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.
Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this collection: Stu, Bellezza, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Stu’s blog (20th March 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.
Ten is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.
Source: personal copy.