That Awful Mess on Via Merulana
by Carlo Emilio Gadda (Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, 1957)
translated from the Italian by William Weaver (1965)
NYRB Classics (2007)
388 pp

And now for my most rambling of reviews: if you make it through the post, maybe this is just the book for you!

I had no idea what the book was when I first saw That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. But I really like the NYRB Classics series, frequently scour bookstores for them, and the other day this particular selection intrigued me. I started it the same day I picked it out and bought it. Now, let me try to explain the result: imagine picking up Ulysses and beginning it on a whim with no knowledge about its contents, no knowledge that it was an experiment, no knowledge of the cultural backdrop — oh, and let’s say you speak only Italian and this book of English wordplay is an Italian translation! That is not too far from how I felt when I got into this book. Maybe I should have been clued in by the blurb on the back: “Italo Calvino, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alberto Moravia all considered That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana to be one of the greatest of modern Italian novels.” I should have known that when these authors and auteurs said “modern” they meant “modern” in its truly literary sense.

The basic plot of the book is deceptively straight-forward. Two crimes are committed in the space of just a few days on Via Merulana, a seedy street that is home to some fairly (again deceptively) normal characters. The first crime: someone steals the jewels from the widow, one of the occupants. Detective Ingravallo (or Don Ciccio, when you read this try to get the multiple names for each character straight as soon as possible), who has some friends in the tenement, investigates, and we get a comical scene when he interrogates the occupants. The next crime: someone murders another occupant, the lusted-after wife, while her husband is away. Ingravallo returns. Unfortunately, he is one of the ones who lusts after the wife, and he is friendly with her husband.

It is the time of Mussolini. Thousands of puns and references meant to mock Mussolini and the society he envisioned zipped past me, but not this little bit of tongue-in-cheek irony that perfectly describes the Via:

Crimes and suggestive stories had abandoned forever the Ausonian land, like a bad dream dissolving. Robberies, stabbings, whorings, pimpings, burglary, cocaine, vitriol, arsenic bought for poisoning rats, abortions manu armata, feats of pimps and cardsharps, youngsters who make a woman pay for their drinks — why, what are you thinking of? — the Ausonian land didn’t even remember the meaning of such things.

This clever detective story turns out to be loaded with Italian cultural references, dialects, and wordplay that I didn’t get. But that’s not the only thing that made it an obscure read: it’s also a philosophical novel that uses the wordplay and cultural references to go back and forth through the stratification of society to show just how complicated a seemingly simple interrogation should be:

He sustained, among other things, that unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence or the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed.

As difficult as it was, for much of it I was enthralled by the style. Here are two examples. In the first we get a sense of the sexual undertones of the novel: no interrogation goes very far before something sexual is brought up either directly or indirectly and no description of Rome, a city originated and sustained by the rape of the Sabine woman, gets by without some sexual reference either:

From time to time, from the great Ovary ripened follicles opened, like pomegranate seeds: and red grains, mad with amorous certitude, descended upon the city, to encounter the male afflatus, the vitalizing impulse, that spermatic aura of which the ovarists of the eighteenth century wrote their fantastic treatise.

This second example shows some of the other seductive qualities of the style:

At dusk, in that first abandon of the Roman night, so crammed with dreams, as she came home . . . there, from the corners of the buildings, from the sidewalks, tributes, individual or collective, blossomed in her direction, glances: flashes and shining youthful looks: at times a whisper grazed her: like a passionate murmur of the evening.

Ultimately, it is this very seductive quality that makes the book brilliant and horrid. In a way, Gadda is trying to portray, in the words of one of his characters, “a mute and desperate protest against the inhumanity, the cruelty of all organized investigation.” It is no joke that when I finished the book I felt a bit of release from a sickly seductive truth. These characters felt almost too real. I didn’t want to know more about them, not because they lived awful lives but because they were so normal in their disgrace. I can see several people reading this book and being driven to tears about their own lives. For example, throughout the book there is a recurring motive of infertility or being barren in general. The woman who is killed, though awfully beautiful, was almost stomach-churning in her longing for a child. And Gadda brings this away from that woman and makes it a general issue — constantly.

It gives way, one might believe, to a form of sublimated homoeroticism: that is to say, to metaphysical paternity. The woman forgotten by God — and Ingravallo now was raging with grief, with bitterness — caresses and kisses in her dreams the fertile womb of her sisters. She looks, among the flowers of the garden, at the children of others: and she weeps.

Then there are the other characters: the one who’s ashamed of living alone because he rather gluttunously stocks up on ham and doesn’t want people thinking he’s homosexual; the one who believes that her boyfriend’s abuse is really just between the two of them; the ones who allow themselves to get sucked in to the pity of the woman who gets killed. These are so subtly drawn out that they feel like they are under the surface of the reader’s conscience and not the characters’. Or, and I can’t remember this happening to me in literature before, it felt like I was discovering the shames of a close family member, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it still. Perhaps it will due to compare it a bit to Dante’s Inferno or, and maybe I’m doing the book a disservice here, the movie Seven: an exaggerated, attractive and sickening, stylish trudge through the worst of our carnality.

I don’t know what techniques Gadda used to achieve this effect. During these parts of the novel I was not paying attention to his style, which rolled me through pages and pages quicker than I’ve ever moved before; I was paying attention to the discomfort I felt. I loved it even while I looked forward to the release.

The downside of this book is that these passages, while mercifully limited, are detracted from by long diversions into Gadda’s philosophy, or rather the way Gadda expresses his philosophy. This book is not, after all, a real detective novel. Surprise! It’s more a novel about the elusive nature of truth, shifting motives, how all facts lead to other things which then lead to other things. There is a part, for example, just when you think the detective is going to discover something important, Gadda instead diverts the focus on a defecating chicken. I got the point, but it made it hard to stay focused on the matter at hand.

Furthermore, this is a book about Rome and Mussolini. In the middle of an interrogation someone would look out the window and I’d get launched into a paragraph that runs several pages on Roman streets or on Mussolini’s Italy. And I simply could not follow all of that, as much as I’d have liked to. Weaver has included a few footnotes throughout to help elucidate some of the more obscure references to Mussolini, but shamefully I admit I need help even on the clear references.

And as if that weren’t enough, Gadda is constantly fooling around with words. Some of it is both obscure, vulgar, and beautiful:

With his toothless grin, with that latrine-like breath that distinguishes him, Common Sense was already mocking the story, wanting to laugh, swine-like, in Don Ciccio’s face, spit the round no of the smart-ass at his mop of a police dog not yet named cavaliere. But Thought will not be prevented: he arrives first. You can’t erase from the night the flash of an idea: of an idea, slightly dirty, then . . . You can’t repress the ancient Fescennine, banish from the old earth fable, its perennial Atellan: when aloft, happy and wicked, swirls of laughter from peoples and from the soul: just as you cannot charm away the individual aroma from thyme or horsemint or origanum: the sacred odors of the earth, of the barren mountain, in the wind.

And other parts simply don’t come off in English. For example, here is a footnote Weaver dropped after “Light and Toe”:

• This whole passage is underlined by an untranslatable play on the similarity of two words, la luce (light) and l’alluce (big toe).

And indeed, throughout this passage are apparently brilliant plays with light and toes, but it doesn’t come off well in English. Of course, this is no failing of the author, the book, or the translator. And at least I could hypothesize about the fun.

Besides footnotes by Weaver, I relied heavily on Calvino’s introduction. It helped me understand what I was reading and why it was going that direction several times. But this is an introduction with a double edge. At the same time that it helped me delve into the novel more deeply, it also discloses the state of the ending. That made me not pay as much attention to some intricate points. So read the introduction at your own risk, though I recommend it.

In the end, I have to thank my long commute for getting me through this book. I don’t think I would have been able to get through some of the longer diversions if I had anything else to do besides sit on a train. And when I say “thank my commute” I mean that I am grateful — I am glad I got through this book and was paid off for my time in it. It’s one of those I’m glad I read and I hope to revisit someday — in the far future.

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