First, I just want to say that I am a hugefan of Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti and have read all his books (that have been translated into English, that is. There are three others I’m still waiting for) and I was thrilled to finally be able to read his 2009 novel “Let The Games Begin.” Released after his brilliant “As God Commands” and before is touching novella “Me and You” (which came out in English translation last year), I had been wondering why this one was skipped over and thought perhaps it would never be translated.
Happily, it was and it is a wild romp, an absolute biting satire of celebrity culture, Roman decadence, the collapse of morals, and how many people are only concerned with themselves and how they appear to others. The difference between this novel and his others (“I’ll Steal You Away”, “I’m Not Scared”, “As God Commands” and “Me and You”) is that he ramps it up, seemingly enjoying the hell out of himself, stretching the boundaries to create his often hilarious tale.
The novel opens with four characters who belong to a dwindling Satanic sect called “The Wilde Beasts of Abaddon.” Their leader, Saverio Moneta aka Mantos, and his three remaining cohorts, the chubby Roberto Morsillo aka Murder, Edoardo Sambreddero aka Zombie and Silvietta Butti (who was originally a sacrificial victim who eventually became “High Priestes” of the sect as well as Murder’s girlfriend) is trying to hold the group together as they discuss their problems in a local pizzeria. From the get go you already understand that these four are total losers - especially Mantos, who works with his father-in-law in a furniture shop and henpecked by his wife who has no respect for him. The others are equally lost, aging metalheads who haven’t gotten anywhere in life. The reader is immediately clued in that this is no real Satanic sect but a group of wanna-bes, at the end of their rope, ready to give up the whole Glory for Satan thing, since they mainly just sit around practicing ridiculous rituals and writing graffiti around Rome. Mantos wants them to be legendary and promises his disillusioned subjects that he would come up with a great plan that would bring them the glory he so desires for them.
The novel then introduces Fabrizio Cibra, an egotistical contemporary writer who is struggling to write the book that he knows he’s capable of - a great literary work - destined to change Italian literature forever. He is famous, has his own television show, and is living off his reputation for a short novel that was his best selling work. He’s bedded many models, actresses, and other media stars and that is more on his mind than actually getting down to work, having only written a couple of lines since his last successful novel. We meet him as he’s about to participate in a panel for a very famous and well respected Indian author but as soon as he sees the Indian novelist’s translator, his only thought is sexual conquest.
Meanwhile, an opportunity presents itself for Mantos’s cult. His cousin calls to inform him that he was tasked to work at a major gala being thrown by an immensely wealthy Italian magnate and he needed people to help work as waiters at the event. It was going to be the biggest party Rome had ever seen, held in the magnate’s own personal villa (which was once a public park that he had bought once it fell into disrepair) and anyone who was anyone was going to be there - including Larita, the former singer of a Death Metal group who had recently converted to Christianity and had become the nation’s biggest pop singer. Mantos sees his opportunity. His group would kidnap the singer and sacrifice her right there on the villa’s grounds. That would make them legendary, the “most infamous Satanic cult in all of Italy”. He concocts a plan, which is somewhat half-baked, naturally, and convinces his cohorts to participate with the caveat that it had to be a suicide mission - to add to the legendary status.
Fabrizio Ciba finds that he, too, is invited to the gala and at first declines to go but eventually changes his mind. At this point in the novel the two stories overlap and all hell breaks loose.
In Ammaniti’s past novels, he had injected a healthy dose of black humor to a decidedly very serious story. In “Let The Games Begin”, he turns that on its head - the story being wildly satiric and comedic while injecting dark and serious undertones. The effect is laugh out loud funny at times and the pacing is simply brilliant, the reader wanting to know what’s going to happen next and how all this insanity is eventually going to play itself out. And the ending offers a nice little twist, one the reader will not see coming at all.
It was nice to see Ammaniti “let go” and you can tell that he enjoyed writing every word of this novel and you will laugh out loud at the characters and the brilliant way they are developed. You know these people. You went to school with them. You hung out with them in bars or grew up next door to them. As far as the celebrities go, it is a brilliant riff on the vapid nature of fame and how they take themselves so seriously. It is also something of an allegory - in my view, anyway - on Berlusconi’s Italy and his lavish “Bunga Bunga” parties which, if the news items are to be believed, weren’t so different from the crazed and surreal galas the Italian magnate throws for his guests.
Naturally, I would recommend all of Ammaniti’s novels but I would read his previous work before delving into this one in order to get a real sense of the writer. This one is entertaining as hell but heavily satiric, ranging from the silly to the outright dark and deranged. This is Ammaniti having fun and boy does it seem like he’s having a ball.