Sunday, January 3, 2010

NYRB Challenge #17: A Modern Italian Classic. . .

The holidays have allowed me the time to endulge in a longer NYRB novel and so I picked up That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda, translated by William Weaver. While the title sounds like it could be a song written by Noel Coward, the style and subject matter certainly couldn't have. Weaver writes in his forward that for contemporary Italian literature, this novel, begun in 1946 and published in 1957, is held in the same high esteem as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Man Without Qualities. High praise indeed. It's certainly shorter than all three of these novels and while I haven't yet read Musil (it's on my list for 2010), That Awful Mess bears some narrative comparison with Joyce and Proust in how the particular story widens out to encompass, celebrate, condemn and satirize society as a whole.

The story is set in 1927 in the early years of Mussolini and opens with two crimes that take place on the same floor of a wealthy apartment building. First an elderly woman is robbed of money and her jewels. Then shortly after, her beautiful neighbour across the hall is found in a pool of blood with her throat cut. The murder victim is Liliana Balducci, a friend of Detective Francesco Ingravallo of the Homicide Division, who now is entrusted with finding her killer. But this is not your typical murder mystery, although a number of suspects are identified and questioned. Gadda instead uses the crimes as a premise for a detailed exploration of Italian society with its petty corruption, informers, and competitive jealousies between the police and the military. The death, while initially described in brutal detail, soon recedes into the background as each new clue becomes a convenient segue towards another exposition on character, society or history. The police are always rushing around on motorcycles, bicycles, carts or on foot. The prose is equally energetic and bawdy, with an extensive vocabulary, and Gadda shares with Joyce a peculiar interest in all things scatological. This is the type of novel where several pages are employed in describing the reaction of chickens to a train passing close by. His style can best be illustrated with an example, such as the following passage describing the once esteemed automobile belonging to the Chief of Police, now fallen on hard times:

So that everyone, now, in that car, political or non-political, stuck his head in unwillingly and a cautious shoe after the head, the other shoe still on the ground, and a suspicious, examining eye, nostrils the same: as if, from such muck, vapors could steam forth, conjunctive to the odor, pallors of lemures of more than one three-months' old dead infant, with the tail all coiled, and the little head of a donkey. Careful, frowning, uneasy. The idea that there had settled in the cloth (of the seats) some organic ejection of the more popularly known variety now obsessed every user; it made fearful the more cautious, and cautious even the bold and heedless, were there any. All of them hesitated a little (very little), scared, each, of his own basic decorum, that is to say the decorum of the seat, of the pants: those so dignified trousers, paid for in installments, month by month, in sums withheld from salaries, with the respective tightening of the belts of the same. Once stuck to the bottom, well, it's obvious enough, every least-deserved stain, in maculating the splendor like the most reputable spots of Father Secchi, stained the luminous rotundities of the photosphere.

It goes without saying that nevertheless, all the police still consider it a mark of prestige to be able to borrow and drive the car.

This novel had sections that sang with exuberance and wit, and others that I sometimes found a bit of a slog but that was no doubt due to my unfamiliarity with Rome, religious iconography and Italian history. Weaver does provide helpful footnotes along the way, especially for political references but he also acknowledges that a lot of Gadda's brilliance lies in language puns (similar to Joyce) that can't be translated, and his use of multiple dialects that don't resonate with non-Italians. However, I can still appreciate what an accomplished novel this is and both grin and grimace at the selfish and suspicious world it portrays where almost everyone is definitely guilty of something.

No comments: