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Carlo Emilio Gadda: La cognizione del dolore (Acquainted with Grief; later: The Experience of Pain)

Though not published in book form till 1963, this book was serialised in a magazine between 1938 and 1941. It was never completed in the magazine and a longer edition, also never completed, was not available till it was published in book form. The story is set in South America where Gadda worked (in Argentina) as an engineer in the 1920s. The story starts just after a bloody war between the fictitious country of Maradagàl and its equally fictitious neighbour Parapagàl. Both sides have claimed victory and both sides have blamed the other for starting the war. We see the story from the Maradagàl side, as that is where the main character is from. However, though nominally in South America, it is clear that Maradagàl represents Italy and Parapagàl represents Austria, for this is a highly autobiographical novel. Both sides have been devastated by the war. Indeed, at the beginning we get a clear picture of the war wounded (and how badly they are treated). Gadda even pokes fun at the night police patrols which, contrary to regulations, are often manned by returned war wounded, who are really not competent to do the job. There is the cycling patrolman who has a leg he cannot bend, so he has to pedal with only one leg, the stiff one hanging down, not to mention the patrolman who is entirely deaf as a result of grenade explosion, who turns out not to be deaf and not to be who he says he is.

However, this story is essentially about the Pirobutirro family and its two surviving members, the forty-year old neurotic, anti-social, greedy, misanthropic, hypochondriac engineer Gonzalo and his mother, Elisabetta, clearly based on Gadda and his mother, who had a very bad relationship. Elisabetta lives a very solitary life. Her younger son was killed in World War I (hence her acquaintance with grief) and Gonzalo often has to travel for work. When he does return home, he is not exactly good company and any visitors are chased away by Gonzalo. Gonzalo has a very bad reputation in the town and with the domestics – often angry, threatening his mother and generally being very cruel to humans and animals. He refuses to join the night police patrol association and begrudges paying any taxes. His refusal to join the association, which, of course, mirrors the Fascist Party in Italy and the consequences of refusing to join it, has consequences for Gonzalo.

The mother-son relationship, which Gadda has made very clear mirrors his own relationship with his mother, is the key part of the book but the character of Gonzalo is also what makes the book so fascinating. Literature is full of unpleasant people but Gonzalo must be one of the most unpleasant ordinary people in literature. He is even more interesting when we consider that the author is clearly basing the character on himself. Fortunately, this book has been translated into English by the first-class translator William Weaver. I have not read the English translation and wonder, indeed, how he coped as it has been said that it is one of the more difficult Italian novels to read for an Italian, as it is full of dialect and made-up words, both in Italian and Spanish and there were certainly few words I struggled with. Despite the fact that the book was not finished it is still very worth reading, as it is not the plot that matters so much as the character of Gonzalo and his relationship with his mother.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Einaudi
First published in English 1969 by George Braziller
Translated by William Weaver (Acquainted with Grief); Richard Dixon (The Experience of Pain)