Let the Games Begin by Niccolo Ammaniti
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
Italian writer Niccolo Ammaniti’s latest novel Let The Games Begin comes with a warning: ‘contains satanic cults, intoxicated supermodels, olympic athletes and man-eating hippos’. Of all of the above, only the satanic cult really has much of a part to play in this comedy of errors, but it is enough of a part to put the entire novel in motion.
Mantos is a sad young man who believes himself to be the ‘father’ of a group of Satanists. As far as Satanists go, this lot are a bit rubbish -‘You said we’d make loads of human sacrifices, but we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them’ Mantos is asked, ‘And what about the initiation ritual with the virgins? And the Satanic orgies?’ So far, they’re all talk, but Mantos knows they need to up the ante, especially since a rival cult has recently disembowelled a nun with a two-headed axe. A sacrifice is in order, one of proportions so grand that it will mark The Wilde Beasts of Abbadon as the greatest group of Satanists in Italy. Luckily, there’s a big party coming up that will lead them to both their human sacrifice and their eventual infamy.
Meanwhile, with a narrative running parallel to that of Mantos’ lot of bumbling fols, Ammaniti introduces Fabrizio Ciba, a slightly neurotic, superstar writer living in Rome, with many literary awards to his name, a successful television show (think of the glamour of Koffee with Karan, but with presumably smarter questions), women throwing themselves at him and other writers wanting to be him. Just when he thinks he is at the top of his game, the forty-something writer is shocked to find that he isn’t the darling of his publisher as he had presumed himself to be. Ego bruised and intellect insulted, lonely and miserable, Ciba launches himself into a bender, only to wake and find that his demons still await him, as does the party of the year.
This party is the talk of the town, and has been for over a year. Expected to be a fantastic, over the top circus, it is hosted and planned by a man who is clearly attempting to buy his way into Italian nobility, the ‘crazy megalomaniac mafioso builder’ Salvatore Chiatti. Chiatti has bought and renovated a large public park in Rome and has put together the ‘world’s greatest circus’ for the elite of Italian high society - celebrities, socialites, musicians, sports stars, actors, models, even famous writers are to attend three grand safaris: an English fox hunt where the guests will be styled by Ralph Lauren and expected to ride pure-bred horses, an African lion hunt complete with khaki safari suits and rifles, and a colonial-style Indian tiger hunt where guests will be perched in howdahs on elephants controlled by mahouts (animal activists are told they need not worry - the tiger has colon cancer and won’t live past the month anyway, ‘you’ll only be doing her a favour’).
Ciba and Mantos’s narratives meet at Chiatti’s party, where Grammy-wining pop singer Larita is to perform as part of the festivities. Mantos loathes Larita, who has given up her demon days as the vocalist for metal band Lords of the Flies and has found God; and Ciba finds himself falling her, though her straight laced, vegetarian, animal activist, pacifist beliefs are nothing like his own drunk, egotistical boorish lifestyle. With one man attempting to lead his group of Satanists to a ritual including human sacrifice with a sword bought on eBay, the other trying very hard to find his soul mate and convince himself he can still write the Great Italian Novel, and a host whose entire venue is filled with dangerous animals and dozens of vapid, insecure celebrities, Let The Games Begin is basically about a giant disaster waiting to happen.
In the true style of carnival, Chiatti’s party goes from fantastic, freewheeling revels to utter madness very fast, with a sabotaged electricity grid causing all sorts of unpredicted damage, a flood destroying the park, wild animals holding sway over humans and the complete reign of chaos. Within all this are the antics of the would-be satanists and the writer who yearns for the safety of his Majorca holiday house. These are all self-indulgent, self-centred and generally whiny characters who aren’t particularly likeable but they’re so very ineffectual that it’s hard to complete hate them. And it’s very hard to remain interested constantly in characters who don’t make your feel very much of anything at all, except mild annoyance. Having said that, they do end up being very easy to laugh at, which saves Let the Games Begin from potential tedium.
This is satire, yes, and this is parody and this is all a comment on the extremes of Roman society, perhaps even the extravagance of the Berlusconi era, but it is all a bit heavy handed. There’s nothing subtle about Let the Games Begin, and though subtlety is not necessary, it may have helped on occasion in this case. Ammaniti piles one absurdity upon another, allowing everything to crash systematically and with no respite. This makes the narrative fast paced, yes, but also relentless and often tiring. It is also hard to keep up with all the shenanigans when you are uncertain who is doing what (or whom). Characters are often referred to by multiple names, for example, Mantos is often Saverio or Moneta (his name is Saverio Moneta, Mantos is a nickname). This can be confusing, especially since there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and though many have walk-on roles, they are fairly frequent and often roles that provide important information.
Let the Games Begin is very cinematic, and in this case this means that the entire book seems to be written as if it were a film treatment. It isn’t hard to imagine, even at it’s premise - it falls under the same umbrella as films such as The Hangover, only Italian and more excessive when it comes to sex and violence. Marital rape and crocodiles feasting on body parts come equally easily in Let the Games Begin, adding to the constant sense of discomfort and often over the top shocks that Ammaniti provides. It’s smart and disconcerting and often funny, but also just that little bit disappointing and overbearing.