Thursday, May 30, 2013

That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana

That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana is a murder mystery by Carlo Emilio Gadda. I picked it up from a display at my local book store, attracted by the fact that Italo Calvino wrote the introduction. I was immediately swept up in the book, carried away by the way it was written. It didn't take long before I realized I was drowning in it. I felt like the language was a sticky mess I couldn't brush away. I knew there was a story under there somewhere, but I couldn't find it. I kept at it, working my way through, and the story is there. I'm not at all sure it's worth the work.

I'm fairly well-read and not unintelligent, and I hardly ever have to look words up as I'm reading. In this book there was rarely a page where I didn't have to look up a word and many pages had multiple words I didn't know. Just a few of them, some of which were used more than once:
invulvulate, matutinal, cothurnate, orogenic, manucaption, tegument, maculations, edulcorating, parapathia, vespertine, decretal, sicinnis, exozcizational, thyrsi, ethylic, terebene, malleoli, peduncled, inderogatable, semilunars, ampulla, algolagniac, vagotonic, borborygms...
Some of these I never did find a meaning for, and some I never could figure out what they meant in the context they were used. He uses the phrase "spit and image" several times. I do realize that's the original form of the expression, but it is no longer used -at least I no longer see it used. "Spitting image" is what I've been seeing for decades now. With a translated book, I never know who to credit for this kind of thing. Is the translator choosing these words because the words are obscure in the original? I don't know. It didn't add pleasure to what was already a difficult reading experience.

a sample sentence from the middle of the book:
Ines! The Urban adventure! From Galilei's matutinal clarities, when the Lateran office and mystery, the green gaity of the churchyard receive within the city's walls the hick with his devout Sign of the Cross, the ass hitched up for a moment, gee!, from the golden pomp, at vespers, or ruby-colored, and from the full cavate of Moderno, from whose archway the indelible hymn in praise of Mary Mother has burst into the centuries never to return; from the PV and the BM and from the ten holes in the disk of the telephone, and from the big box of the radio which she put out of commission four times, the cothurnate forethinker had taken home a certain brisk, cavalier manner in darning socks, that is to say, taking the hole in wide circles, with needle and thread: and then, after that rapid circumnavigation, she pulled it all together and snapped off the thread at once, with her teeth. A first-class darn!
The whole book is like that.

And the book is unfinished.

I found it frustrating, and I can't say I'm glad I read it. I don't know if a different translation would help me or not.

from the back of the book:
In a large apartment house in central Rome, two crimes are committed within a matter of days: a burglary, in which a good deal of money and precious jewels are taken, and a murder, as a young woman whose husband is out of town is found with her throat cut. Called in to investigate, melancholy Detective Ciccio, a secret admirer of the murdered woman and a friend of her husband’s, discovers that almost everyone in the apartment building is somehow involved in the case, and with each new development the mystery only deepens and broadens. Gadda’s sublimely different detective story presents a scathing picture of fascist Italy while tracking the elusiveness of the truth, the impossibility of proof, and the infinite complexity of the workings of fate, showing how they come into conflict with the demands of justice and love.

Italo Calvino, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alberto Moravia all considered That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana to be the great modern Italian novel. Unquestionably, it is a work of universal significance and protean genius: a rich social novel, a comic opera, an act of political resistance, a blazing feat of baroque wordplay, and a haunting story of life and death. says, "In English, one could only compare Gadda to Joyce. His novel, it seems likely, will eventually have the same prominence and renown in the English-speaking world that it already has in Italy, France and Germany, in fact all over Europe." Crime Fiction Lovers concludes with this:
That Awful Mess On The Via Merulana is a shambolic book in many ways, frequently overtaken by philosophising and classical allusions which sent me to Google. However Gadda has created a potent vision of 1920s Rome, dense and teeming with life, populated with beautifully observed characters and the writing is absolutely sumptuous. The languorous pace can be challenging but if you accept it this book becomes something like the perfect Italian lunch which goes on into the evening – meandering but full of fascinating distractions, by turns erudite and bawdy and occasionally, yes, very slightly pretentious.


  1. I'd say this is an Aweful Mess on your nightstand!!! I also consider myself well versed, but had trouble following the simple act of darning a sock. Your review was superb.

  2. I´m very impressed that you persevered. Perhaps it wants to be some kind of poetry-ish type of literature? Doesn´t sound like my thing - I hate when the language gets in the way of the story.

  3. i am very proud to be able to tell you both that i passed this book on to my older son, and he says he hasn't found a single word yet he doesn't know lol. i don't know how far along he is.

    i would rather not have to work my way through a book. if i have to struggle to figure out a paragraph-long sentence on sock-darning, well... i only finished it because calvino wrote the introduction. i learned a lot there.