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Niccolo Ammaniti's latest novel, Let The Games Begin, comes with a warning: Contains Satanic Cults, Intoxicated Supermodels, Olympic Athletes and Man-Eating Hippos.
Read at your own peril...
Actually, that's only mostly true. I didn't come across any Man-Eating Hippos in the novel's pages, but perhaps I was distracted by the Intoxicated Supermodels.
If my interest had been aroused by this warning on the back of the book, I was thoroughly intrigued when I opened the novel to find the preface to be the words to Suicide is Painless, the theme from M*A*S*H.
Set in and around Rome, the first section of the novel is dedicated to introducing the characters and building up to the main action. We meet Fabrizio Ciba, a successful author who seems to alternate between having an ego the size of Italy and plunging into self despair. Saverio Maneta, aka Mantos, is the leader of the not very successful Wilde Beasts of Abaddon, a small Satanic cult. After putting together some cunning plans (Mantos) and drinking too much tequila (Ciba), the author and the Satanists find themselves at the party to end all parties, held in the Villa Ada, formerly a public park and now owned by billionaire Salvatore Chiatta. Scheduled to sing at this party, which features a large variety of wild animals, is Larita, a born-again Christian hated by all Satanists.
The story of Let The Games Begin is great. It is exciting and gripping, while also being supremely silly and frequently amusing. But really the only way to describe it is nuts. Completely and utterly bonkers. I won't give away any more than I have above, as there are plenty of unexpected twists and turns, but I'm sure the warning I quoted previously is enough to tell you that this is quite the bizarre story.
This craziness will definitely not be everyone's cup of tea, as many people like to be able to draw breath between daft events in the novels they are reading. Personally I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the novel runs along like riding a rollercoaster blindfolded - it is impossible to know what is going to happen next, and if you do take a guess, you're probably going to be wrong.
However, when you're reading a novel with a magnitude of crazy as high as that of Let The Games Begin, you need some semblance of stability. You need to be able to follow characters and places easily, and this is one area where Ammaniti lets the reader down. In terms of places, the issue is perhaps that I am not Italian - I didn't know several places named early in the novel, prior to the party, and I'm not sure if these were suburbs of Rome or separate towns. But then an Italian reading a novel set in London might have the same question about Ealing or Harlesden.
As for characters, each character may be referred to by two or more names. The Wilde Beasts of Abbadon for example, are referred to by first name, surname, their cult nickname (i.e. Mantos) or their position within the cult. Fabrizio Ciba is referred by first name and surname at separate points in a single sentence. This meant a little more concentration than I would have liked on who was who.
In the big scheme of things however, these are small issues. Let The Games Begin is still a superb story, thoroughly enjoyable and fun to read. It is supremely ridiculous, yet brilliant.
This review first appeared on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk. The publisher provided a review copy of the book through Curious Book Fans.