In Lakhous’ (Clash of Civilizations over and Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, 2008) latest fiction, Christian Mazzari, a young Sicilian court translator, meets Judas.
This Judas is actually Captain Tassarotti from SISMI, Italy’s military intelligence service. The good captain wants Christian to go undercover and infiltrate Rome’s Viale Marconi, an ethnic Egyptian neighborhood, and particularly Little Cairo call center, supposedly linked to a bombing plot. Christian is perfectly qualified. He’s Mediterranean in appearance; his Sicilian grandparents were born in Tunisia; and he’s a language graduate of the University of Palermo who speaks fluent Arabic. Christian’s code name becomes Issa, Arabic for Jesus. Quite James Bond, but this isn’t a shaken-not-stirred-adventure. Though set against the backdrop of 2005’s manic phase of the War on Terror, the book is a wry study of modern multicultural Europe, a place where wary Muslim immigrants finagle Italian bureaucracy without offending the local imans or neglecting to send euros home. Lakhous’ narrative unfolds from two points of view. Christian/Issa copes with Judas’ unreasonable expectations, watches Al Jazeera religiously, shares an apartment with 12 immigrants and haunts Little Cairo. More interestingly, Safia, now Sofia, a spirited and somewhat independent young Egyptian woman, arrives in Rome after an arranged marriage with “the architect,” an Egyptian professional relegated to working as a pizza chef. Issa’s segments are observational, scattered impressions from a reluctant participant in operational snafu. Sofia offers chatty insights into an immigrant society tripping over religiosity and hypocrisy, spiced with lively opinions about veils, female circumcision, divorce, misogynistic interpretations of the Koran and her secret attempts to earn money of her own. That Issa and Sofia will meet is a given, as is their inevitable mutual attraction.
Social commentary as literature deftly translated from the Italian.