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Niccolò Ammaniti on his new book and protagonist: 'I had actually fallen a bit in love with her'

In his new novel, Italian bestselling author Niccolò Ammaniti (56) wittily holds up a mirror to modern man. His protagonist, the wife of the Italian prime minister, is afraid of being blackmailed with a sex video. "I don't know if I would have the same courage as her in such a situation," he says.

Storytelling fun

With novels such as I pick you up, I take you away and I am not afraid writer Niccolò Ammaniti reached an audience of millions. For seven years, his many fans at The intimate life, but presumably the book will not disappoint them. In this novel, with themes of guilt, shame and fear, there is plenty to laugh at again thanks to Ammaniti's narrative pleasure, humorous tone and witty scenes. After his previous novel Anna (2016), he performs in The intimate life another female protagonist enters the scene. And what a one.

Wife of the Italian prime minister and voted the most beautiful woman in the world, Maria Cristina Palma is constantly in the spotlight. But despite a life of opulence, she is not happy. Her marriage is quenched and she has few intimates.

Moreover, her past is marked by loss: not only did she lose her father, mother and brother at a young age, moreover, she was widowed before the age of 30 when her first husband was killed in a serious car accident, which she herself did survive.

Not for nothing is she nicknamed Maria Triestina. And also Maria Dommetriena for that matter, because in public opinion, a woman who is so beautiful can never be intelligent.

When Maria sees her childhood sweetheart Nicola Sarti again after 20 her, a close friend of her brother, sexual tension returns to her life and her self-awareness grows. But when she suspects Nicola of trying to blackmail her with a sex video, she has to make drastic choices.

The spirit of Mary

"In many of my novels, a location formed the starting point for the story. With this book, the protagonist Maria Cristina was so strong that that location was actually her mind," Niccolò Ammaniti says from his home in Rome. "And that was a fascinating place.

I found myself in a jumble of thoughts, memories, fears, feelings and desires. Everything actually private, of everything you will never express on social media, which you won't tell your children, maybe not even your partner."

What fascinated you most about Maria Cristina as a character?

"Maria Cristina symbolises a certain type that you see a lot in our current society: someone who has a lot of success and is fully in the spotlight, for example on social media. Someone in such a role is forced to maintain that position. She lives in a world of likes and dislikes, and moreover in an age of knowledge and information, where everyone knows everything about each other.

Maria Cristina is so ashamed of that earlier video that she dares not tell anyone; not her husband, not her security guards. As a result, she lives in her own loneliness on a horrible time bomb. The thought that the most intimate aspect of her life might be shown open and exposed to the world terrifies her immensely. Public judgement can be very cruel. Numerous women - here in Italy at least - have committed suicide because a sex video or something similar was shared on social media. I really find that very intense."

Therefore, for that reason, was a female protagonist more suitable than a man?

"Yes. Even this second time, I still found it difficult to write from a female perspective, but also important, stimulating and challenging. Women are judged much more on their beauty than on their intelligence. This is really different for a man, even beautiful men. A beautiful woman must always try her best not to be mistaken for stupid. Women on the arm of famous men are often empty shells. Those men see them mainly as trophies, without knowing what content is behind them."

Fear and truth

A key phrase in the novel is: 'Fear ends where truth begins'. Maria Cristina experiences this first-hand when she allows herself to be interviewed on television and takes the risk that the video she so fears will be made public. Is the truth liberating?

"Yes. Where fear ends, truth begins. And where there is truth, there is no more fear, because it has then become redundant. Maria Cristina feels she is being blackmailed - whether it is really so or not makes no difference - and she ultimately believes that the truth is the only thing that can save her. What she does is very brave. Fortunately, something like this has never happened to me myself - I don't have a secret either - , but I don't know if I would have the same courage and determination as her in such a situation."

You yourself are a well-known Italian, and also married to an actress. How do you yourself deal with that contrast between public and intimate, inner life?

"I generally have a reclusive existence. I am very much on my own, which I need in order to write. For many people, social media is a new interpretation of their social life, but I consciously don't share much about my feelings or what I do. I look at it, but don't participate in it."

Less insecure

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of your debut as a writer. Has the place that writing holds in your life changed in those three decades?

"Yes. Since my first book Branchie [published in Dutch as Gill] everything has changed. I have become calmer and worry less about the outside world's opinion. That's the one good thing about getting older: I am no longer so insecure and need less confirmation. I feel freer and that makes writing easier. For example, I used to need a fixed location to work. Now I actually write anywhere and everywhere, from the train to the hospital. I don't need a safe place to write, the writing itself has become a safe place for me where I can go."

After getting so into the skin of this beautiful woman, was it difficult to let her go again?

"Yes! Honestly, I had fallen a little in love with her at the end. I had to let her go, but I do miss her."

Niccolò Ammaniti, The intimate life (336 p.), translated from the Italian by Etta Maris, Lebowski, €22.99

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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