Italian Book #1: ‘That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana’ by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Unforeseen catastrophes are like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed

There is no doubt that reading a book in its original language is the best thing to do. Although it could be hard to understand, especially in a poem or in an old text, we avoid the risk to lose something in translation and we can appreciate more the style of the author. However, where this is not possible, not reading a foreign masterpiece at all would be a shame, especially if this has been properly translated.

An extraordinary novel by a special author

This is certainly the case of an Italian astonishing novel, ‘Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana‘ by Carlo Emilio Gadda, first published in 1957 and translated into English in 1965 by William Weaver. The author (1893-1973) was an engineer who had always maintained a certain distance from the literary world, despite his love for humanism. After volunteering in the World War I, he started studying Philosophy at the university but never got his degree.

His first novel is ‘La cognizione del dolore‘, an unfinished book written between 1938 and 1941. From out of those years, he engaged in literature and simultaneously developed cynycal and misanthropic behaviours, mainly caused by the collective fascination for the rising Fascist regime. The analysis of Fascism as an essentially bourgeois movement is the main theme of ‘Eros e Priapo’, written in 1945 but only published in 1967 due to the censorship, and is also one of the topics addressed in ‘Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana’.

Language innovation

The original title of the novel is in Roman dialect, becoming ‘That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana’ in English. In translating the title, Weaver immediately highlighted one of the most evident features of the novel. Indeed, there is a linguistic overlapping in which Gadda combines together standard and formal Italian language, dialects, Latin and different foreign languages and neologisms, giving rise to an extremely complex text. Moreover, the switch from one language to another is sudden and unexpected. The dialects, for example, are not exsclusively used by the characters in their dialogues, but it often contaminates the descriptions and the narrative parts of the text.

Chaotic language, chaotic World

For Gadda, this linguistic style reflects the chaotic structure of the World and, in particular, of the 20th Century. It is impossible to keep reality in order because it is intrinsically entropic. As a consequence, knowledge (and writing as well) are necessarily deformation of reality. This is another crucial element evoked in the title, through the word ‘pasticciaccio’ (mess), representing the central metaphor developed throughout the text to imitate the image of a tangled, muddled and confused reality.

The plot

The plot is also tangled. Set in 1927 in Fascist Rome, the story starts with a jewel heist and the murder of a woman in the same building in Merulana street. Investigations are conducted by Detective Francesco Ingravallo, nicknamed ‘Don Ciccio’, who, together with his colleagues, dig deep into the two cases and find unexpected connections. While the first part of the story takes place in the center of Rome, then the setting moves to the Roman suburbs and countryside. These two scenarios allow the description of both the well-to-do and the poor families, showing the enormous cleavage between social classes and thus giving a realistic image of Italy during the Fascist regime. Therefore, both the language and the plot represent two complementary levels, equally reflecting the chaotic structure of the World evoked by the metaphor of the ‘mess’.

An example from the text

Gadda’s theoretical ideas are outlined in the novel by Detective Francesco Ingravallo, described in the first lines of the text as follows:

‘Everybody called him Don Ciccio by now. He was Officer Francesco Ingravallo, assigned to homicide; one of the youngest and, God knows why, most envied officials of the detective section: ubiquitous as the occasion required, omnipresent in all tenebrous matters. Of medium height, rather rotund as to physique, or perhaps a bit squat, with black hair, thick and curly, which sprang forth from his forehead at the halfway point, as if to shelter his two metaphysical knobs from the fine Italian sun, he had a somnolent look, a heavy, lumbering walk, a slightly dull manner, like a person fighting a laborious digestion; dressed as well as his slender government salary allowed him to dress, with one or two little stains of olive oil on his lapel, almost imperceptible however, like a souvenir of the hills of his Molise. In his wisdom and in his Molisan poverty, Officer Ingravallo, who seemed to live on silence and sleep under the black jungle of that mop, shiny as pitch and curly as astrakhan lamb, in his wisdom, he sometimes interrupted this silence and this sleep to enunciate some theoretical idea (a general idea, that is) on the affairs of men, and of women. At first sight, or rather, on first hearing, these seemed banalities. They weren’t banalities. And so, those rapid declarations, which crackled on his lips like the sudden illumination of a sulphur match, were revived in the ears of people at a distance of hours, or of months, from their enunciation: as if after a mysterious period of incubation. ‘That’s right!’ the person in question admitted, ‘That’s exactly what Ingravallo said to me.’ He sustained, among other things, that unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence or the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed. He also used words like knot or tangle, or muddle, or gnommero, which in Roman dialect means skein.’

A 20th Century masterpiece

Here, the recognizable style of Gadda’s prose is almost visible. Indeed, the translator perfectly maintained both the use of different languages and his typical irony. Thanks to his unique form of writing, Gadda is considered an excellent novelist and an acute interpreter of modern times, but also an unmissable author capable of explaining the always complex and stratified Italian culture.