Stories from the City of God:
Sketches and Chronicles of Rome, 1950-1966
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Ed. by Walter Siti, Translation by Marina Harss.
Handsel Books, an imprint of Other Press, NY. 2003, ISBN 1-59051-048-8
In the years after World War II, Rome supported a scrappy demi-monde ravaged by the invasion and aftermath. Pier Paolo Pasolini lived that tooth and claws existence, scraping together food and work when he could, begging when he couldn’t. Later he would use those experiences to drive his creative products – films, novels, stories and articles.
This mix of short fiction and non-fiction sketches explore Roman people of that time. What’s ugly and squalid shows its beauty to Pasolini. He cuts through the outwardly pleasing cowards and hypocrites that repel him and celebrates successful thieves and crafty con artists. The stories mark incremental successes in modest lives where the big picture is only to stay alive for another day.
The short pieces succeed as portraits of people and place during a certain time. It’s full of timeless portraits of the fleet stealthy underclass that every big city hides. The stories feature Roman boys — canny youths wise beyond their birthdays. The author opens up a window on hidden Rome, a part of the city that continues to exist in certain dodgy corners and presumably always will.
He also notices the timeless landscape of Rome. “Delirious Rome” (p. 25, uncorrected page proofs) opens with two trolley antennae sparking at a track crossing. The image propels the author to a meditation that compresses time as he thinks about workers commuting all week, and then relaxing along the Tiber. The Roman landscape takes on mythic proportions in Pasolini’s reflection as he skips through history during the trolley ride. The story starts with a spark, a moment in 1950, yet the details of Roman life as illuminated by Pasolini remain. Decades later, the sparks still explode when trolleys cross track lines, sending a rider’s thoughts cart-wheeling beyond the immediate. Pasolini captures ten seconds of mental musing in pages of robust description.
Pasolini captures smiles and smells, the empty places where the downtrodden hole up to sleep or sell their pilfered wares. By using dialect of the under class, Pasolini thumbs his nose to aristocrats and the fascist enforcers they so recently embraced and supported. Still, he was no hero to the left, who saw his attention to the less savory aspects of poverty as a perversity.
-This book review originally appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.