Book Review | Me and You

Rose Lapira is taken by Niccolo Ammaniti’s compelling foray into adolescent angst, made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci last year.

Niccolo Ammaniti.
Niccolo Ammaniti.

I first heard of Niccolo Ammaniti when I saw the film 'I'm not scared'. I was so impressed by it that I looked up the novel on which the film was based and discovered its young Italian author.

Later I read The Crossroads, which won the prestigious Strega Prize. While this deals with broader social issues, I still prefer the compact style of the first work.

His latest novel Me and You, ably translated by Kylee Doust, follows a similar structure. Again, I was drawn to the work through the cinema when I read that Bernardo Bertolucci was so taken up by the book that he wanted to turn it into a film.

The blurb quotes Bertolucci saying 'This book amazed me'. I would say the same, for more reasons than one, but what sticks out above all else, is how a book of only 150 pages can be so explosive as it relentlessly moves forward to its unexpected end.

Niccolo Ammaniti is particularly drawn to the theme of adolescent angst and alienation. The protagonist Lorenzo Cuni is 14 years old and lives with his well-off parents in Rome. An introvert and a loner, he leads a solitary life.

His wish is to become invisible but finds that this draws more attention to himself, since 'predators move around in herds singling out those who are different'. Watching a TV documentary, he learns that insects can imitate other insects to survive. In the tropics lives a fly that can imitate a wasp.

'He has four wings just like the other flies, but he keeps them one on top of the other, so that they look like two. He has a black and yellow striped belly... and even a fake stinger. He can't hurt you, he's a nice insect, but dressed up as a wasp, the birds, the lizards, even human beings fear him.'

Lorenzo decides that to be left alone he must imitate the dangerous ones. By dressing up like his peers at school and imitating their behaviour, 'the fly had managed to trick them all integrating perfectly with the 'waspian' society. They thought I was one of them'.

However, matters soon come to a head when overhearing a group of school friends planning to go for a skiing holiday he tells his mother that he was asked to join them.

His worried mother is overjoyed that at last, her son has been accepted as 'normal' by his friends. Now Lorenzo cannot retract his lie. He packs his gear and decides to hide in the apartment's basement for the duration of the holiday.

At first he is happy, for finally he is on his own and can be himself, until his 23 year old half sister Olivia, turns up unexpectedly. A drug addict, beautiful, unstable, destructive and fragile, Lorenzo barely knows her. The encounter will lead to a complex, highly charged situation from which he will eventually emerge transformed by the experience.

In this novel, Ammaniti has focused with great clarity on the world of two young, social misfits. He gives a terrifying insight into the lonely, tormented, closed world which the young protagonists inhabit.

Written in deceptively simple prose, Ammaniti is a great storyteller. The plot moves on at a quick pace, which makes it difficult to put down the book, before one comes to the emotional twist at the end. Yet Bertolucci was not happy with the way the novel ended, and in the film he changed this with the collaboration of the author.

He thought Ammaniti was too moralistic and perhaps even unjust with the characters. He just wanted to end on a more optimistic note and the film focuses more on the complex relationship between the two young people. 

While the film has its score, it is the 1970s popular but sad song, Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola, sung in Italian by David Bowie, that aptly describes the mood of the film. It is interesting to note that Bowie, at 66, has just made a comeback with his new album The Next Day, and a big exhibition on the iconic singer opened on March 23, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

In the novel, Ammaniti is pragmatic and realistic concerning the situations of his characters. He believes that our lives are not determined by the promises we make, for these are made under emotional strain, and as a consequence it is easy to break them.

It is going to be difficult to compare the film to the book, for the cinema has its own language, which can be powerful in the hands of a master like Bertolucci. In the meantime the novel will not disappoint readers.

Those who have read I'm not scared, will need no convincing, while others who do not know Ammaniti's writing, will find Me and You a good introduction to the work of a very accomplished author.