Moving away from the atmospheric and restrained I’m Not Scared (winner of the prestigious Italian Viareggio-Repaci Prize) towards the more humorous Steal You Away, Niccolò Ammaniti continues his foray into the comedic with the often ridiculous Let The Games Begin. Intended as a satiric mirror held up to the excesses and celebrity culture of modern day Italy, and indeed the rest of the world, the cover promises satanic cults, intoxicated super models, Olympic athletes and man-eating hippos, all of which the novel delivers in a plot so ludicrous it leaves the reader unsure whether they should laugh or cry.
In the first chapter, we are introduced to Saverio Moneta, otherwise known as Mantos. Downtrodden by his wife and her father, he is the leader of the satanic sect “The Wilde Beasts of Abaddon”, and struggling to compete with the more popular “Children of the Apocalypse”. The Beasts’ success, or lack of it, seems tied to their collective appearance as “even though they were all over thirty, they still dressed like a mob of head-banging losers.” This theme of the importance of appearance runs throughout the book, an obvious critique of our contemporary obsession with looks. It seems Saverio has married his oppressive and abusive wife merely for “her toned physique, those balloon tits and that caffé latte-coloured complexion”, as she has no other redeeming features. Nowhere is this obsession with the superficial more obvious than in the t character of Fabrizio Ciba, the successful writer who is famous for his television show; Ciba is vain, shallow and entirely obsessed with his own image. The book focuses on the extravagant party thrown by property tycoon Sasà Chiatti, a cross between Silvio Berlusconi and Willie Wonka . During the party, the Beasts intend to kidnap and sacrifice a prominent Christian singer, while Ciba spends his time rhapsodising over one woman after another. Somewhere among the celebrity guest list, wild animals and Ralph Lauren hunting outfits, however, the already strained plot takes a turn for the nonsensical, culminating in a supremely absurd twist.
Despite all this madness, the main problem with Let The Games Begin is not its sensational storyline. The plot is, if nothing else, one of the most original I have read in a long time. The problem is one of cohesion. At just over three hundred pages, Ammaniti seems to have had too much he wanted to say and include. The effect is that the novel does not flow, rather feeling forced together, like ill-fitting jigsaw pieces. Combined with this is a tendency to tell the reader, rather than show, twice taking breaks of several pages to explain large chunks of back story. Even the wording of some sentences is at times clumsy, although this may be a result of choices by the translator. The word “guy” is used on many occasions where a more formal “man”, or another alternative, would have better maintained the flow of the sentence. The overall effect is one of disharmony, and the result is a story that is difficult to immerse yourself in and sometimes a struggle to read.
Having laughed out loud within the first chapter, I had high hopes for Let The Games Begin. It has huge potential. With a unique and ridiculous plot, and some genuine flashes of brilliance, it could have been so much more. As it stands, it is a crowded novel with little real cohesion. It does not draw the reader from one sentence to the next, rather the reader must exert effort in order to keep going, and it is this, rather than the plot, which ultimately kills the story.