When I picked up Pasolini’s ‘The Ragazzi’, I think I was expecting a male counterpart to Elena Ferrante’s wonderful Neapolitan novels (I’ve read and reviewed ‘My Brilliant Friend‘ and ‘The Story of a New Name‘ on the blog). Like Ferrante’s books, ‘The Ragazzi’ is set in a poverty-stricken community and deals with young protagonists on the brink of adulthood. The blurb for my copy of Pasolini’s novel was as stylishly vague as the cover, so I had little to guide me when I started reading.
The fact is ‘The Ragazzi’ is closer to Ernst Haffner’s ‘Blood Brothers’ than anything else I’ve reviewed recently. It is about those ignored by mainstream society and the communities they end up forming for themselves. The brutality of the lives and society depicted takes precedent over a more traditional story or message. For one thing, although there is a smattering of Christ imagery, the book is determinedly non-literary. Apparently the original edition contained a glossary of ‘Romano’ words for Italian readers and even in translation the focus remains on the prosaic experiences of the protagonists, consistently stripped of any comforting ‘artistic’ touches or descriptions. Instead of a clearly structured novel therefore, ‘The Ragazzi’ is made up of episodes in a the lives of a group teenagers and boys in post-war Rome. At times almost like a collection of short stories, we follow certain key characters through nights of crime and days of loitering, each individual episode likely to be disrupted by arrest, flight or simply a change of scene or new escapade.
Emile Capouya’s translation brings home the stifling monotony and violence of the boys’ lives, in a way that feels true to the Neorealism of Pasolini’s original Italian. This does not always make for a pleasant read; the miserable world these young men inhabit is not one that I’d ever want to visit, and the documentary style narration feels uncomfortably unsympathetic in the face of their troubles and the torments they inflict on others. ‘The Ragazzi’ was shocking when it was first published in 1955 and the vivid, unforgiving tone ensures it is still powerful today; a chilling novel albeit set under the Roman sun.