"Each of us has a place where we feel comfortable. For some it’s a church, for some a mosque, a sanctuary, a movie theater, a stadium, a market. I feel comfortable in a kitchen. And it’s not that surprising, because I’m a good cook...I’m not a dishwasher as they say in the restaurants of Rome. In Shiraz I had a good restaurant...Soon I’m going back to Shiraz. I know I am." (Clash 19)
This is stated by Parviz, the first of many characters who help narrate Amara Lakhous’s novel, Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. In this brief passage, Parviz outlines a thematic discourse that is present throughout the novel and throughout much migrant literature irrespective of time and location. This is the discourse regarding “place,” a concept which is much more complex and interesting than a mere plot point on a map or a chart. Rather, place is a space imbued with certain qualities and even an identity. It has psychological power and meaning. When Parviz talks about being comfortable in certain places, he is referring to this dynamic in which places are given the psychological power of comfort and empowerment. This discourse on place is one that is inherently a part of the immigrant experience. Immigrants arrive in new spaces that have few if any meanings or attachments for them. The goal of an immigrant generally is to turn meaningless space into meaningful place, though this often leads to conflicts with others by whom certain places have already been created and to whom the presence of migrants alters the essential qualities of that place. This tension can be found reflected in migrant literature. The creation of place is a process which the characters of Clash of Civilizations and all migrants, real or otherwise, undergo. Though the creation of place is fraught with potential conflicts, the existence of dynamic migrant literature indicates that immigrants are simultaneously establishing real and literary “places” within their adopted homelands.
Immigrants define the Piazza Vittorio of today. Perhaps what is most interesting and unique about the area, though, is the lack of uniformity in the immigrants’ origins. Indeed, Bangladeshis, Indians, South Americans, Africans, and Poles all began arriving and settling around the piazza in the 1980’s and 90’s (Donadio). In many parts of the world, ethnic enclaves of one or two particular groups can be found densely packed into urban areas. Chinatowns, Little Italy’s, or French districts can be found in many American cities today. However, Piazza Vittorio does not represent an ethnic enclave so much as an “immigrant enclave.” By immigrant enclave, I mean to define the rather unusual situation of having so many immigrant groups living side-by-side with none of them dominating the space. Thus, the space of Piazza Vittorio is in constant negotiation between totally diverse people: Italians whose families have lived in the Piazza for generations and each of the many ethnic groups from nearly every continent. The creation of place is a natural dynamic to study with regard to Piazza Vittorio and the literature that it has inspired. It happens there every day.
Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio describes an apartment building in the Piazza Vittorio neighborhood of Rome through the eyes of its various residents. The narration of the book is provided through chapters told from the point of view of a new character each time. Nearly all of the residents are migrants in some way, whether internal or external. One of the building’s residents is murdered in the elevator of the complex, providing the central tension of the novel. Though his name is Lorenzo Manfredini, the building’s residents refer to him as il Gladiatore (the Gladiator). All of the residents dislike the Gladiator. Conversely, the central character of the novel is Amedeo, who is universally liked and respected. Amedeo is the only character who gets to give his perspective more than once in the book. After a chapter giving the point-of-view of another character, Amedeo’s diary entries are used to provide context and his perspective on the character in the preceding chapter. This creates an interplay of perspectives that can be both tragic and comic. There is no real sense of temporality in the story. Each of the characters speaks as if he or she were interviewed at the same time as everyone else. They often describe the same events and the same places with totally different understandings of each. In this they reveal the ways in which they attempt to create a sense of place within Piazza Vittorio, a place whose multiculturality makes it a perfect setting to examine the process of place-making. The characters attempt to find comfort, empowerment, and even a home in the building.
Lakhous is no stranger to Piazza Vittorio. After fleeing Algeria out of fear for his life, he arrived in Rome and lived in Piazza Vittorio. Lakhous describes this as his rebirth (“Homesickness” 134). The character of Amedeo, also from Algeria, undergoes a rebirth of his own upon coming to Piazza Vittorio. He tries to forget his past by learning Italian, marrying an Italian woman, and even deciding to become Amedeo where he was once Ahmed. However, in his dreams, he still remembers his family in Algeria and is never quite able to exorcise their memory even after his rebirth. The interludes of Amedeo’s diary are called ululati (wails or howls) which play off of both his personal sorrow, but also the symbol of his adopted Rome: the wolf. Amedeo describes his chief desire saying, “At the moment, I couldn’t care less about integration. What I really care about is how to be suckled by the wolf without her biting me...” (Clash 83). To be suckled by the wolf is to be truly Roman. Amedeo does not want to be an integrated immigrant, but rather to be reborn as fully Italian and Roman. He wants to make the place of Rome into his place. Amedeo becomes our guide through a fascinating discourse on the dynamics of place creation on the part of a diverse set of characters. It is reasonable to conclude that Amedeo bears some autobiographical similarity to the author, given the similarities of their experiences. Lakhous intended to explore the idea of place as a major theme in the novel. Indeed, here Lakhous writes about his experience of creating place: “Can a place, any place, cure one of the pain of living, of the fear of death, of homesickness? It can, providing you reach an emotional pact with your new surroundings, as I did with Piazza Vittorio” (“Homesickness” 134). The establishment of an emotional pact with a place is a central theme in Clash of Civilizations as it was in Lakhous’s own experience.
I must give some greater theoretical explanation of place as a philosophical concept. The most useful way to do this is to contrast place with the associated concept of space. As a concept, space is an area which lacks identifiers. There is no human element which can imbue the space with qualities and make it into something particular or personal. In order to make this work, “people [have] to be removed from the scene. Space [is] not embodied but empty” (Cresswell 19). It is best conceived as the philosophical equivalent of an empty room. But once that room is filled with belongings or a child grows up there, it ceases to be abstract space. Now it has been assigned meaning, purpose, and power. The space has become place. And place is a way of understanding the world:
"When we look at the world as a world of places we see different things. We see attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience. Sometimes this way of seeing can seem to be an act of resistance against a rationalization of the world...that has more space than place." (Cresswell 11)
For an immigrant, this resistance and establishment of meaning are crucial. Such a task takes place on two fronts.
The first fights against the idea that place does not matter. Capitalism and globalization has put forth the idea that all places are the same if goods can be sold there. Multinational corporations and chain businesses create the illusion of uniformity across places. Globalization does not reflect our human need for places that are diverse and have particular value: “In a frenetically mobile and ever more porous and inexorably globalizing world, we stand powerfully in need of such stable and coherent places in our lives” (McClay 3). Globalization combines with postmodern thought which spurns particularity and symbolic associations as “mere description” (Cresswell 19). These dynamics combine to create the idea that there is no truth in place. Where one is and where one is from do not matter. These places are simply constructions as well as the give-and-take of identity between person and place. This idea is reflected in the novel. Each point-of-view chapter is entitled “The Truth According to...” which indicates the divergent perspectives of each of the building’s tenants. Indeed, the creation of place is a relative affair, but that does not mean that there is not truth in place. The human mind with its associations, meanings, emotions, and symbols cannot be so simply removed from place in order to make it into space. What’s more is such a view of space excludes many immigrants who often carry with them an identity that is bound up in their place of origin and which they hope to use in creating new attachments and connections in a new country.
Middle- and working-class immigrants, like those depicted in Clash of Civilizations, do not have the privilege of deciding that place doesn’t matter. Indeed, Benedetta the Neapolitan concierge proclaims proudly, “I’m from Naples, I’ll shout it out, I’m not ashamed. But then why should I be?” (Clash 32). Benedetta claims the place of Naples with pride and affirms the positive attributes which such an origin bestows on her even though she is in Rome. She is called “la Napolitana” (the Neapolitan) by the other residents in the building, meaning that the connection between place and identity is made for her even if she chose not to make it herself. And indeed, she creates this connection for others, even when she is comically mistaken about where they are from. In particular, she is prejudiced toward the immigrants in the building who she views as immoral, untrustworthy, or dirty. Benedetta, by being Neapolitan, is considered an immigrant in her own country. Northern Italians like Antonio Marini see her as an inferior Italian. Thus, Benedetta is trying to create separation between her and the building’s immigrants to ensure that her Italian-ness an identity-signifier in a way that secures her place in the hierarchy. Benedetta is simultaneously a victim and a beneficiary of a system that associates value with origin and place, and she participates willingly in this system. For instance, she is convinced that Parviz (an Iranian refugee) murdered the Gladiator because he is from Albania (Clash 36). Amedeo, by contrast, couldn’t possibly be an immigrant because of all his positive and thus Italian attributes (Clash 33). This sort of tragicomic misunderstanding occurs over and over again in the novel. It serves to confirm the point that place and identity are inextricable in the case of many, if not most migrants. The characters of the novel long to securely associate place and identity. Thus place must be treated as a legitimate point of examination in the study of immigrants and their literature.
Secondly, place serves as the basis for resistance against static and exclusive interpretations of place. Differing ideas of place and identity necessarily come into conflict in a diverse area like Piazza Vittorio. As Chantal Saint-Blancat states in her essay on Muslims in Europe, “Space is not socially neutral...Cities are born and remain under the sign of multiculture. Urban space is therefore characterized by a strong symbolic value; its symbolic control results in competition for the monopoly over territories that are at the same time social entities” (Saint-Blancat 97). When a place is shared by different people, their interpretations of the same space are inevitably different. This takes place on a local and apolitical scale as well as in large, political discourse. It is in the latter cases where immigrants are met with significant prejudice and resistance to their presence. According to Saint-Blancat, the native born is struck with “fear that multiethnic and multireligious settings could change the social and power balance in urban areas. But the excesses of intolerance observed are more due to a reappropriation of space associated with fear of invasion and pollution” (Saint-Blancat 105). Indeed, prejudice toward migrants has less to do with xenophobia per se than it does with the changing identities assigned to place. Resistance to the alteration of place has been met with resistance throughout history, and xenophobia is more of an outcome of this dynamic than a cause. In simple terms, it is disorienting to watch a place with which a person has so many connections slowly change into something nigh unrecognizable, regardless of which people or groups are causing the changes. If my roommate were to play loud music that I don’t like, I might try to find aspects of his identity which would explain his lack of consideration or bad taste in music. This dynamic can be seen up close in Piazza Vittorio’s large indoor market, where the Italian owners of a vegetable stall have watched the market become larger and more diverse over several decades and multiple waves of immigration. The small neighborhood market that once was, is now a bustling commercial center with Bangladeshi, Chinese, and Senegalese merchants alongside an old guard of Italians (Donadio).
Such changes are not met with resistance by everyone, certainly. But as new groups seek visibility in public areas, they necessarily alter the landscape of the place in physical and symbolic ways. This is uncomfortable for many, and the conflict for control over the space ensues. In the novel, this perspective is best exemplified by Antonio Marini, an aging professor originally from Milan. He declares that “the elevator is a matter of civilization, and [the residents] must establish clear rules for using it” (Clash 78). For Marini, every other occupant of the building - Amedeo excepted – is uncivilized in some regard. He decries southern Italians as lazy and criminal and includes Romans in their number. The immigrants, in his opinion, are ruining the country: “Where in the world are we? In Mogadishu or Addis Ababa? In Rome or Bombay? In the developed world or the Third World? Pretty soon they’ll throw us out of the club of rich nations” (Clash 74). Thus, when Marini tries to establish rules for the elevator, he is trying to preserve the place of the elevator as a sign of modernity, development, and enlightenment (Clash 78). These rules, though not in themselves out of the ordinary, are proposed because Marini feels that his idea of the elevator is under threat. The uncivilized Romans, Southerners, or immigrants are encroaching on the space that he has made symbolic of Italy’s progress and affluence.
The other residents see the elevator in very different ways. For Parviz, the elevator is a place for meditation. In the elevator, he reflects on his current life in exile and the past from which he fled. Parviz states that “going up and down is a mental exercise like yoga” (Clash 17). For Benedetta, the concierge, the elevator is a place to impose power that she does not have otherwise. One of the foremost scholars of Italian immigration and literature, Graziella Parati, believes that Benedetta’s attempt to control the elevator begins with her outsider status:
"Benedetta speaks Neapolitan, a language that has trapped her in a very particular job and location since only standard Italian allows mobility....Benedetta sees the elevator as an entrance into a culture and a community that she has to monitor as she attempts to control the space other people can appropriate. As an outsider, she defines her level of belonging by her ability to exclude others from gaining access to movement..." (“Where Do Migrants Live?” 436)
The elevator empowers Benedetta in a society that does not assign her much power except that she is considered slightly more Italian than many of the visitors other residents. The elevator is a great source of power, and thus the attempt of other residents to appropriate the elevator for their own uses or ascriptions of symbolic meaning are threatening to this power source. In this regard, the conflict over place in the novel is most clearly seen in regard to the elevator. Each resident assigns a meaning to the space, and these constructed places are sometimes seen as competitive and irreconcilable.
The elevator becomes an allegory for the outside world. Lakhous mentions in an interview that he wanted to portray the realities of the kind of multicultural domestic experience that characterizes Piazza Vittorio and Italian society at large. With regards to the elevator, he says (translation is my own), “In Clash of Civilizations, I chose the elevator because I wanted to reflect on this question: how can we all live together? The elevator is a place in which one comes into enclosed contact and senses the odor and the perfume of others” (“Le Catene”). Like Piazza Vittorio, the elevator is a place of multicultural contact. Various people encounter each other and compete for the same space. They compete not only for the rights to its physical features, but also for the rights to ascribe meaning. According to Parati, “The novel juxtaposes macro-space and micro-space, for it deals simultaneously with the urban entity of Rome and with one apartment building and its inhabitants” (“Where Do Migrants Live?” 433). As a de jure public space in the building, the elevator represents the areas in the public sphere in which immigrants can be visible and work to create place around them. These public spaces, if not controlled or abused through exclusion, can work to the benefit of all:
"For an inclusive civic identity to develop, city residents need to relate to one another in a shared public manner that transcends individual needs and perceptions...Therefore, cities must strive to provide protected public meeting places where diverse people can come and go and interact with each other, incorporating their multiple histories of space, place, and identity” (Ruble 6).
The elevator has the opportunity to be a space of intercultural contact and dialogue. It could create community in a positive way. For each of the characters, the elevator is a solitary space if it is in any way a positive one. Only Amedeo is capable of having friendly interactions with people around the elevator, and he is the only resident who doesn’t use it. Other residents like Parviz and Professor Marini appreciate the elevator, but only as an individual space in which they can temporarily impose their conception of the elevator as a place. The only way for the elevator to be a comforting place or empowering place is to use it alone. This inhibits any multicultural communal identity from being formed in the building. The elevator is certainly a place for cultural interaction, but little growth seems to come from it. Indeed, the climax of resident interactions regarding the elevator comes when the Gladiator is murdered within it. And if the elevator is an allegory for multicultural Italy, this creates quite a depressing impression.
At the fringes of the narration, hints are left to the ways in which the immigrants are facing these conflicts over place in the wider world beyond the building. Parviz mentions the Forza Nord party, a fictional party which is a fictional combination of two of Italy’s actual right-wing political parties: Lega Nord and Forza Italia. Parati analyzes this fictional party, saying that it “places location at the center of its political agenda based on separation and the policing of immigrants; this is done in the name of undefinable traditions and communities claiming the right to belong to and possess that space called Italy” (“Where Do Migrants Live?” 434). Immigrants experience the outcomes of this type of politics at least as often in the real world as in fiction. With a recent rise in far-right parties in Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment has gained greater attention and legitimacy. These parties, real or fictional, have a defined idea of place. The Forza Nord’s understanding of Italy seems to be one that does not include foreigners or have the ability to adapt to new circumstances and demographics. For them, Italy is a static place and is defined, as Parati states, by the exclusion of that which is not perceived to be Italian. Not only is this idea ahistorical, but it is also unhealthy. Place should be a dynamic concept. The meanings imbued on certain spaces differ from age to age and person to person. Their reality ought to reflect this. According to scholar Wilfred McClay, “What makes a ‘place’ is not merely a loyalty to its past, but the vitality of its present, and the lure of its future. Far from being static, a ‘place’ must be a node of continuous human activity...A living ‘place’ has to offer the scope for the creative energies of its people” (8). If place becomes static, it fails to satisfy the needs of those it contains. With regard to nations, this is particularly poignant. If entire groups of people are unrecognized in the definition of that nation, it cannot be considered to accurately reflect its realities. Thus an immigrant like Parviz notes with concern the bigoted politics that surround him and wonders if Italy can be his place alongside native Italians who also consider it to be their place.
Italy has never been a static place. Parviz asks, “Who is Italian? Only someone who was born in Italy, has an Italian passport and identity card, knows the language, has an Italian name, and lives in Italy?” (Clash 14). Despite his modern situation of the question, the ambiguous definition of an Italian is something that dates back to the beginning of Italy itself. Italy was finally made into a unified state in 1861 during the Risorgimento, a revolution to unite the independent kingdoms of the peninsula into one country. However, at the time of the unification, Italy was split by a regional dialects, cultures, and traditions that can still be divisive today. Italy was founded as diverse peoples trying to share some Italian identity. Enter waves of immigrants into this history, and it would seem that the integration of their vision of Italian place would be compatible with that of the “native” Italians. Yet this is not the case. Mohamed Aden situates this conflict within the history of Italian Imperialism as a means to reestablish a place-ness of Italy that hearkens back to the Roman Empire. The Romans once created place, through empire, all around the Mediterranean. The colonial experiment in Africa reenacts this place creation: “When [the Italian] devastates lands or massacres peoples, this is nothing but a banal episode of Italy’s recuperation of her ancient empire” (Aden 105). The Italians were able to devalue and impose because they were not cognizant of contemporary place in North and East Africa. Rather, they only saw unassociated space that once was definitive place when it was ruled from Rome. They imposed a comprehensive idea of place that was not shared by those who lived there. Seen in this light, immigration is this dynamic visited on the colonizer. Immigrants arrive in Italy much more cognizant of the place as it is seen by others, but also with their own desires to create a place in Italy from which they can be secure, empowered, or even reborn. Imperial Italy forced a dynamic place upon the colonized. Immigrants ensure, without force, a dynamic sense of place in Italy as people renegotiate the terms of place in the country.
In the novel, this can be seen in the different perspectives of the immigrants and the characters that see themselves as native Italians. Benedetta, for example, lacks any sort of appreciation for the immigrants in Piazza Vittorio: “All you have to do is take a walk in the afternoon in the gardens in Piazza Vittorio to see that the overwhelming majority of the people are foreigners...They have religions, habits, and traditions different from ours...Then why do they come to Italy?” (Clash 38). For her, Italy is defined according to what she perceives as ancient traditions and a static culture. I have shown that this is an ahistorical understanding of Italy, but regardless, Benedetta does not believe that the immigrant populations have anything to offer Italy as a place. These lines provide a comic contrast to an earlier scene with Parviz, where he complains about Italians eating pizza on the metro. Parviz loathes pizza and becomes sickened when he sees a girl devouring one: “I hope that the proper authorities do not underestimate this sensitive issue and will proceed immediately to put up signs like ‘Pizza Eating Prohibited,’ next to the ones that are so prominent at the metro entrances saying ‘No Smoking!’” (Clash 13). In this, the two characters have conceptions of place beyond the apartment building. Both demonstrate their desire to exercise power over their broader surroundings, despite their relatively powerless positions in society. The problem, as stated above, is that these ideas are mutually exclusive. Urban Studies scholar Blair Ruble writes about cities, saying that they can be “viewed as historical layers, some that have disappeared and others that are still shaping space and identity. New migrant populations continue to add to these layers, altering the historical and physical form of the city and transforming the city into a space of hybridity” (Ruble 9). Neither Benedetta nor Parviz sees the opportunity for hybridity in the urban space that they share. Thus, despite their shared experience of migrancy, no collective creation of place can take place between them.
This dynamic can also be seen in literature as a form of space and place. Indeed, literature, like space, undergoes similar negotiations to physical space. Certain ideas or figures inhabit the literary space, defining its qualities in their terms. But what happens when new voices and new ideas attempt to stake a claim in that space and remake it into an empowering place for them? Indeed, migrant authors in Italy are doing just this. Authors like Pop Khouma, Kossi Komla-Ebri, and Christiana de Caldas Brito have been adding the immigrant voice to Italian literature since the 1980’s. According to Parati, a number multicultural and multiracial voices is being added to Italophone literature and are attempting to find their place in Italian culture. She writes, “Such a space must not become a ghetto where literary voices are associated with specific racial and national identities. The risk is that one would reach a simplistic essentializing that could define Italophone voices as part of a new margin with connotations of inferiority” (“Foreigners & Shadows” 172). In other words, migrant literature should not occupy a small, distinct place that is otherwise separated from the whole. Its place in the creation of national culture should not be as a shabby stall in a distant corner of the market. Rather, Parati and I believe that this literature should be integrated into the larger creation of literary places that are open to voices that represent what Italy (or any other country) has become. The literary space must be fluid enough to allow for the creation of literary place when Italians with an immigrant history, such as Amara Lakhous, add their distinct perspectives to the Italian cultural tradition. Both Lakhous and Amedeo are reborn in Piazza Vittorio. Thus, their ideas are worthy additions to enrich the sense of place that marks Italophone literature.
So who kills the Gladiator, Lorenzo Manfredini? We find out that Elisabetta Fabiani, a woman obsessively concerned for her disappeared dog, killed the Gladiator. He ran a dogfighting ring, thus the name “Gladiator.” When Elisabetta found out that this was the fate of her little Valentino, she stabbed him. An Italian killed another Italian for reasons having nothing to do with place or migrancy or even the elevator. Indeed, that only goes further to demonstrate that the point of Clash of Civilizations is not to follow clues as in a whodunit. There are no real clues to follow. Rather, the point is the expression of migrant voices in the creation of physical and literary places that offer empowerment, security, and the ability to participate in the Italian national project.
Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio not only examines the creation of place through the perspectives of the characters in the novel. It also itself helps to establish a literary place in which the voices of immigrants are empowered in their adopted homelands. Literature, like physical space, can become empowering place if people are permitted to create it in a way that provides legitimacy for their particular voices. Indeed, this remains a significant theme in immigrant literature around the world. As new voices are added to national and international literary circles, the challenge will ever be to ensure that literary place, like its physical counterpart, remains open to new connections and the imputation of new qualities to interface with the old. Literature around the world is becoming more and more like an immigrant enclave with a diverse range of voices occupying the same space, creating new places, just like in Piazza Vittorio. Place is dynamic. The health of our societies and our literature depends on this fact.
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