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A Violent Life

October 06, 1985|John Rechy | Author Rechy has translated the work of several modern Latin American writers. and

A Violent Life

by Pier Paolo Pasolini; translated by William Weaver (Carcanet: $18.50, hardcover; $7.50, paperback; 320 pp.)

No less a literary authority than Alberto Moravia claimed that modern Italian literature might have lost its greatest talent when Pier Paolo Pasolini, already a respected poet, essayist, novelist, turned from prose to films. The evidence in this novel indicates that the gain by films was much greater than the loss to literature.

This novel about pimps, petty thieves, desultory gangs is acted against a backdrop of poverty and political turbulence between fascists and communists. Perhaps in an attempt to suggest the sensation its publication created in 1958 in Italy, its highly regarded translator has unwisely chosen to "update" only certain elements of its language. Modern-day expletives clash with archaic references like "old crocks." The dialogue evokes subtitles: "Pretty deluxe around here, eh?" comments one of the young "wise guys." The effect might be similar if James Farrell's novels were published as if written today.

Nothing is more distant in modern times than the near-past, so quickly swept away by daily graphic media accounts of violence and sexuality. Pasolini's novel is therefore depleted of its intrinsic power, which would have survived if left to represent its own time.

The finest passages are those that suggest the sweep of a masterful director's eye, and here the translation serves the novel well: a mob of men and women assaulting the police with sticks, fire; a brutal raid on decrepit hovels; a flood crushing a slum into a river of mud.

Pasolini's central importance in films justifies the translation and publication of all his significant prose. But there is little question that this novel appears in part only today because its content and title may be seen as auguring the director's murder by a young Italian male street-type. The film maker Antonioni inserted retrospective inevitability to what many contend was actually a political assassination of the controversial left-wing director. "A victim of his own characters," said Antonioni, forcing the ugly violence into "a perfect tragedy foreseen in its own aspects."

It is in the visual composition of his films--not in his prose as evidenced by this novel--that Pasolini, a man of contradictions, was able to reconcile the vast conflict of his fealty to Marx, Freud, Christ. These disparate elements find a unified structure in "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," his great film in which he cast his own mother as the Virgin Mary and used actual peasants in other roles.

This novel provides an essential footnote to the work of an artist of major stature whose art will be measured by his films.

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