THAT AWFUL MESS ON THE VIA MERULANA BY CARLO EMILIO GADDA

Of all [fictional] detectives my favourite is Columbo. He’s not wise-cracking, hard drinking, not dark and brooding, not a moral crusader, not over-burdened with red-tape and administrative duties, he doesn’t even get his balls busted by a maniacal superior. He’s from the school of detectives that are simply better, more intelligent, than the criminals they bring to justice. His cases are not mysteries, we know who commits the crime almost immediately, and Columbo himself knows not long after we do. Indeed, if you happened to miss the first half of an episode you’d still know who committed the crime because it would be the person that Columbo is toying with, like a cat with a spider. His modus operandi is essentially one of harassment; every time the criminal thinks that he or she has shaken him they turn around and there he is, asking an apparently innocuous question [it’s never innocuous!] or being friendly [he’s never just being friendly!], all squinty-eyed and rain-macced. He is what we like to call where I come from a snidey cunt.

That Awful Mess is mad-almost-genius Carlo Emilio Gadda’s only crime novel [one could argue, in fact, that it is his only novel]. It features a mop-haired detective called Ingravallo or Don Ciccio [Gadda has a Russian author’s love for giving his characters multiple names]. However, aside from the hair, Ingravalllo is nothing like Columbo [boo to that!], or, for the most part, like any other fictional detective that I am aware of. On the surface he shares some characteristics, some qualities, with other well-known sleuths and gumshoes; he’s surly, for one thing, and he is [apparently; there is little evidence of it in the book] unusually good at his job. What sets him apart from most other fictional detectives is his philosophy, which is that while crimes may be solvable to a certain extent, i.e. that you may catch the man who, say, fired the gun, they have no primary cause, that all crime, indeed all action, is the consequence of an infinite number of causes. In this way, crimes are actually largely unsolvable, because solving a crime means that you understand how [and why] it happened.

I have an obsession with interconnectedness, which, as I understand it, is the idea that everything, every action, every incident, every second of your life, and everyone else’s, is connected [literally, not spiritually], is part of a complex, and almost infinite, series of actions and incidents dating back to the beginning of time. Take a banal example, such as the tattoo I had done a few weeks ago: there was involved in me getting this tattoo a desire and this desire will have arisen in my consciousness as a consequence of a mind-boggling number of factors, or, if you prefer, had been caused by every preceding second of my life, because until something occurs to you an infinite number of other things could occur to you. They don’t though, that specific thing does, and this is as a result of every other thing that you have thought and done up to that point. There is also a historical and a cultural connectedness, involving the invention of tattooing and the circumstances behind its popularity; the invention and the popularity, these, in themselves, will have been caused, bought into being, by a potentially endless series of other causes or factors. Furthermore [no, I haven’t finished yet] I am also connected to every other person who has ever thought of getting a tattoo, more closely to those who want that specific tattoo or a similar one, as well as being connected to the image itself [a man shaving]; and there are [yeah, I’m still going!] certain other connections, such as my connection to the tattooist and everything that has happened in his or her life, and to the ink and so on and so on and so on. In essence, then, you could spend your whole life trying to explain, to work out, my relationship to my most recent tattoo.

This ought to go some way to explaining why I was so intrigued by Gadda’s novel. He sees a crime as a kind of cyclone, into which a vast number of things are drawn. A crime isn’t characterized, for Gadda, merely by its relationship to a perpetrator; for him it is near impossible to get a full picture of the crime, to identify all the people involved, all the causes. In this way, his idea, his interest, is pretty much the same as mine, in that I would say that to get a full picture of a crime you would need to consider the entire history of the world. Gadda doesn’t quite go this far, but that is because he does not see his theory through to its logical conclusion. That Gadda doesn’t seem to follow through is perhaps a consequence of the novel being unfinished. It feels complete, but I have certainly read somewhere that it was not concluded satisfactorily as far as the author was concerned and that he was still working on it.

What we have, in terms of plot, are two crimes that take place a couple of days apart within the same building: a robbery and a murder. The mess of the title refers to the crimes themselves, especially the gruesome murder, but more specifically to the investigation, which, as outlined above, was doomed to failure, to being incomplete and frustrating. By the end of the novel the detective is really no closer to closure than he was at the beginning; all he has succeeded in doing is getting entangled in the mess of events and causes. If you like Christie, Chandler, or any of those formulaic beginning-middle-[possible twist]-end narratives then That Awful Mess isn’t for you. But then this isn’t really a police procedural novel, rather a philosophical novel of ideas masquerading as one.

Further joys are to be found in Gadda’s sense of humour, prose, and psychological complexity. Don Ciccio is a magnificently foul-tempered man and, until he disappears somewhat in the second half the book, he furnishes you with a number of quotable lines, or thoughts [there are aspects of stream-of-consciousness] such as the response to his friend’s dog which he deems the kind you want to stamp on. I also thoroughly enjoyed the little hints and suggestions of a lurid, salacious, aspect to the murdered woman’s life prior to death. Liliana, the victim, is perhaps the most interesting and complex character in the book, which is surprising as she dies fairly early on. Her psychology is revealed, however, via the investigation and Don Ciccio’s odd obsession with her.

While I consider the prose a highlight I must point out that it is an acquired taste. Tim Parks, the so-called Italian literature connoisseur, called it incomprehensible or bordering on nonsense [if I recall correctly; he certainly said something of that sort]. If I was being pissy [which I almost always am] I would retort that Parks ought to improve his levels of concentration because That Awful Mess is not incomprehensible. In fact, in comparison, it is far easier to understand, to read and follow, than Gadda’s other novel [which Parks prefers] Acquainted With Grief. That book, I’m pretty sure, only makes complete sense to people speaking in tongues and dolphins. His prose style is baroque, is dense and difficult, though, and so That Awful Mess is perhaps not for those who don’t want to work a bit [no criticism intended – each to their own, and all that].

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4 comments

  1. I read “Acquainted with Grief” (in Italian) it when I was 18. I loved it very much.

    Gadda is well-know for his incredible language and I am very curious about the English translation of “That Awful Mess”. I didn’t read the entire novel yet, but I remember a lot of excerpts. That language is not Italian… is a creation, a wonderful work of art around the Roman dialect. The region accent and the rythm are so peculiar that I am really curious to compare the English version with the original.

    1. AWG baffled me. I thought it was beautifully written but almost incomprehensible, certainly plotless. I’m struggling to choose something to read actually, so I might re-read it and see if it makes more sense. That Awful Mess most interested me in terms of its ideas; I don’t think it would be close to being as brilliant as it is in Italian, prose-wise. In the intro the translator does explain how a lot of the games and double-meanings are lost.

      1. My brother often re-reads “That Awful Mess” and says it is very difficult to follow all the threads in Italian as well. He is now telling to me that the book is wonderful but he doesn’t understand everything… 🙂

      2. It’s not difficult to follow in English, but that is probably because it is less complex; translation tends to either simplify or muddy complex difficult books. I was more bothered by the detective kind of going missing in the second half of the book. Gadda, I believe, never finished either of his two novels, and that shows. It’s a massive shame, really.

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