Thursday, April 29, 2010

[great cities, i] stangalino, jakubowski: rome noir

#40 Rome Noir, edited by Chiara Stangalino and Maxim Jakubowski, translated by Anne Milano Appel, Ann Goldstein and Kathrine Jason

Against all available evidence I always feel like I could be at home in Italy, in most places except two. One is Venice, which I readily admit is a failure of imagination: of course it is no mere maze of romantic canals. Venice's history is long and complex enough to turn the screws on any irresponsible tourist, and I suppose going there simply to ride in a gondola is about as enlightened as touristing to Varanasi to find ~inner peace~. My other blind spot is Rome; I don't know why. It is indisputably one of the world's own cities. It has everything you could hope for, PLUS two great football clubs*. And yet I never imagined Rome and myself as having anything to do with each other, until I read this collection, part of Akashic Books' series of noir anthologies.

Many of these stories foreswear the stylisation of noir, while engaging with its consciousness of the absurd. Their protagonists are universally driven by some sort of obsession, all of them bending reality in varying degrees of consciousness; all trying to make Rome, or Romans, fit around them. So marked is the emphasis on the inner life, so much do many of the narrators here live in their own heads, that it may often seem like their location is incidental to the narrative. This is one aspect of the collection that I am not convinced I like. Noir as people like me understand it is heavily reliant on the particulars of urbanity [rather than just the particulars of locality]. To me noir is also a very visual medium: Los Angeles and New York, and of course Bombay, have a noir aesthetic that I can understand because I have absorbed these cues through film, even before literature. Many of Rome Noir's stories are unconcerned by the visual element, or call it up in heavily ironic and self-reflexive ways [as in the story where a historian must interpret the gruesome hallucinations of tourists taken sick around the Colosseum]. But I guess urban noir is about representing the alienation of the self in a colossal and complex system, and not really about explaining it. Part of the tension urbanity creates is in how this inevitable alienation rubs up against our inevitable intimacies with others. A city is simply a network of relations in one sense, after all; what sets us adrift within these landscapes?

The more I read these stories, the more I began to appreciate the resistance of many stories to rely on cultural cliches. But I do wish there had been a stronger organisation against the psychological cliches, of which there are many. Doomed lovers, weak fathers, crazy cops. Yada yada, you know? And many stories touch upon a physical alienation, of the immigrant communities of Roma, Chinese, Africans and South Asians. Yet, the stories that engage with this are about the attitudes of other Italians to these new settlers: not a single narrator or protagonist, as far as I made out, actually comes from these populations. Few stories revolve around the young or the old; and for one of the foundational locations of Western politics, not one of these Roman stories is overtly concerned with politics. A diversity of thought and voice would have strengthened this collection immeasurably.

Clever, nuanced and often polished, none of the translations are really memorable, except for those of my two favourite stories. There is a lovely suppleness to the last one in the collection, Nicola Lagioia's 1988, translated by Ann Goldstein. This is a memoir of teenage crime, a polished, atmospheric gem of a story, totally absorbing and almost flawless. The seams are invisible here. And inevitably, they are all too plainly on display in the opening story, my other favourite, Nicoletta Vallorani's Pasolini's Shadow. The filmmaker's legend appears twice in two different stories in this book, and Vallorani's story almost places his shade as a watcher over the other characters. In a surreal, poetic narrative, we hear of the last night of Pasolini's life in his own voice. And Pasolini the artist, the foreigner to Rome, is the one protagonist in this book purely concerned with the city as a symbol. It is a highly stylised, dramatic, heartbreaking piece of writing, and its best achievement is to take the familiar elements of mythology - of Rome, of Romans, even of Pasolini's tragic death - and render it into something eerie and yes, alien. At that moment the whole edifice is completely horrifying and completely familiar. The Romans, as Pasolini reminds us, were builders of roads. In his voice, the reiteration of this bromide opens all roads up to Rome -- and Rome up to everyone.

* - alright you can make your Cisco Roma joke now.

eta Aha, Aishwarya has written about the Delhi number, Delhi Noir, here.


  1. Seeing as you're a Rome maven, have you read Amara Lakhous's "Clash of Civilisations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio"? Very neat crime novella.

  2. Maven? Scusi, ma non è vero! I know even less about Rome than I do about other places in Italy, but I would certainly love to. Thank you for the tip, it sounds like a fascinating book.