Jacqui reviews Ten by Andrej Longo

ten Andrej Longo

Jacqui is back again to review Ten for the Shadow IFFP Jury

Ten by Andrej Longo
Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis

Andrej Longo’s Ten consists of a series of hard-hitting short stories set in Naples. Each story takes one of the Ten Commandments as its theme and we see regular working-class people struggling to get by in the face of temptations and challenges that come their way.

In the first story we meet a teenage boy who wants to keep his head down and stay on the right side of the tracks. But he gets caught up in trouble during a night out with his girlfriend, the consequences of which will set his life on a different trajectory. Another story centres on a talented singer who becomes too ambitious and greedy. We follow his rise and fall into a life of drugs and debt – in the end his only way out is to become a guinea pig, thereby enabling his dealer to test the safety of each batch of coke:

I get off at the terminal. I lean on the wall to stop myself from falling and drag myself to where there’s an open space. I sit down in the sun or the rain, it’s all the same to me, and I wait, leaning against a pillar, like the others. I wait for them to bring the syringe, already filled, look for a vein that still has room, and put the needle in. And they wait to see the effect it has, and whether you live or die. (p. 34-35)

The mafia are never very far away — to the fore in some stories, in the background in others — and we see how people have grown accustomed to living their lives under this shadow:

Maybe Ricardo was right. Maybe like he said, to avoid asking myself too many questions, I’d stopped taking any notice of what was happening around me, the mountains of rubbish in the street, the murders, the bag snatching, the parking attendant who asks for money even when there’s a meter. I’d got used to keeping my eyes down to avoid trouble, paying so that I could drive my lorry in peace, without them slashing the tyres or breaking the windows. Maybe it was it was like he said but I didn’t want to admit it. (p. 113)

All this might sound rather grim, but some of these stories capture moments of love and longing. In one of my favourite stories from the collection, ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’, a woman longs to spend a Sunday with her husband but is unable to because her man can only find work in Rome. He returns on a weekly basis, but always Tuesdays, never at the weekend:

We’d been living like this for thirteen years. Seeing each other only on Tuesdays. Just so we could pay the mortgage and provide for the kids as they grew. But now the mortgage was almost entirely paid off. And the kids were grown. They were working now, making a living for themselves. I know there’s never enough money. But I could look for a job. Anything. Just as long as he came home in the evening and slept in our bed. Just as long as we could spend one Sunday together every now and again. Go for a stroll somewhere, without counting the hours, without feeling that time was slipping through our fingers. A Sunday together like everybody else. (p. 50)

Longo is a critically-acclaimed writer of short stories as well as pieces for the theatre, radio and cinema. When he isn’t writing, Longo works as a pizza-maker in the city of Naples and he draws on his understanding of the city to great effect in this collection. He takes us through the backstreets and clubs of the city, into the homes of its inhabitants and in doing so gives us a real sense of the place, its culture and social landscape. Knives and guns seem common place here and it’s an environment where kids and teenagers often have to grow up ahead of their time to survive.

Stu has already talked about how this collection illustrates what great short stories can do; they give us a slice of the world as we glimpse people for the briefest of moments. One of the things I liked about these stories was their directness and raw honesty. Longo’s prose is quite stripped back but he quickly creates a sense of tension and atmosphere as he pulls us into these individuals’ lives.

I also liked the shifts in tone, mood and pace across the stories. We experience flashes of violence, situations with a pulsating sense of urgency, but there are times when the pace shifts down a gear as characters reflect on their regrets, their hopes and fears.

One of the reasons I wanted to get involved in shadowing the IFFP was to discover exciting examples of world-lit with a real sense of place, fiction that vividly captures the voice and the essence of a specific location and/or culture. And that exactly what Ten delivers.

Ten is one of three collections of short stories longlisted for this year’s IFFP. The other collections are Revenge by Yoko Ogawa and The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (and one could also argue that Andrei Makine’s Brief Loves That Live Forever reads as a series of interlinked stories). As for Ten’s chances in the IFFP, I’m at the halfway point in reading the longlist so it’s a little difficult to tell at this stage…but it’s an excellent collection of stories and one which I’m very glad to have discovered.

Ten is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.
Source: personal copy

My review of Ten 

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Ten by Andrej Longo

ten Andrej Longo

Ten by Andrej Longo

Italian short stories

Original title Dieci

Translator – Howard Curtis

Source – review copy

Andrej Longo was called Andrej after a character in War and peace ,he studied in Bologna .Before writing he had worked as a lifeguard ,waiter and  cook .He published his first book in 1992 ,Ten is his fourth book ,it won the Prize Bagutta in Italy .He  has also written plays and  for radio and television .

I used to have dark, smouldering eyes and a tenor voice .and when I sang people got cold shivers even if it was forty degrees .At first I sang in church ,during the mass ,or else at christenings ,and at Christmas and Easter .They used to say I was an angel sent from heaven ,nobody in the neighbourhood had ever heard a voice like that before ,with that voice I had to be an angel of God

the opening of the story thou shalt not take the lord thy god in vain ,a singer has high hopes .

Ten is a collection of ten short stories that are based around the Ten commandments and set in the working class underbelly of Naples .The stories all in theme follow the actual commandment the are based on .A singer tries to become more than he is which is a wedding singer release and album but then starts on a slippery slope of decline in his fame and starts using drugs (this one remind me so much of those singers caught up in the reality shows in the uk and how sometimes there dreams turn sour ) this story was used to illustrate the commandment thou shalt have no other god .So we see a man on the run with his son  for the commandment thou shalt not Kill .A man in a Ferrari is killed by three men to demonstrate the commandment Thou shalt not covert thy neighbours property .

Tell him now ,I thought .But it wouldn’t come out .

Tell him now.But I didn’t say anthing .

“How old are you ?” He asked.

“Fourteen next month “.

“And what could possibly be upsetting you at the age of fourteen “?

“I….

I took a deep breath .

“I’m three-month pregnant “I blurted out .

The priest sigh

“Who’s the baby’s father ?”

A young daughter has something to tell but who is the dad ?

As you see compelling stuff ,I was reminded of the other great Italian writer of the underbelly of Italian Life Leonard Sciasscia  his Scilly is here replaced by Naples ,I read wine dark sea  by Sciasscia and was reminded of those stories in these stories,as they are  not exactly to do with the Mafia ,but they show the violent undercurrent than can run in so many large Italian cities especially in the poorest parts of these cities. they are t he same people  that, crop up in the true life stories of both Petra Reski and Roberto Saviano .These stories also show what great short stories can be and  that is a slice of the world, with  a bare frame-work of facts and  how the characters are  ,but we see people lives for the briefest moment .So we meet the parents want a better life for their kids ,the brothers standing up for one another ,a daughter with a huge secret .And through these Naples comes alive in these pages not the one you see on the holiday shows or the umpteen travelogue shows their seems to be on tv these days ,no this is the Jeremy Kyle ,ASBO kids  ,chav of  italy  .We see the real town and yes  it is scary and wonderful painted in Longo’s words and yet again a wonderful translation from Italian by Howard Curtis surely one the hardest working translators around .

Have you a favourite Italian novel/ short story collection  that displays the underbelly of Italy ?

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