Book review: Let the games begin

By David Hill

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Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti.
Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti.

Consumer Alert: this novel has nothing to do with the Olympics - except for one thing I'll mention later.

These games are safari-like hunts at a tastelessly lavish villa-warming party held in an equally tasteless and opulent ex-palace near Rome. Said ex-palace is owned by a certain Italian real estate squillionaire who may remind you strongly of a certain disgraced Italian politician.

Among the serving staff is a satanic cult. Well, you'd expect that. There are just four of the Beasts of Abaddon: a hen-pecked furniture salesman; an overweight DIY enthusiast-cum-assassin; a fraudulent virgin; a zombie with dicky digestion.

As satanists, they're not terribly good. Membership is dropping, and their most demonic act recently has been graffiti on a viaduct. But the party offers them a chance to go out with a big, bad bang.

They're the narrators, along with a precariously successful, young (as in 41) novelist in designer-rumpled clothes, in this exuberant, erratic satire of consumption and corruption.

It's the sort of plot where people fall off an elephant, and then get back on the same elephant. Some get rice and mozzarella thrown over them. Others are rendered unconscious by a blowpipe, or eaten by crocodiles. A group of escaped ex-Soviet Olympic troglodytes help kick the story along.

There's a cast of hundreds: overpaid footballers, pneumatic starlets, avaricious magnates, venal politicians, randy society hostesses, a death metal group called Lords of the Flies. Ammaniti doesn't like many of them very much - a wife with "derma stretched and leathery like a rhinoceros" on p48 is followed by a fidgety little man with a sneer on p49 and a pallid, bloodsucking sales manager on p51.

You won't care for many of them, either, which allows the author to injure or kill off a lot of them. It's all casually violent, and means that a fair number of the supporting cast are just squelch-fodder.

Everyone and everything moves at a flat-out pace, quite often in a wrong direction. The Seven Deadly Sins parade past, though most of the characters are too bewildered to indulge in any.

Dialogue is endlessly gymnastic. A lot of the laughs are verbal, and Kylee Doust's crisp translation seems to have rendered them neatly.

However, the desperate energy can't hide the thinness of treatment. The press of grotesques erodes empathy; the tempo becomes monotonously frenetic. You'll be diverted by lots of it, but you'll probably wish for fewer of the dark smarts and several touches more maturity.

Let The Games Begin by Niccolo Ammaniti, translated by Kylee Doust (Text Publishing $37)

- NZ Herald

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