Boys Alive cover

Of Streets and Saints: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Boys Alive and Theorem

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The Italian writer and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s artistic oeuvre can be split into acts of excoriation or acclamation—intransigent rejection and divine approval. A list of his repudiations would run the length of the Vatican Index Prohibitorum—he was firm that “the ones who made history,” i.e. saints, hermits, intellectuals, “are ones who’ve said no”—but the rub is he hated the inhumanity of capital, a power which grows through profanation. His anti-fascism was exemplary and to some extent idiosyncratic in who or what he considered fascist but ultimately clarifying in its committed rejection of the bourgeoisie, Mussolini’s historical handmaidens, and their post-war project of regressive modernization, which resulted in an Italy of more consumers and less human beings.

In opposition to the ovine march of progress, which made uniform the body and standardized the soul, Pasolini extolled a revolutionary eroticism in his work: from Poundian laments of the dying peasantry (though Pasolini’s was dirtier and sexier) to Gide-like encomia to the untamed, often criminal, libidos of the Roman slums. His was an affirmation of unkempt life, not the neat civilization of Zhdanovian dreams. And rather than taking the role (still familiar today) of the betrayed romantic seeking spiritual certitudes, Pasolini staked out as a principled communist—often running afoul of Church, State, and Party for his aesthetic productions—because it was life-in-common and nothing else to which he felt he owed fealty.

Now, New York Review Books has brought out two new translations of Pasolini novels, Boys Alive and Theorem. Both, in discrepant yet melding ways, hold contradictory places in Pasolini’s balance of panegyric and indictment. The former is centered on “those concentration camps that are Rome’s outlying developments,” the borgate (suburbs that were little more than shantytowns). The latter takes place on a high-class estate and illustrates, as Pasolini said in his defense under an obscenity prosecution, “the effects of the irruption of the divine into everyday life.” Published on each side of il boom, they serve as two faces of the revolution of everyday life that Italy experienced in the decades succeeding the second World War.

Ragazzi di vita—the Italian title of Boys Alive—was Pasolini’s first novel, published in 1955, and reflects his fascination with the subproletarian borgate youth—the borgatori. The “boys of life” that populate his novel are stick-up kids, gigolos, thieves and hustlers, who exhibit an unalloyed freedom in their rebellions. Riccetto, the main character, is first introduced attending his Catholic confirmation, yet within the span of two pages, he is jostling with other borgatoro during the loot of a warehouse. By the end of the first chapter, Riccetto has robbed a blind beggar, stolen lead pipes from a nunnery, lost his earnings in a card game, and courageously saved a swallow from drowning in the Tiber.

All in all, Riccetto is an inveterate prowler—he looks out for numero uno and that’s it. After six more chapters of stealing and hooking, lock-ups and tragic deaths by fire, you may think one has earned some redemptive consonance: perhaps saving the bird showed some potential in Ricetto? But no: in the final pages, our anti-hero fails to make a similar sacrifice as a younger borgatoro Genesio is carried off in the “foam and waste oil and sawdust” of the river.

Boys Alive avoids a conventional structure—after all, life doesn’t move in a straight line, especially in the episodic and unpredictable lives of the borgatori. Pasolini wrote the novel in Romanaccio (“ugly Roman”), a dialect he called “the privileged language of the poor, blessed by God,” and this allowed him to erect a wall between himself and the “everyday people” style of neorealismo, the dominant literary mode of the time. Pasolini deemed this the most appropriate means of capturing the underworld sensibility of his subjects to whom he was close (for a spell, Pasolini lived in the Roman borgata of Rebibbia) and for whom life was measured in handfuls of lire.

Both nuance of tone and specificity of reference make Boys Alive, on occasion, a challenge to read (but no more than, say, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels). Translator Tim Parks does commendable work in the service of this great but necessarily untranslatable tale. Two attempts, that I know of, have preceded Parks’ treatment: The Ragazzi, tr. Emile Capouya and The Street Kids, tr. Ann Goldstein (Ferrante’s English translator). A novelist himself, Parks, balances literal translation with a feel for a sentence’s internal rhythm, and is able to approach the Italian slanginess without descending to tawdry approximation. Here Pasolini describes the face of a Neapolitan card-sharp, followed by translations in triplicate:

Raggazzi di vita: S’asciugò la faccia bagnata di pioggia, giovane e tutta rugosa, coi labbroni che gli pendevano a culo di gallina.

The Ragazzi (1968): He wiped his face, which was dripping with water; it was a young face but all wrinkled, and he had thick, pendulous, pouting lips.

The Street Kids (2016): He dried his wet face, which was youthful and wrinkled, with big pendulous lips.

Boys Alive (2023): He dried the rain off his young, furrowed face, lips hanging slack like a duck’s ass . . .

The earlier renderings are flatter, opting for the literalism of the quasi-cognate (“pendulous” for “pendavono”) while eliding the phrase that gifts the sentence its colloquial slant (“culo di gallina”). In contrast, Parks maintains Pasolini’s flow and resonant familiarity via the creative misprision of “slack like a duck’s ass”—in Italian, duck is anatra, not gallina, which is a hen—while managing the stress and internal rhyme of rapped-out Italian.

There is an ethical as well as aesthetic valence to such choices. For the underclass, sidelined by progress and prosperity, life is lived in the unbridled play of vulgar speech. The revolutionary potential of the borgata is held within the combustibility of its words. Pasolini chose to write in “the privileged language of the poor” because it hadn’t been touched by bourgeois moralism. The style, the raffish, ambient dialect of Parks’ translation is what makes the titular boys so alive.

In Theorem (1968), Pasolini distills his amoral life force into the divine figure of “the guest.” It is Pasolini’s third and most allegorical novel: Eros, potentate of red heaven, arrives at the gates of a bourgeois Milanese family; all hell breaks loose. If Boys Alive is an oblique take on neorealismo, Theorem is an odd appropriation of the nouveau roman. The language is simple, almost superficial, and the structure is wholly schematic: the first chapter is titled “Data,” and three short chapters later (“More Data (III)”) the book declares “this, rather than being a story, is what in the sciences is called ‘a report.’”

Though it proceeds like an equation, and the characters are mostly caricatures of political parable, Theorem still manages to be compelling as a novel. This is probably because it takes a well-worn theme—a stranger comes knocking at the door—and transforms the family’s latent anxieties into the blinding light of metamorphosis, making the guest’s appearance nothing short of a miracle. It is an Event from which no immediate meaning can be derived: “Something that has no name but only an unbearable lucidity…” But the general revelation is the emptiness of bourgeois existence. As the mother Lucia says after she sleeps with the guest: “How was I able to live such a void?”

So what is the theorem? “It concerns a petty bourgeois family,” read the first lines, “petty bourgeois in the ideological not the economic sense.” The family is in fact haute bourgeois—they own a factory and live on an estate. The characters form a quincunx: Paolo, father, factory-owner; Lucia, mother, sexually inhibited housewife; Pietro, son, repressed artistic-type; Odetta, daughter, pathological daddy’s-girl; Emilia, maid, silent former peasant. The narrative ends with various Pauline conversions—after the guest has seduced them all—and a complete destruction of the family. The father, to whom it has never occurred “even for an instant not to possess,” cedes ownership of the factory to the workers. The mother goes cruising for sex, the son leaves home to become a painter, and the daughter retracts into catatonia. The housemaid becomes a kind of saint in a crumbling small town. Of the five outcomes, the sanctification of Emilia provides the most memorable images: the former peasant-maid performs miracles, turns green, levitates above a house, and then is buried alive (message: such is being done to the historic peasantry).

Thus the theorem remains open-ended. All that happens is, as Pasolini described the film-version of Theorem, “a young man, maybe God, maybe the devil, that is to say, authenticity arrives in this family and all the characters are in crisis.”

Considered together, these novels trace the triumph of consumerism over rebellion, the bourgeoisie over the underclass, capital over life. In Boys Alive, Pasolini painted a loving but honest picture of the borgata. By the time of Theorem, his ragazzi di vita had been integrated, bought off under the hegemony of the dominant group which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Pasolini’s rough outsiders may not have had much of a conscience, but they did have soul. In the brave new world of neocapitalism, where pleasure is inflicted for one’s own good, the soul has been replaced by a queasy conscience.

Pasolini was no sentimental obituarist of the bad old days, however. Rather, as he said in his final interview: “My nostalgia is for those poor and real people who struggled to defeat the landlord without becoming that landlord. Since they were excluded from everything, they remained uncolonized.” Judging by Theorem, he came to see the necessity of a kind of divine violence—like Benjamin, like Fanon—in reestablishing a collective life worth living. He didn’t take violence lightly though, and among his last words was a diagnosis that sounded like prophecy (for himself, for us): “There’s a desire to kill here. And this desire ties us together as sinister brothers of the sinister failure of an entire social system…And everyone’s guilty, because we’re all ready to play the murderous game of possession. . . . We are all in danger.”