February 10, 2012 9:55 pm

Roman rehab

An introverted Italian teenager learns the value of empathy when his estranged sister takes refuge in his hiding place

Me and You, by Niccolò Ammaniti, translated by Kylee Doust, Canongate, RRP£10, 160 pages

 

Niccolò Ammaniti’s affecting novella tells the story of 14-year-old Lorenzo Cuni. Lorenzo is quiet, introverted – “I really don’t get this thing about paying visits,” he quips – and his affluent parents worry about his lack of friends. To allay their concerns, he tells them that his classmates have invited him on a skiing trip. In fact, he intends to spend a week in the cellar beneath the family’s apartment building in Rome, with only a PlayStation for company.

Lorenzo’s solitude is disturbed when Olivia, his estranged older sister, discovers his hiding place. A recovering drug addict, she plans to take refuge in the cellar herself and asks Lorenzo for his help in procuring painkillers. He demurs and does his best to ignore her cries of agony as she suffers from withdrawal symptoms. But when her condition worsens he is finally moved to act and, in ministering to her, learns the value of empathy.

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In Me and You, Ammaniti eschews the violence and black humour of his recent books and recovers the subtlety and restraint he brought to his best-known novel, I’m Not Scared (2001), which was made into a powerful film. In that work, which centred on the experiences of a young boy embroiled in a kidnapping in the south of Italy, Ammaniti poignantly evoked an innocent’s perspective on suffering.

He repeats the trick here. Lorenzo’s artless and somewhat eccentric voice, inflected by his enthusiasm for B-movies and comic books, is captured beautifully, such as when he likens the trembling Olivia to “a zombie who has just been shot”. (Aspects of the novel remind me of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao , whose eponymous hero is a geeky misfit with a similarly skewed take on the world.)

It is unclear whether Lorenzo’s urge to isolate himself is the result of adolescent awkwardness or a more profound psychological problem; that Ammaniti laces his text with references to The Crack-Up, F Scott Fitzgerald’s chilling account of his slide into depression, would seem to suggest the latter.

But the book ends on an optimistic note and we suspect that Lorenzo’s life, unlike Fitzgerald’s, holds the promise of a fulfilling second act.

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