That Awful Mess on Via Merulana

by Carlo Emilio Gadda

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Themes and Meanings

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That the plot of the novel remains unresolved is in itself thematically significant. A manuscript version of the story discovered posthumously (and evidently intended as a possible film treatment) shows Enea Ratalli to be the thief and murderer. In the published novel, Gadda deliberately suppressed the expected plot resolution in favor of an open-ended, ambiguous conclusion. Despite the obvious affinities with conventional detective fiction, this novel is not a whodunit. Rather than the solving of a mystery, Gadda’s concern is with the convoluted mysteries of life itself. A tidy ending might gratify the reader’s expectations, but it would be false to Gadda’s fictional purposes.

The lives of Gadda’s characters are interlocked in complex, often obscure ways. In Gadda’s view, what is called “destiny” or “fate” is also the product of unseen correspondences, of overlapping fields of psychic force generated by proximity, or intention, or merely blind circumstance. It is the ironic interconnection between ostensibly unrelated lives that forms the real thematic core of the novel: a web of significance not amenable to a simple unraveling, even by the most skilled detective.

Gadda’s convoluted, digressive style not only mirrors the substance of his philosophical vision; it actually constitutes that vision. Self-conscious and elaborate to an extraordinary degree, Gadda’s prose is an amalgamation of various contrasting elements: pedantries of all sorts (literary allusions, Latin quotations, scientific and medical terminology); puns and neologisms; topical references, often obscure, to his contemporary Italian society; and the dialect and slang of Roman vernacular speech. All these elements are embedded in highly nuanced, complicated sentence structures. The tone of Gadda’s writing covers a similarly wide arc of possibilities, from artificially elegant to deliberately crude, witty to sardonic. Far from being a transparent medium, Gadda’s style approximates the mosaic quality of the substance of the novel.

The organic continuity of Rome in terms of its culture, myth, and history is also a central thematic element. Past impinges upon present in complex, minute, and ironic ways. Thus, for example, the names of numerous characters (Pompeo, Diomede, Ascanio, Lavinia) recall the mythical and heroic heritage of Rome; the streets they traverse and the churches and public buildings that serve as landmarks are constant reminders of Renaissance and Baroque magnificence. Against such a backdrop, the shabby, brutal realities of Mussolini’s dictatorship take on a particular loathsomeness. This contrast is the basis of much of Gadda’s satire. Gadda also conveys the strong impression, however, that his Romans act, think, and feel much as they have for centuries, and that the story of this novel is part of a continuum composed, as Ingravallo puts it, of “that system of forces and probabilities which surrounds every human creature.”

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