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That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – February 27, 2007
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“The experimental masterpiece modern Italian literature has long been awaiting.… There is a kinship to Joyce, especially in Gadda’s inspired outbursts of comic invective, his ferocious Romantic humor.” —The New York Times
Text: English, Italian (translation) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Here's the problem: You have a typical literary crime novel drowning in what appears to be an encyclopedia. You have sprawling descriptions of cities, metal processes, historical respectives, a minor treatise of pastries, etc. And occasionally, there plot plods drunkenly on. It is so bad that the real investigation does not get underway until will into the second half of the book. Oddly, despite the piles of description in the text, you get no real sense for anyone in the book.
It reads like the Italian answer to Joyce's Ulysses only something of a story.
The sentences in this book are verbal labyrinths- by the time you finish a sentence, you forgot were it began and how it related to the sentence in front of it or how it related to the novel.
Here's an example of the actual text (and yes, this is one sentence):
"A majolica pan, as if from a clinic of the first category, was set on the brick floor, and not even near the wall: and neither did it lack some undeciphered content, on the consistence, coloration, odor, viscosity, and specific weight of which both the lynx eyes and bloodhound scent of Ingravallo felt that it wasn't necessary to investigate and analyze: the nose, of course, could not exempt itself from its natural functioning, that is from that activity, or to be more accurate, the papillary passivity which is proper to it, and which does not admit, helas, and interlude or inhibition or absence of any kind from its duty."
All that is too say: There's poo in the bucket and it smells quite bad.
If you're looking to read 300 pages of jammed meandering narrative like that above, this is the book. The jammed style isn't accidental, you get the feeling it is supposed to be humorous and makes typical references to the joys of a young buxom girls. The joke, however, becomes tedious within two minutes. And then you start wondering: Is this a joke? Was he getting paid by the word? Did the author enjoy peculiar snacks, such as mercury thermometers?
Gadda is firstly engineer and scientist; think of Primo Levi. But his training never soils his prose. Instead, you enjoy his talk of gems or physiology. For him, the novelist is sometimes capable of taking you into the real, or, because of extended narrative and plot, through the real. But at any moment he is capable of setting out before us the array of impinging forces on a given moment. His point will be set, then open, then closed again. We resolve nothing. So no ending can make any genuine sense. He bothers not with endings. Not just here, but as a matter of an artist's course.
What better vehicle, then, could there be for such a writer who mixes stone and blood, than a murder mystery? It is perfect because it is nonsense in this context. How could any writer bring off a worthy mystery in this wacky cosmology? So forward he goes, which is the smile of his plunge.
The murder mystery is the perfect anti-solution, where we all focus upon the puzzle without seeing the very structure of the puzzle. Brilliant. Ecco borrowed this move for his own superb murder mystery. This is Gadda's level of humor, and humor in the un-funny sense, too. He paints real layers on a fake canvass. He writes phenomenology across the shroud of our past certainties. And he does it well. The story is never subordinate to his world vision. Here he breaks our models of imagining only orderly thought. He cannot help but collide with the political.
Yet he keeps faith with the tradition of literature, and of human culture. Therefore he brings to us his hero, Don Ciccio. Ciccio in Italian is not a proper name. It is a fun name because of the sound. And so he is. Not a proper detective, but a fun one. He is as far away from Roma as Gadda was. Ciccio is as far, culturally, from the Roma of 1926 as could be. So Gadda locates him in the Molise, where standard Italian never had been known.
Now Gadda lets the gatto out of his bag. He has Ciccio say for him, "...unforeseen catastrophe are never the consequence of the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool...towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed..."
Quite a belief for a mere detective. How could you catch a perpetrator with such a method in your mind? As if anticipating the very question, Gadda has Ciccio respond "We must reform within ourselves the meaning of the category of cause." Good Luck, my little neo-Kantian.
Like trying to be such a detective as Ciccio is, the whole project of this translation is equally hopeless. Gadda can never attain an appeal equal to his equals because of his dedication to fixedly capture the vanishing dialects of his day. At least, culturally, for the curious or serious reader, the attendant cultural references are thickly planted.
The form of the mystery is a clever conveyance for this novel. It brings Gadda's work into high relief, high contrast. Gadda writes the form of the novel because it alone can bring to light what no other form can do for these ideas. You cannot sculpt or paint them. They move to develop, and are realized, only in the forth dimension -- time. Yet cinema is helpless for such a project. And it has been tried.
Gadda knows that without a cracking good story (he picks a true story for his ephemeral anchor), well told, the whole enterprise is hollow, an echolalia the likes of Fox News.
He writes of people as he does of the scenery against which we see them act. His inner monologue of each character has clear voice, and is in clearer contrast to the spoken voice we read in their dialogues. Gadda fires on all cylinders.
His device of the apartment house is effective in focusing the action, while compartmentalizing both the unfolding of the plot, and of the characters, each in a little cell. As is his physical model, which we have so often seen in the Ptolemaic toy, so is his meat-physical model the novel, his humaniverse. Everybody gets into the act. Via Merulana is on that busy inner city street between Saint John Lateran to the southeast and stopped at the opposite end by Santa Maria Maggiore.
But he chose this street because it echoes the ancient road of that name. This is how Gadda funnels in all the past into the already crowded present. All history and clans flow this way in, impossible to escape or divert. Thus is Destiny's "field of forces" piped into "a historic predisposition" for disaster. Nota bene, Gadda does not say "pre-ordained". Destiny is different from fate. He sees more a vision of converging probabilities, each maintaining its own twisted chord into the vortex.
Gadda, soon enough for mystery readers, settles into the best business, the narrative. Again, as a murder mystery demands of me, I could have referred to it as a plot. Yet it is only in form, but the writing itself can stand completely alone. Once Gadda has made his prologue which bleeds into the story, he frees himself to get on with a good story.
Gadda would not be himself without thumbing his nose at the fascists. He slings fragrant dung at the New Order. He thumbs his nose at the morality of the state rag publications. He even laments the comparative beneficence of the good old yellow journalism of the recent past. At least they pandered instead of splayed for murderers.
I am happy the New York Review Of Books has chosen this to revive. Please understand, readers, that this edition has an intrepid translator, William Weaver. He includes essential footnotes.