Imaginary Ruins

That Awful Mess on Via Merulana

by Carlo Emilio Gadda, translated by William Weaver
Braziller, 399 pp., $5.95

Trial by Battle

by David Piper
Chilmark, 219 pp., $5.95

The mess in question is primarily the gruesome murder (though not, as some reviewers have understandably supposed, the rape-murder) of a genteel married lady, in Rome in 1927. Extra mess is provided by a case of commonplace robbery in the same apartment house. Carlo Emilio Gadda’s mess, piled up behind these messes, seems to be Mussolini in particular and human life in general. And his novel is a fine mess indeed, though its impact at this moment (it was written in 1946) is somewhat lessened by the fact that the mess-novel has been with us for some time now, an extremely arty art-form which justifies itself by appealing to the natural messiness of life.

So much is perhaps all that this reviewer can say of Carlo Emilio Gadda’s Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, if indeed so much can safely be said. We must now move on to William Weaver’s That awful Mess on Via Merulana. For Gadda is a great word-boy, and Il pasticciaccio is a richly cunning pastiche or olla podrida of linguistic effects. Puns, allusions, dialects, jargons, parodies, and caricatures—perhaps not precisely God’s plenty, but certainly the Italian thesaurus’s. To distinguish between Weaver and Gadda is not to disparage Weaver’s achievement, which seems to me quite considerable. For one thing, That Awful Mess doesn’t read like a translation—which is just as well since Il pasticciaccio couldn’t be “translated”—but it does read, much of the time, entertainingly, forcefully, bawdily, and evocatively (even when one is not sure what exactly is being evoked), and while footnotes are inevitably required, it makes do with the minimum of extraneous directives. Although That Awful Mess may not (or cannot) have all the strengths, the diversity of effects, of Gadda, it certainly hints strongly at them. And its weaknesses, I suspect, are the weaknesses of Gadda, who (like Joyce in Ulysses) is doing much more than telling a story, but (unlike Joyce in Ulysses) doesn’t tell a story. So don’t shoot the translator. If he has failed to do the impossible, then remember, perhaps Gadda has failed to do the possible.

Proliferating in all directions, the police investigation into the two not necessarily connected crimes grows increasingly confused. Practically everyone appears to be guilty—but guilty of something else. Nothing is known for sure, nothing is certain, not even the names and ranks of the policemen. “Corporal Di Pietrantonio, or Sergeant, as may be…” “Corporal Pestalozzi, or Pestalossi it may have been…” A missing ring is transmogrified from topaz into towpats into top-ass; the countess who owns it is scatologized from Menegazzi into Menecacci. At other points one wonders whose chaos and confusion it is: Gadda’s, Weaver’s, a character’s, one’s own? Is “Luigia” meant to reappear as “Luiggia”? And what about “despits the fact” and “modren art?” Perhaps, to absolve the printer, we should have been given more footnotes? Though it must be admitted that some of those we are given, while elucidating satisfactorily, do at the same time tend to deflate. The Pope…

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