Down with the street kids

7 months ago 82

“My book”, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–75) wrote to his prospective publisher in 1955, “follows the arc of Rome’s postwar years, from the hopeful chaos of the early days of the liberation to the reaction of 1950–51.” Pasolini was referring to his debut novel, Ragazzi di vita, which came out that year. Another of his novels, Teorema (1968) – the film of which also appeared in 1968 – serves to extend that arc from Italy’s “economic miracle” of the 1950s to the turmoil of the late 1960s, which set the scene for the anni di piombo (“years of lead”), an era that eventually crushed him.

To begin at the beginning – the characters of Ragazzi are street kids whose “passage … from childhood to early youth” spans the narrative, which grew out of three short stories into eight loosely linked chapters. Introducing his new translation, Tim Parks remarks on the book’s title: donna di vita means “prostitute” in Italian, he explains, wondering whether Pasolini might have meant “call boys” or “hustlers”. “Ragazzo di vita” has also been used in reference to the teenager who was picked up by Pasolini on the night of his death in 1975 and later confessed, not very convincingly, to having killed him. (More likely several people were involved in a brutal murder that has been linked to the mafia.)

Out “to defy the world in general”, the ragazzi speak in Roman dialect, which, Parks reminds us, Pasolini perceived “as the only ‘revenge’ of the common people”, the “depository”, in Pasolini’s words, “of a view of life that is … virile: uninhibited, vulgar, cunning, often obscene, free from any moral ballast”. Seeing no point in transplanting this language into a culturally connoted soil, Parks goes “for a mix of the fiercely colloquial and the evocatively literary that is as generic and non-place-specific as possible”. The approach pays off. His notes are mostly informative, by turns helping us to navigate Roman topography or flagging the possibility that, for these boys, “money could be come by more easily by soliciting sex than by engaging in armed robbery”.

The narrative arc, as Pasolini promised, is more about the city, a place always ready to show its hostile face, than about its inhabitants, whose stories are sketched in neorealist scenes that could be easily spliced into his first feature films, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962). Boys Alive, too, features poverty and injustice; the author, to quote another of his letters, feels “love and compassion for my poor protagonists”; yet instead of class consciousness, another neorealist theme, we get stealing and whoring. Though Pasolini was forced to make changes to the original version, the publication still led to an obscenity trial, and the alleged contenuto pornografico ensured the book’s popularity. Later Italian editions still bear traces of censorship: “Vaffan … mannaccia a d…!” Parks deftly fills in the gaps, restoring to the dialogue such bits of colour as “Fuck and fuck”.

The first death occurs on page seven, and from then on the boys are never far from danger, which only emphasizes their vitality. The protagonist, Riccetto, finds funerals “so boring, but really, really boring”. When he saves a drowning swallow his friend says, “It was great watching it die!” A boy is tied to a “death stake” and set alight; a young man grabs a knife during a row with his mother; at any moment the violence can turn fatal. Accused of appropriating the misery of the marginalized, in 1958 Pasolini responded in an essay entitled “The Periphery of My Mind”: “By descending to a world which has historically and culturally been poorer than my own … I develop consciousness that justifies this process”.

The postwar years were a hungry time for many Italians, so food is always on the boys’ minds. One character has a face that first appears “red as a plate of pasta”, then becomes “no more than a piece of burnt meat”; another looks “long and white as a fillet of dried cod”; elsewhere we meet a couple with “a boiled fish of a face” and “a fried fish of a face”. Hunger is the kids’ city guide, since “out and about you always get a bite, stuck at home your mouth tastes shite”. When one of Riccetto’s gang, Marcello – hospitalized after the collapse of a school that was being used as family accommodation – leaves his food on the plate, we know he’s in a bad way. To deal with the housing crisis, Italy is busy building, a scenario shown here through a neorealist camera lens: “All around there was scaffolding, apartment blocks under construction, then open fields, junkyards, land set aside for new buildings”. Sleeping on a park bench is often better than going home, while boarding a tram full of people with money in their pockets can provide you with “cash that is the source of all pleasure and all happiness in this filthy world”.

The police find Riccetto asleep on his favourite landing and put him in a detention centre. When he comes out nearly three years later, in 1951, the collapsed school is “still no more than a heap of broken masonry”. Otherwise, some things have changed in Rome. Looking at an empty road along the Tiber, Riccetto remembers the days when “there would have been at least twenty young men, ready to sell themselves to whoever would pay, and the queers came by in droves, singing and dancing, the baldies and the peroxide queens, some of them very young, some very old, but all acting crazy, not the slightest bit worried about passersby”.

Pasolini moved to Rome in 1950 following a sex scandal that cost him his teaching job and membership of the Italian Communist Party. “Biographical need was combined with the particular tendency of my eros”, he later commented on his immersion in the world of “streetwise hoodlums”. For the novel’s characters, buying or selling sex is no big deal. “What the fuck did he … care about morality!”, we are told of Lenzetta – a kind of motto. One night the boy tries “to have” his sleeping brother (this is one of the scenes Pasolini had to rewrite, making Lenzetta sing loudly instead); the brother shoves him off; the next morning the two have a fistfight and life resumes its course. In the finale Riccetto is a “man of experience” with a job. “Now I’ll just go and see that asshole of a boss”, he thinks, “get him to give me my cash, eat, and after lunch do some living.” Before he can go ahead with this plan, he witnesses a fatal accident, which almost makes him cry, but doesn’t compel him to intervene – that would be “tantamount to saying you were tired of life”.

A century after Pasolini’s birth his art and fate continue to inspire books, investigative pieces, documentaries and, earlier this year, an opera. Nicola Lagioia’s fictionalized reconstruction of a murder case that shook Italy in 2016, La città dei vivi (2020; reviewed below), makes references to Pasolini’s ragazzi and to the spot where he met his alleged killer. In the anglophone sphere we have a new selection of his essays on art, Heretical Aesthetics, which its editors and translators, Ara H. Merjian and Alessandro Giammei, see as “an articulate image of what it meant to self-identify as a Marxist intellectual in Italy during the Cold War”. In his foreword T. J. Clark talks of Pasolini’s “passion for the local”, manifest in some of the featured pieces. “Observations on Free Indirect Discourse” (1965), for example, mentions a “new type of urbanism” that has little room for regional dialects. An accompanying note tells us that, in Pasolini’s view, “the writer does not simply represent his figures, but channels their consciousness to the point of a ‘lived imitation’, an ‘ironic mimesis’”. As Pasolini wrote in “The Periphery of My Mind”: “I consider my realism to be an act of love”.

The Renaissance painter Romanino, a marginal figure who worked in the genre of “obsessive experimentalism”, is the focus of a lecture Pasolini gave in 1965. The audience included the subject of another piece, “Renato Guttuso: 20 Drawings” (1962). “Lucky you”, Pasolini addresses the communist painter (his occasional collaborator). “Every time you raise a pencil or a brush, you always write in verse. A painter is a poet who is never forced by circumstance to write in prose …” One of Guttuso’s works closely examined here portrays workers resting by a construction site. “You understand”, Pasolini continues, “by virtue of charismatic experience (as a Sicilian, a son of the people, a man of the poor), the charge of their feelings and their physicality.” If Guttuso’s aesthetics can be contrasted with Pasolini’s own, it is Romanino, who “was what his culture did not allow him to be”, who provides a closer analogy. Pasolini the artist inevitably provoked anger from various quarters. “The questions of martyrdom”, the editors write, “seemed increasingly to bear upon his own physical experience” as he suffered both criticism in the press and neofascist attacks on his person in the street.

Clark evokes “the strange splendid world of neorealism” in his attempts to understand Pasolini’s relationship with painting in the 1950s. By 1968, the year of Teorema, however, Italy was tired of the movement, a reaction that the book’s anglophone translator, Stuart Hood (1915–2011) – writing in the introduction to his newly reissued translation of 1992 – saw as concurrent “with the realization that … the ideals of the Resistance were not going to be achieved”. There is little dialogue in the novel, but Hood’s translation confidently captures the author’s voice, with its director’s attention to physical arrangement: “he finds him stretched out on the ground with one hand under his neck and in the other a lit cigarette (lit with a slight abandon and a little wickedly) and with his legs spread wide apart”; “everything on the laid table could be a detail from a fresco”. Fresco is what Pasolini compared his film to when he wrote of painting it with one hand while working on the novel with the other. The book was well received; the film, with its nudity, caused another trial. As in 1955 (and on other occasions), Pasolini was acquitted.

The plot of Theorem (both the novel, Pasolini’s final work of fiction, and the film) is well known. A rich Milanese household is visited by “the guest”, who possesses “a beauty so exceptional as to have the effect of being in scandalous contrast to all the others present”. Everyone acts “with the same almost hysterical candour and the assent of an unfeeling animal” towards this guest, looking for salvation in physical intimacy with him, and he satisfies their “desire to be saved”. After he leaves they continue contemplating “a life whose meaning, having been deeply changed, now remains in suspense”. While the novel formally emulates a mathematical structure, with “data” and “corollaries”, Hood is right to ask: “What precisely is the theorem Pasolini is intent on demonstrating?” There is no definitive answer.

“Processions of Marxist mediocrities reassured the faithful that the filmmaker was a ‘bad Marxist’”, Clark comments in Heretical Aesthetics. “As if badness has not always been the point.” In Theorem Pasolini embraces his inner good Marxist-cum-Catholic, insisting that the bourgeoisie is doomed “to punish and destroy itself”. Thus, the father gives his factory to the workers; the mother loses herself in sex; the daughter is left in a catatonic state; the son tries art, “and he does not paint to express himself but probably only to tell everyone of his impotence”. (In the film these paintings were produced by Giuseppe Zigaina, another protagonist of Heretical Aesthetics.) The maid is the only one who ascends to heaven, but even so she remains “something codified, something that goes along with the actions of a motionless and blind sanctity”, before being buried at a construction site on the outskirts of Milan, a place much like the concrete jungle of postwar Rome.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s evolution as an artist over the years that passed between Boys Alive and Theorem is traceable in his films, essays, poems and fiction, yet it is his debut novel that leaves an especially vivid impression. Its most powerful scene unfolds in the hospital where Marcello ends up after his accident. He is in pain yet full of spirit; he talks enthusiastically about spending his “broken-rib insurance” on a bike. When his visitors realize that he won’t survive, Marcè, as they address him, finally notices the sad faces around him and asks his friends to tell everyone “not to be too upset!”. The vita of the title, as if reversing the dialectal pattern, extends into vitalità – a quality that needs no other proof.

Anna Aslanyan is a freelance journalist and translator. Her book Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the balance of history was published in 2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

The post Down with the street kids appeared first on TLS.

Read Entire Article