Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2013

Let the Games Begin (2009), by Niccolo Ammaniti, translated by Kylee Doust

Let the Games Begin

If ethical and aesthetic principles no longer exist, looking like an idiot disappears as a a consequence.  (p.184)

So says the surgeon Bocchi in this new novel from Niccolò Ammaniti.  He says it to reassure the writer Fabrizio Ciba, who is worried that his public will recognise a poem he plagiarized from Kahlil Gibran.  And that abandonment of ethics and aesthetics which plagues the modern world and Italy in particular, is the theme of this bizarre farce.

Let the Games Begin is utterly unlike the acclaimed I’m Not Scared, which won the Viareggio Literary Award, was translated into umpteen languages and made into a gripping film.  This new novel is absurdist, crude and mocking, and – be warned – it has some repellent scenes which made me hesitate before plunging on.

Think Federico Fellini, Carnevale, Bacchanalia.  The cover art on the Australian edition references two-faced Janus, the rape of the Sabine women, Artemis the Hunter, Bacchus and an assortment of diabolical satyrs and whatnot.  In satirising the state of Italian politics, Ammaniti has drawn on all kinds of mythology to create this extraordinary book, deliberately designed to shock, disgust and dismay.

While reading this book, I was visiting my parents who are avid cryptic crossword fanatics, so I had access to not one but two encyclopedias of mythology, and an ancient Dictionary of Demonology.  Browsing through them revealed that Ammaniti has referenced Aeneas, who was called to duty rather than love, and Atreas’ dispute over accession to a throne.  In Let the Games Begin it is a pathetic Satanist who puts his duty as leader of his sorry little sect ahead of love, and the throne in dispute is literary kingship.

The novel begins with Saverio, a man whose life is badly out of synch.  He has grand dreams of achieving notoriety with Satanic rituals to rival Charles Manson, but in reality he lives a pedestrian life as a failed furniture salesman with a domineering wife whose father owns the furniture store.  His cult, the Wilde Beasts of Abbadon, has been bleeding members to the rival Children of the Apocalypse, and he is under pressure from his remaining pals, Zombie, Murder and Silvietta, to organise a human sacrifice, an initiation ritual with virgins, or an orgy at the very least.

The catalyst for change in Saverio’s life is when the rival Satanist who’s been poaching his members offers him membership, and he says no. This gives him the courage to say no in other contexts, (leading to a very ugly scene at home), and he almost has a moment of common sense and renounces the cult. But he doesn’t, because he thinks his duty lies with the cult, and the only way to keep the respect of his members is to do something really violent. (This scenario is going to make some readers uncomfortable, the notion that an act of extreme violence, with no prospect of repentance (out of the question since he’s a Satanist), is an assertion of self-respect.  It all depends how seriously you take it, and how much licence you’re willing to grant the author).

Fortunately for Saverio, Salvatore Chiatti, the richest man in Rome, comes to the rescue. Under privatisation, he has bought the Villa Ada and transformed it into a grotesque fun park.  To celebrate his great achievements, he’s holding a party, and every celebrity and corrupt politician has been invited to join the fun.  There will be three different hunts: an Indian tiger hunt, a fox hunt and a lion hunt, and guests get to dress up and pretend to be Ernest Hemingway. With real guns.  Among the guests is the singer Larita who is on Saverio’s hit list because she gave up heavy metal for sweet love songs and converted to Catholicism.  All the cult has to do is get into the park and she can then be slain with the Durendal sword that Saverio has bought on eBay.

At the same time, the celebrity author, Fabrizio Ciba, is suffering a bit of an identity crisis.  Lately, he’s more famous for being famous than he is for writing books, and he hankers after a Nobel Prize, handicapped by the fact that he’s shallow and amoral, and by the look of his attempt at poetry, banal.  He’s jealous of a young writer who’s won the three major Italian literary prizes in one year, and he’d like to see the back of the Nobel Laureate whose praises he has to sing. All three get invited to the party too, of course, and end up crossing paths with the cult.

It all ends up in chaos, as you’d expect, with some spectacularly nasty casualties and an unexpected redemption or two.  Some of it is rather chastening, some of it is revolting, and some of it made me laugh out loud. Let the Games Begin is a bit of a rollercoaster ride, which not everyone will enjoy.

Unfortunately this edition is marred by too many typos and the translation isn’t very smooth.  There are numerous peculiar metaphors such as ‘drinking like a Friesian at a fountain’ (p.146),  and ‘exploding like a football’ (p.223).  There are idiomatic errors like ‘the day to day’ (‘day to day’, p.146) and ‘between one thing and another’, usually rendered ‘what with one thing and another.’  Then there are careless copy-editing errors such as ‘talking with it’ (taking with it, p. 195); and ‘thank’ (than, p.47); ‘psycopath’ (p.185); and unphased’ (unfazed, p.244);  ‘hose’ instead of ‘nose’ on p. 280 and ‘treaties’ instead of treatises (p.354).   ‘Incoronation’ (p.266) seems to be a hybrid of coronation and inauguration, but I’m relying on an online dictionary while I’m away from home so I could be wrong.  As to ‘molasser’ (p.268) and ‘onanistic topos’ (p.204), well, perhaps these are failures of my vocabulary, but I had no idea what they meant.  I suspect that molasser, apparently a category of dog, ought to have been rendered as mastiff; but Wikipedia failed me with onanistic topos.

Stu at Winston’s Dad reviewed it too, and there are links to other reviews at The Complete Review.

Author: Niccolò Ammaniti
Title: Let the Games Begin
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013, first published 2009
ISBN: 9781921758461
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: Let the Games Begin


  1. I loved this he captured that madness that money often brings to people ,many thanks for the kind mention ,all the best stu


    • It would make an amazing film.


      • Yes I hope some does make it to a film


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