That Awful Mess on Via Merulana

by Carlo Emilio Gadda

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Characters Discussed

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Francesco Ingravallo

Francesco Ingravallo (frahn-CHEHS-koh een-grah-VAHL-loh), also called Don Ciccio (CHEE-kee-oh), a Roman police inspector in charge of a robbery and homicide investigation. Don Ciccio is a bachelor but is perhaps a little in love with his good friend, Liliana Balducci, who is murdered. Don Ciccio is a complex figure; his patience, determination, hidden feelings, and skepticism are revealed only through his struggles to find Liliana’s murderer. Despite his cynicism, Don Ciccio does not think like most people at his level in society. He always tries to give the poor a chance to defend themselves, rather than assume that they are automatically guilty because of their class.

Liliana Balducci

Liliana Balducci (lee-lee-AH-nah bahl-DEW-chee), an emotionally and physically barren middle-aged woman. She is found in her apartment with her throat cut and her jewels stolen. To Don Ciccio, Liliana symbolized perfect femininity. During the murder investigation, however, a surprising side of Liliana is revealed. Unable to have children, Liliana had poured her affection on some young orphan girls, whom she had employed as housemaids and then helped to make good marriages. Although she was cheated and disappointed every time by those reprobate young women, Liliana always found the strength to continue in her faith in them, helped by the tacit support of her husband, Remo. It seems probable that Liliana was murdered by one of her former protégées.

Corporal Pestalozzi

Corporal Pestalozzi (pehs-tah-LOHZ-zee), a carabiniere, or member of the national police. A coarse and spiteful man, Corporal Pestalozzi succeeds primarily through use of brute force. It is he (with his men) who brings the case to a head when he locates the jewelry stolen from the apartment building on Via Merulana.

Zamira Pacori

Zamira Pacori (zah-MEE-rah PAH-kohr-ree), a laundress and former prostitute. Zamira is a grotesque old woman whose current occupation is a cover for her activities as a bawd, a sorceress, and a faith healer. She surrounds herself with poor, unfortunate young women just as Liliana did, though for more sinister reasons.

The Characters

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The nearest character to a protagonist in the kaleidoscopic world of the novel is Inspector Ingravallo. A tough, cynical policeman, his world-weary view of human nature expresses Gadda’s own cynicism. His affection for the murdered woman involves him emotionally in the investigation, while his plodding approach seems the only rational way to pick apart the tangled, sordid threads that make up the convoluted action of the novel.

The novel, however, is not really about the perceptions and destinies of significant individuals. Although Ingravallo does serve as an organizing intelligence within the world of the novel, he is nevertheless merely part of the action. Indeed, there is little practical difference between the major and minor characters, whether in terms of the descriptive space allocated to them or their worth as human beings. None of them is a figure against a background so much as a piece of a mosaic.

All of them, though perhaps to a lesser degree in Ingravallo’s case, are presented satirically. Gadda’s Romans represent humanity at its most fallible and least attractive. They are motivated by greedy, hormonal drives; they speak and think in cliches; they are mutually suspicious and self-serving yet compulsively gregarious. Even the murder victim herself generates little sympathy. A pathetic, sexually attractive but childless woman approaching middle age, she takes in young women as maids to fill the place of the children she desires, while possibly harboring homosexual longings for them. The thematic counterpoint between her and the witch like hag Zamira Pacori, who also surrounds herself with young women, contributes to the sordid implications of Liliana’s actions. The...

(This entire section contains 534 words.)

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other crime victim, Teresina Menegazzi, is hysterical and silly, while Liliana’s cousin, Giuliano Valdarena, is a smug, ambitious young man apparently more concerned about his own welfare than Liliana’s death.

At the other end of the social spectrum, the carabinieri led by the arrogant Corporal Pestalozzi represent the petty, sadistic kind of temperament given new legitimacy under Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Though their brutalization of their suspects is reprehensible, it must be admitted that such treatment is no worse than that to which these young women are accustomed or expect. The women too are cynical and tough and, like the other characters, look no further than their own immediate self-interest. Their speech may be marked by pious exclamations, but this is no more than a cultural verbal style, a linguistic heritage signifying the durability of ethnic and geographic bonds. It may be said that the city of Rome itself is the real protagonist of the novel, as a complex social organism whose members are less important as individuals than as component parts of the structure.

Gadda’s Romans define themselves through myriad social interconnections in which place is the most consistent reference point: street names, shops, churches, neighborhoods, and hometowns. The image of an anthill or beehive comes to mind; everyone in the novel is constantly going to or coming from somewhere not very far away, and their lives are interconnected quite simply by proximity. Even though the interconnections are often circumstantial or apparently insignificant, in the aggregate they make up a powerful, if invisible, bond out of which individual destiny is generated.


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Caesar, Michael, and Peter Hainsworth, eds. Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy, 1984.

McConnell, Joan. A Vocabulary Analysis of Gadda’s “Pasticciaccio,” 1973.

Pacifici, Sergio. The Modern Italian Novel from Pea to Moravia, 1979.

Ragusa, Olga. “Gadda, Pasolini, and Experimentalism,” in From Verismo to Experimentalism: Essays on the Modern Italian Novel, 1969. Edited by Sergio Pacifici.




Critical Essays