“Parallel worlds of cruelty in I’m Not Scared“, Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works Notes, 2017)
In I’m not Scared, Niccolo Ammaniti explores the corruption of the adult world through the eyes of the nine-year old narrator, Michele Amitrano, who chances upon a kidnapped child left to rot in a dilapidated house. The story charts Michele’s descent into the adult world of cruelty, greed and corruption and his subsequent dilemma.
Throughout the novel, Ammaniti parallels the childhood and the adult worlds to focus on the nature of evil and the possibility of goodness. Neither worlds, he suggests, are innocent. In fact, challenging stereotypes of children as innocent and naïve, he shows their equal capacity for deceit and cruelty. From the initial childish games of Salvatore Scardaccione’s (Skull’s) childhood gang to which Michele belongs, to the cruelty of the adult world, Ammaniti suggests that we all have a capacity to do irreparable harm to each other. Ammaniti suggests that when both worlds forfeit an intuitive capacity for moral kindness and compassion, all members of the group suffer. Without a moral beacon, and without the barriers of conscience, people become capable of untold violence and cruelty against each other. In such a world, a father is capable of killing his son – perhaps with or without his knowledge.
As a nine-year-old child, Michele champions all that is idyllic about childhood; the love and the innocence, the friendship and the fun. He cares for his sister and is protective and spontaneously sympathetic towards Filippo. In fact, it is his strong sense of duty and loyalty that embroils him in a terrible dilemma.
Michele’s carefree world is shattered when he becomes involved in a deadly game of “dare”. Ammaniti depicts Michele as one who is prepared to confront Skull’s authority and risk exclusion. This foreshadows his eventual challenge to his father and predicts his courage. Michele is not one to readily submit to the unjust authority of others.
As the leader of the children’s gang, Skull insists on unquestioned obedience and sees himself as the undisputed leader. He is cruel and viciously humiliates Barbara because of a sense of power over others. He is sadistic, thuggish, violent and threatens others through the use of violence and exclusion. He “revels” in her embarrassment when he makes her show her “tits” then her “slit”. He tells her to “pull down your trousers. That’ll teach you to fuck me around.”(20) Previously Barbara embarrassed Skull and made him look foolish, so he deliberately victimizes her in front of the gang members. Barbara tries to be resilient, and clings to her pride and dignity. She refuses to cry when he slaps her face for not getting his own way.
Michele stands up for Barbara and “plays the hero” (22) just as he will defend Filippo’s rights in the end. Ammaniti suggests that if someone does not protect the humanity of others, and their right to dignity and freedom, then the world will degenerate into savagery. Gaining the “forfeit”, Michele has to scramble up to the first floor of the house, jump out of the window and climb down the tree (22). Idyllic and simple, Michele’s childhood is disrupted by the discovery of the emaciated boy who appears dead.
One of Michele’s biggest fears arises from his encounter with death and decay. His fears begin to manifest when he stumbles across the apparently dead body of a child during their childhood adventure. “I must pluck up the courage and look”. Even though the distorted image created by his imagination gripped his “testicles with an icy hand”, Michele’s courage continuously brings him back to the body.
The discovery of the “dead” body in the large hole becomes a trigger for Michele’s fears that define him in increasingly moralistic and repulsive ways. The discovery of the boy’s body awakens his conscience because he instinctively feels that it is shrouded in injustice. The fact that the hole is a “couple of metres wide” and “two and a half metres” deep is enough to trigger the feeling that something is sinister, as symbolised by the darkness and the secrecy. Seeing the body move, Michele becomes increasingly anxious. He thinks he sees a “slight movement of the arm”.
Not only is this Michele’s first encounter with a dead body – apart from his grandmother’s – but his conscience is awakened. This is evident through the biblical imagery. In his nightmare, he recalls that Jesus told Lazarus “to rise and walk, but Lazarus didn’t rise”. Instead, Lazarus was defiant because he “wouldn’t come back to life”. Evidently, Michele is traumatized by the body that moved and he is unable to ascertain whether he is dead or alive, and what he should think or feel. The command, “leave the dead alone” leaves him covered in sweat. His fears soon takeover, because he is unable to follow a dictate that undermines his conscience.
Over time, Michele befriends and nurtures the boy. Ironically, despite his fears he tries to show that he is not scared. He tries to show the strength and conviction that lead to the discovery in the first place, when he defies Skull in order to protect Barbara from humiliation.
Michele’s fears emerge in the form of nightmares. Trolls, witches, “hunchbacked and wrinkled” bogeymen and fairytale monsters plague both his imagination and disturb his sense of reality. Stalking him in his sleep and on his trips to the mountain, he feels paranoid. Nevertheless, he defies his fears of monsters when his courage and imagination take him to the role-playing of his comic book hero, ‘Tiger Jack’. Michele quickly learns of the corruption in the adult world, and that “it’s men you should be afraid of, not monsters”.
Although we all experience fears and difficulties growing up, Ammaniti suggests that often our fears or the way we cope with our fears define us as people. The way we respond to our fears will have lasting consequences. Some withdraw, some become anxious and some become constantly fearful. For those of us who can stand their ground, confront their demons and learn to conquer their fear, there is a chance to develop strength and resilience.
However, what if the demons are simply overwhelming? What if there is no easy resolution or no easy course of action? It is a mark of Michele’s courage and strength that he does seek to confront his fears once he knows that the father is the “bogeyman”.
Michele’s childhood world transforms from a fairytale to a nightmare as the troubling signs of Papa’s complicity become evident. Michele suspects that the saucepan and apple belonged to Papa. Filippo’s exercise book is found in the old man’s suitcase. In this regard, the author subverts the purpose of the fairytale as a cautionary tale – in this story there is no happy ending. IN this case, there is no happy ending and the monsters are not so easily defeated.
Michele’s fears are exacerbated by the knowledge of corruption in the adult world. At first sight of Sergio, Michele senses that this man is pure evil. As Michele lay in bed, he instantly lost concentration when Sergio walked in the room. With the help of his courage and a dash of curiosity, Michele discovers that Sergio’s intentions are clear, as he finds the gun next to Filippo’s exercise book. Michele’s fears further escalate when he discovers that even his parents are involved in the plot.
Ammaniti depicts an adult world that represents unbelievable cruelty against mankind. The fathers exploit and humiliate a small innocent boy because of their own desire for revenge.
Filippo is kept in a very cruel condition. He is covered in his own bodily waste. He is starving; they threaten to cut off his ear. In this regard, Felice is more cruel and coercive than Skull. As Ammaniti suggests, when the adult world is devoid of moral leadership, the father is capable of killing his son – with or without his knowledge.
As Ammaniti suggests, whenever our role models, such as our parents or figures in a position of authority fail us, there are serious consequences for our sense of self, our confidence and our pride and dignity. Such a failure threatens our moral stability and our value system and leads to confusion. Moral ambiguity haunts Michele: “Papa is the bogeyman. By day he was good, but at night he was bad.” (87) Papa exploits the situation to improve his family’s standing in life and to find a better life for his children. Initially, he believes he can buy Michele with the promise of a better life, and with the gift of the most beautiful bike in the store.
“Papa is the bogeyman”. Michele fears his father because he tells him to betray his friend, Filippo. “By day he was good, but at night he was bad.” Such moral ambiguity tears Michele’s world apart and leads to a personal crisis. Papa’s “voice” should be the voice of morality, righteousness and good conduct. Instead the “voice” becomes a warning of danger and violence. “If you go back there they’ll kill him. They’ve sworn it.”
This paternal order contradicts Michele’s promise to Filippo which haunts him. He feels compelled to return to save Filippo but he becomes overwhelmed by the monsters, which are linked to the old man, who has masterminded the kidnap. “I felt as if a thousand eyes were watching me.” He sees “earth giants”, which belong to the “lords of the hill”. At first, he submits to his father’s orders and temporarily betrays his friend.
We all experience dilemmas and obstacles when growing up. Some obstacles are more severe than others. How we confront and deal with these dilemmas is critical to our self-esteem and our confidence in ourselves and in the world. In this regard, Michele is placed in a moral dilemma between loyalty to his friend, which involves moral compunction and his duty and his promise to his father, which haunts his conscience. His father, who should be a rock of morality, guidance and honesty, becomes the voice of corruption.
In Michele’s case, he faces a dilemma that is practically impossible to solve. At the very least, he needs to take the least traumatic path. By choosing Filipo he maintains his promise. He can at least retain his dignity and confidence. He shames the father, and completely destroys their relationship, but perhaps he recognizes that it was always fragile from the moment he recognized that the father was involved.
However, in choosing to return to the hills, Michele shows enormous courage and defies his father in favour of his principles. He places himself in grave danger and is shot by his father.