"I'm Not Scared': the terror of truth

February 02, 2003|By Jan Winburn | By Jan Winburn,Sun Staff

I'm Not Scared, by Niccolo Ammaniti. Canongate Books. 200 pages. $23.

Children conjure dreadful things -- ghosts and ghouls, witches and werewolves. But rarely can they conceive of the cruelty of which humans are capable.

So how is innocence lost?

For Michele Amitrano, the 9-year-old narrator in I'm Not Scared, it unravels slowly in the punishing heat and boredom of the summer of 1978, in an abandoned farmhouse in the south of Italy, in a hole where he discovers a boy like himself and a monster he never imagined.

"It's men you should be afraid of, not monsters," his father has told him.

I'm Not Scared is a spellbinding novel, a searing portrait of childhood and a boy's struggle to accept the terrible truth that his own papa, and nearly every other adult in his tiny village, are party to a vile and grisly crime. They are the bogeyman come to life.

The author, 36-year-old Niccolo Ammaniti, is already a bright young literary star in his native Italy. This is his third novel and the first to be translated into English. In Europe, the book has sold 300,000 copies, and it appears in 20 languages. A movie version is scheduled to debut in February at the Berlin Film Festival.

Ammaniti is said to be a fan of American writer Stephen King, and comparisons have been made to King's work, especially The Body, on which the film Stand by Me was based.

Ammaniti's striking images are indeed cinematic: the countryside's shimmering heat, the waves of golden corn, the stench of the boy in the hole.

At first, Michele doesn't understand that he has uncovered a kidnapping. He thinks maybe the boy has been put there for his own protection. Or maybe he is dead.

Ammaniti presents it all through Michele's eyes, and his thoughts and actions seem dead-on. How would a boy perceive this discovery? Exactly this way:

"The dead boy's skin was dirty, caked with mud and shit. He was naked. About the same height as me, but thinner. He was skin and bone. His ribs stuck out. He must be about my age.

"I touched his hand with my toe but it remained lifeless. I lifted the blanket that covered his legs. Round the right leg he had a big chain fastened with padlock. The skin was scraped and raw. A thick transparent liquid oozed from the flesh and ran onto the rusty links of the chain, which was fixed to a buried ring.

"I wanted to see his face. But I didn't want to touch his head. It gave me the creeps."

Even with his short, punchy sentences, Ammaniti's prose is vivid and lyrical. And the pace of the book, just 200 fleeting pages, kept this reader on edge.

As the story races to its conclusion, Michele faces the reality that his family is involved in an incomprehensible cruelty. But Michele's own goodness is never in doubt. The reader comes to expect that this young boy, now almost a man, will risk his own safety to save the boy in the hole.

Michele does not disappoint.

And neither does Ammaniti. The book is breathless, and surprising, to the last word.

Jan Winburn is enterprise editor at The Sun, and has written for newspapers and magazines for more than 20 years. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Catonsville with her husband and daughter.

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