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Double Trouble

PETROLIO. By Pier Paolo Pasolini . Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein . Pantheon: 470 pp., $27

March 23, 1997|GEORGE ARMSTRONG | George Armstrong was for 28 years the Rome correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper and is a regular contributor to the Economist and to this paper's Opinion pages

Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in 1975 by a 17-year-old male hooker. This book--written between 1972 and 1974--was not published in Italy until 1992. Had the author lived longer than his 53 years, "Petrolio" would never have been published anywhere. It is the first draft of a book that, as Pasolini said in a letter to his pal, the widely read novelist Alberto Moravia, he hoped would eventually be issued in only a limited edition. This sprawling draft of what might have developed into a novel culls "documentation" from the overheated Italian press relating to the nefarious doings of Italy's political bosses, the Christian Democrats and the fascists in particular. The dark nature of the material also raised questions concerning his death.

Pasolini's killer did not convince the film director's friends and admirers that he acted alone. Ergo, fascist thugs had followed the Marxist Pasolini and the youth to a deserted place outside Rome and they may have done the actual killing. (The argument was that Pasolini was too smart and too athletic to be subdued by a kid armed with a wooden plank.) The aura of mystery surrounding his death probably convinced the Italian publishers to give this very botchy draft a try.

But publishing it has proved a disservice to all. It is maddeningly incoherent and self-contradictory. The time-frame is not linear, which would not have been a problem if, at the end, the pieces fell into place. Alas, they never do.

Pasolini's letter to Moravia, which was never mailed and is included in the book, reveals some of his high ambitions for this unfinished work. He mentions planning to insert quotes from the classic Greek texts (for example, the "beginning lines from the Oresteia"). He also envisioned his work as a "monumental work, a modern Satyricon."

Carlo, the principal character, is a "Catholic of the left wing" with a top position in the state-owned oil refinery company. Another Carlo in the novel is the same man but with a different personality. Oh, good, the reader may think: What we have here is another "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" leitmotif! Pasolini says that he will call them Carlo I and Carlo II. Later on, he opts for Carlo and Karl. Pasolini soon forgets to distinguish between the two, and the reader is left adrift and, in my particular case, angry. For the sake of this review, I will give the two Carlos their numbers.

Carlo I, "a wealthy cultivated engineer" of 35, starts off, interestingly enough, by seducing and having sex with his mother; he then goes on to expose himself to her servant girls. His hand is seldom far from his crotch. Carlo II lives in the slums of Rome. He is unwashed and seeks out cheap female whores.

We follow Carlo I to a literary salon where Pasolini gives us a neat sketch of Moravia and himself, though not identified as such: "Timid, and so more aggressive, an aggressiveness mixed with natural sweetness. . . . He did not seem to feel at all at ease; if anything, he seemed to feel he had been placed there by his success and his stormy reputation."

Is there any chance that, with the alleged collapse of Communism in the Western world, no one will ever again dismiss his or her adversary as being "bourgeois"? Pasolini, a purer Marxist than most members of the Italian Communist Party, writes of "stairs smelling of bourgeois wax" and of a worker who "was clearly distinguishable by his physical presence alone, from a bourgeois, as a mechanic from a student, a left-wing intellectual from one of the right, an academic from a writer. Confusion was not possible."

At one moment, Carlo I looks in a mirror and realizes that he has two large breasts and that his penis has vanished. On the next page, Carlo II goes to a dump heap outside Rome where someone has set up 20 working-class boys for him to sexually service. The first five or six encounters are described in vivid detail. This is hard-core stuff. And how does the reader know if this is No. 1 or No. 2 out there amid the garbage? Pasolini offers one clue: One of the boys compliments Carlo on his servicing by saying "Bravo!" Had it been Carlo I, with those breasts and that vulva, it would have been "Brava!"

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