Roman Hoodlums: ‘The Ragazzi’ by Pier Paolo Pasonlini


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.

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6 Responses to Roman Hoodlums: ‘The Ragazzi’ by Pier Paolo Pasonlini

  1. Ste J says:

    This sounds right up my street, for some reason there is something fascinating about the brutal lives of people and their inability to remove themselves from it due to the laws their own society makes. Bleak yet rewarding reading when it comes to explaining why such groups band together.

    • This is a fascinating presentation of individuals and uneasy alliances (gangs fracture and friends frequently steal from each other). I think you’ll find it a very interesting read.

  2. BookerTalk says:

    i was heading towards adding this to my wishlist to buy later in the year until I came to the part where you described it like a collection of short stories. I’m not a great lover of those unfortunately

    • It’s not actually a short story collection, but I did feel it lacked any kind of single narrative (in some ways like Gaskell’s Cranford – though of course in many other ways really not!) Sorry to have put you off!

  3. I’d never heard of this book before, but it sounds fascinating. I’ll definitely have to add it to my to-read list!

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