores of dissident intellectuals. Mr. Lakhous is as engagingly independent-minded as his maverick mentor Mr. Djaout was in unraveling the opaque politics of the Mediterranean.
John Phillips is the author (with Martin Evans) of “Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed,” Yale University Press, 2008.