In Brief November 22, 2017
butterfly

Italian Fiction

IAN THOMSON

Why do so few contemporary writers produce utopias? There is nothing to compare with the twentieth-century fashion for utopian socialist writing. These days, science fiction is dominated by dystopias. Niccolò Ammaniti, one of Italy’s foremost literary talents, imagines a dystopia set in Sicily in the near future. Anna, his seventh novel, combines the wayward fantasy of J. G. Ballard with comic-strip adventure (“But have you heard the rumour? They say a Grown-up has survived!”) to produce a fable of lost childhood innocence and despair.

A virus originating four years earlier in Belgium has succeeded in killing off Sicily’s entire adult population. Nine-year-old Anna, having lost both her parents, looks after her younger brother in a house outside Palermo. Each day she ventures out to forage for food and medicine, braving feral dogs and bands of vigilantes as she does so. Her mother, while moribund from the virus, had told Anna to be strong and love her brother: the virus will surely claim them once they reach adulthood.

Written in a compact, functional prose, Anna uncannily recalls Jim Crace’s novel, Harvest (2013), in which a plague visits a bucolic backwater in an unspecified time and place. Sicily is likewise a blasted land littered with burned-out cars and suspicious-looking outsiders. Typically for Ammaniti, the novel portrays children adrift and isolated in a world of adult violence and danger. In the end, Anna and her brother make ready to leave Sicily to seek a better life across the Straits of Messina.

The lesser-known novels by Ammaniti – Steal You Away and The Crossroads – cast a dispassionate eye on childhood solitude. Wildly inventive, they create an atmosphere of Tarantino-like menace and the blackest comedy. Anna is a disappointment by comparison. For all the fine writing, the novel has little narrative drive; instead it is mesmerizingly static. The virus, frustratingly, is left unexplained (the absence of a science behind the fiction is slightly annoying). Ammaniti has lost none of his gift for landscape description, though. “A butterfly rose up from a carob tree, floating in the air against the wind.”