Lawrence's Reviews > That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana

That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda
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M_50x66
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Jul 12, 12

Read from July 02 to 08, 2012

I was a little suspicious of "That Awful Mess, etc." because Italo Calvino, who wrote the introduction, is not one of my favorites. But, by page two, I was propelled into the book when I read the short commentary on Doctor Ingravallo's landlady and heard her say that, if anyone thought she'd rent to just anybody, "I'd throw myself in the river." This was just the right note of talkative, daily-life hyperbole for me. Then, I just enjoyed.

Here is why I liked the book. First, its most immediate characteristic: the comedy. In this respect, I think, for example, of the interview with Father Lorenzo Corpi and the ruminations on his feet; or the young Valdarena, urgent in telling his intimate, family story in his distress as a prisoner; or, even better, of the whole series of adventures of the two poor carabinieri in chapters 8 and 9. These scenes, and others, have a "larger than life" quality (and good characterization, given the character's premises). This type of exaggeration is enhanced by the multiple asides by the author, whether throw-away quips or longer discourses. Here, I think of Ingravallo's pure speculations on the nature of Mrs. Balducci or of the magnificent essay on the big toe in Italian art (also reminiscent of Father Corpi's feet). This book just wants to amuse.

Part of this amusement for me is the actual plot. The book describes a situation in which an entire police apparatus --- with intelligent "stars", few resources, and so forth --- maybe, just maybe, has solved the first crime at the Via Merulana, but has not really come close to any solution for the very violent second crime. Somewhere and somehow, the second crime is either laid aside or included by some "logic" in the solution to the first. The result: a depiction of rationalization through action and human comedy.

Second, in my opinion, the book has excellent structure. On one level, it is extremely linear. It explicitly progresses by the calendar. However, it has two strands. This linear level is the story "on the ground". The second level is the strand of inventive fantasy asides, distractions from events (the chickens), character studies, speculations on various "irrelevant" topics, social and political commentary, and so forth. This second strand is like a heavy icing on a relatively thin cake. I find the combination very satisfying.

I actually don't care that no one of the two crimes is solved in the course of the book. I don't think that solving the crimes was Mr. Gadda's purpose. I think his purpose may have been to describe the here and now from one minute to the next. And I think this here-and-now includes his own here-and-now (given the top-heavy icing) as well as the characters'. In this sense, every person in the book is accorded equal weight --- whether Ingravallo or Fumi or the Ines Cionini whom they grill in Chapter 7 or the two low-level carabinieri of chapters 8 and 9.

Third, the book is genuine, and I disagree that it is satire. It is, however, comic in pointing out, for example, how the police apparatus is so under-resourced that it appears bumbling and Keystone-ish, to wit, the car that Ingravallo secures for what will be, hopefully, the bust. But, to return to genuineness, while the book is charming and funny, it has intense moments of feeling. Here, I think of the perfect and sad description of the defeat of Ines at pages 232 - 4. I also think of the perfect description of the preoccupation with heirlooms. I think of the obsessiveness of wanting a baby that will not be conceived. I think of Gadda's genuine anger at and scorn for Mussolini.

To close, I wonder if the forerunners of Mr. Gadda are not writers of the twentieth century. Maybe, Mr. Gadda's literary ancestor here is someone like Henry Fielding whose work is linear and marked by multiple asides, who laughs at foolishness and ridiculousness, but cherishes goodness, and who is angry at injustice.
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