Ten

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Ten by Andrej Longo is the second of three short story collections long listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Longo is an Italian writer who specialises in short stories; this is his first collection to be translated into English (by Howard Curtis) but not his most recent. It is, however, attractive in its unity – if it were a collection of songs it would be described as a ‘concept album’. Not only does it contain ten stories, but each one is titled using one of the ten commandments which is then echoed in its theme.

The first story, for example, takes on ‘I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me’. As with all the stories, it is set in Naples, in what the blurb calls ‘the underbelly’ but which is simply where the poor reside: not all the characters are criminals. In fact, the narrator of the opening story has made a conscious decision to stay out of trouble:

“For the times we live in, I feel like a responsible guy. I’ve made up my mind I don’t want to end up like my dad, always in and out of prison.”

The God of the story is Giggino Mezzanotte who “runs things around here.” When the narrator and his girlfriend are threatened one Saturday night it is Mezzanotte who comes to the rescue; the narrator now no longer has a choice, he owes Mezzanotte:

“Come and see me tomorrow at eleven. You know where to find me, don’t you?”

Lack of choice is a recurrent theme, from the couple who only see each other on Tuesdays as the husband must work away to the girl being forced to marry a man she does not love.

Hope, however, is always present. The wedding doesn’t take place. A young girl who has to have an abortion after being raped still finds the strength to take control of her life. In ‘Thou shalt not kill’ a father takes his young son out even though he is clearly under threat:

“The two punks started walking in our direction… I put my hand under my T-shirt and placed it on the gun.”

The story ends with the father’s desire that life turnout differently for his son:

“My only hope was that he never became like me. My only hope.”

Despite their difficult lives, many of Longo’s characters resist the bleak fates that life seems to have in store for them. Bravest of all is the old man in ‘Thou shalt not steal’ but to say more would spoil the story. This is perhaps the only story where Longo’s ability to tread then line between realism and idealism takes a misstep, but I still loved the story.

In fact, I loved the book, and I felt it succeeded as a ‘concept’ – the commandments enhanced the stories (sometimes ironically) but never felt forced or necessary, and the stories also came together to present a picture of a particular place and time. I would be delighted if this made the short list.

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