Skip to main content

Cornell University

The Reading Project

In the summer of 2014, Cornell’s new students will be reading Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. Published in Italy in 2008, and translated and published in English in 2010, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio is a cosmopolitan, intercultural murder mystery narrated by the various unique, idiosyncratic, often comically outspoken residents of a modern apartment building in the center of Rome.

Chapter by chapter, each character’s testimony adds to a contradictory, colorful story of personal struggle, ethnic identity, marginality, prejudice, and preconception—so that no one’s perspective is finally reliable. Even Amadeo, the character whose journal entries link the chapters into a common story, and whose balanced appreciation for all his neighbors seems to reflect a broader wisdom, is engaged in his own sad subterfuge. As the investigation of the murder uncovers the true criminal, to the reader and the characters together, comedy and tragedy mesh in a vivid imaginative rendering of cultural difference and interconnection.

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio conveys the global perspectives of immigration and exile, using narrative unreliability as a way of translating preconception and prejudice into a newly realistic empathy for the marginal, cosmopolitan populations of the world’s major urban centers. Lakhous’s characters stereotype each other and themselves so colorfully and paradoxically that their collective portrait becomes a warm, vital picture of the modern city, animated by the “clash of civilizations” in every elevator, in every dwelling and on every street. For Lakhous this “clash” is our best hope for wisdom and understanding: “The worst that can arise between two societies is indifference. [R]oads with intersections produce surprises and reveal new routes to travel down. That is how genuine understanding and wisdom is born.”

Amara Lakhous published an early version of Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio in Arabic as How to Be Suckled by the Wolf and Not Get Bit. Lakhous, himself an immigrant from Algiers, promises to compose his next novel in Italian. Of his own multi-lingual writing, he says “I have always refused to take part in any feud between languages.” Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio is Lakhous’s second novel. The novel has been recognized by the prestigious Flaiano and Racalmare-Leonardo Sciascia awards in Italy, and by Algeria’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix des libraires Algeriens; it is a European best-seller and has recently been produced as a film by director Isotta Toso.

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in the Piazza Vittorio generates a range of engaging topics for discussion and exploration, including emigration and immigration, ethnic stereotyping, cosmopolitan culture and literature. It explores cultural difference through evocations of cuisine, custom, religion, politics, class, language, profession, and even pet-keeping. And the novel contributes to ongoing debates around the status and the future of the immigrant in a global economy.

At orientation in August, 2014, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio will be the subject of discussion in small Reading Project Seminars led by faculty and staff, required for all new Cornell students. Continuing during the year, on North Campus, Faculty-in-Residence and Faculty Fellows affiliated with the residence halls will offer special events connected to themes from Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. These events will allow students to explore a wide range of ideas and cultural issues with faculty and students from colleges and schools across the university.

–Laura Brown, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education