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Carlo Emilio Gadda: Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana)

Italian critics have claimed this novel as the Italian modernist novel, their response, if you will, to Joyce, Musil and even Kafka. While that might be something of an exaggeration, the book is certainly a very fine one. It is not very well-known in the English-speaking world, not least, I suspect, because, like Joyce and others, it is probably very difficult to translate. Like many other modernist works, language is a key element in the book. Gadda uses what is known as a macaronic style. He uses standard Italian, indeed a very educated Italian, replete with throwaway lines in Latin, Greek, English, French and German. However, he mixes this Italian with various dialects. The main character is from Molise, so his dialect is used, as is the Naples dialect of Fumi, another police officer as well, of course, as Roman dialect, as the story is set in Rome. These dialects are used not only in the dialogue but also in the narration. Having read this book in Italian, I do not know how they are handled in English but it wouldn’t have been easy. Other modernist features include the use of a city (or, in this case, a small part of a city) as one of the characters. While Musil used Vienna as a key character in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) and Joyce used Dublin as a key character in Ulysses, so Gadda has used a small part of Rome as one of the characters. This is not the Rome that tourists see but a district where Romans live and work.

The theme of the work is outlined very early on (it is on the second page in my version). Sosteneva, fra l’altro, che le inopinate catastrofi non sono mai la conseguenza o l’effetto che dir si voglia d’un unico motivo, d’una causa al singolare: ma sono come un vortice, un punto di depressione ciclonica nella coscienza del mondo, verso cui hanno cospirato tutta una molteplicità di causali convergenti. [He maintained that unexpected catastrophes are never the consequence or effect of a single cause but are like a whirlwind, an area of cyclonic depression in the world, which have been brought about by a whole range of convergent causes.] In other words, in life as in many modernist novels, things are complicated, disordered and not easily linked to a single cause or solution. Though the novel is nominally a detective novel, it is definitely not your standard, detective-sifts-through-clues-and-works-out-which-ones-are-relevant-and-which-ones-red-herrings-and-solves-the-crime detective novel.

The hero is Francesco Ingravallo, a police officer, known as Don Ciccio (ciccio means podgy, chubby). He is educated and a thinker and an experienced officer. At the start of the novel he has dinner with a couple of friends, Remo and Liliana Balducci. Ingravallo clearly likes Liliana, though it is never made entirely clear if this is sexual or merely a respect for her as a person. A few weeks later, he is sent by his boss to investigate a burglary and he recognises the address as the apartment building where the Balduccis live. It seems that a widow, Signora Menegazzi, has been robbed. Apparently, the robber had knocked first on the Balduccis’ door. Liliana was having a bath so she did not answer, so he knocked on Signora Menegazzi’s door. When she answered, he forced his way in and stole her jewels and some cash, before running off. As he had a hat pulled down over his eyes and was wearing a scarf, she was unable to identify him. After having discounted the local butcher boys, who visited a neighbour, Commendator Angeloni, on a regular basis, Ingravallo goes further afield. While he is investigating three days later, he gets a call about a further crime in the building. Liliana Balducci has been found stabbed to death. Ingravallo is horrified, particularly when he sees the corpse, though his colleague sees her severed arteries as red noodles (the pasta theme is used throughout the book).

There are initially three suspects. The first is the husband, who is away on business, but he is eliminated once he returns. The second is the aforementioned Commendator Angeloni but there seems to be no reason to connect him to this crime. Finally there is Giuliano Valdarena, Liliana’s cousin, who discovered the body. When jewellery and money belonging to Liliana are found in his apartment suspicions are further aroused but he claims that she gave them to him and that that they were having an affair, though that does seem wishful thinking on his part. Things get messier when we learn about her legacies to some of the local girls whom she looked after (apparently she could not have children or, at least, her husband could not father any). As the title implies, things get messier and the more that he looks into the matter, the more he (and we) realises that there is not going to be an easy solution or, indeed, any solution at all.

The book was set at the beginning of the Fascist era and Gadda is clearly showing, with the messy plot, the messy investigation and the mixing of language and dialects, that life was messy at that time. It definitely works as we follow along with Ingravallo, an intelligent, educated and rational man, who has realised that the world he is dealing with is anything but rational and ordered. I don’t think that this work is at the same level as Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) or Ulysses but it is still a very fine novel that deserves to be better known.

Publishing history

First published 1957 by Garzanti
First published in English 1965 by George Braziller