Presented at Trinity College Dublin Homage to Pier Paolo Pasolini 04/November/2022

When I was invited to take part in homage to Pasolini I was initially reluctant because it was framed as a discussion of my translation – or more precisely, from my point of view, my attempts to translate the poem ‘Le Ceneri di Gramsci’, a story which I’ll come to later. But then, chatting about it I came to the conclusion that I might have something to add. Given that I’m neither an academic nor a professional translator, my thought was that I could say something about why I as an Irish writer of novels and poetry and as an admirer of Italian literature and cinema read Pasolini and what I take from Pasolini’s work and life.

It’s a timely moment to remember Pasolini when one considers that the present Italian government is led by Frattelli D’Italia. And Italy is remembering Pasolini. Just in the range of my own recent travels I’ve noted exhibitions in Venice, Bologna, Genova, Torino and Rome. There have been exhibitions, events and lectures in smaller towns all over Italy, for example in my own town of Camogli there have been several. He is celebrated chiefly as an artist and as a critic, both of art and of politics, as well as an iconic figure of the left, symbolic of resistance to bourgeois norms and values.

I came to Pasolini’s writing through my interest in Antonio Gramsci, therefore, in a sense I came to him through politics, having been fascinated by Gramsci for many years. Of course I had seen films by Pasolini – Accattone, for example, and probably my favourite Pasolini film, Uccellacci e uccellini, Hawks and Sparrow, which stars Totò. I love it for Totò`s performance which is funny, heartbreaking, absurd, and always entertaining, but also for its critique of Italian society and for the homage to Togliatti at the end. I particularly love the scene where the two monks bring the good news to the hungry sparrows and the sparrows ask them what the good news demands of them and the monks reply ‘fasting’. The film is full of echoes of Chaplin, of Commedia Del Arte, possibly even of Pirandello because there’s a scene in Pirandello’s novel Il Fu Mattia Pascal where the narrator talks to a bird. I thought also that perhaps Waiting for Godot was an influence although I don’t know if Pasolini had seen Becket’s play.

On the other hand, I have never been able to take to his 1975 film Salò, despite its critique of fascism among so many other things. It seems to me to revel in its brutality and it reminds me that brutality, misogyny and even misanthropy are features of Pasolini’s work, often thinly disguised as social critique – along with, of course, his great humanity and his impegno civile, a phrase I don’t really think has a good equivalent in English. I’m conscious, in saying this, that like Accattone in it’s attack on the Roman Holiday-style depiction of Rome, Salò was designed to shock at a time when fascism was re-emerging on the political scene, in particular as an occult force in the Strategy of Tension. I feel that Salò is in many ways an act of desperation on the part of a man who was the perfect target for the secret fascist masonries and action groups – like La Fenice or Ordine Nuovo – which sought to destabilise Italian democracy through false flag actions like the Piazza Fontana bombing of 1969 and which acted under the protection of the secret service, elements of the carabinieri and even magistrates and ministers of state. Pasolini must have felt his life threatened at that time, and probably wanted to fling one last cruel insult in the face of his tormentors. In fact, perhaps coincidentally, he was murdered shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, I would argue that the film is almost unwatchable. No doubt I’m expressing a heresy here.

So, before I turned my attention to his poetry, I already had some familiarity with Pasolini’s work. Then, I was invited to read at an Italian literary festival called Pordenone Legge. It’s probably the biggest literary festival I’ve ever attended, counting its attendance at about five thousand visitors per day. Pordenone is quite close to Casarsa where Pasolini’s mother  was born and where he spent a lot of his youth and where he first began to write in the Friulian language. One evening at dinner with some of the local writers the talk turned to Gramsci because during my reading I had recited a slightly tongue in cheek, four line poem which mentioned him and they wanted it explained.

The poem was:

We are free texts,

The billboard said to me,

I say, you never heard

Of Antonio Gramsci.

Someone asked me if I knew Pasolini’s ‘Ceneri’ and suggested I should read it. I sensed a lot of local pride in the connection with Pasolini, whom at that stage I knew only through his films. 

So my first action was to buy a copy of Le Ceneri di Gramsci. The edition I found on ABEbooks was the fourth imprint. There were two in 1957 alone, the year of publication, a third in 1960 and this fourth imprint in 1963. Four editions in six years, a remarkable trajectory for a collection of poetry – most poets have to die to receive that kind of attention. To me it indicated the importance of the collection for the Italian reading public. The publisher was Garzanti, which I had  previously only known through the Garzanti dictionary. One of the things that interested me was the stamp of the Società Italiana degli Autori ed Editori and a little note on the copyright page which stated: Ogni esemplare di quest’opera che non rechi il timbro a secco della Società Italiana degli Autori ed Editori deve ritenersi contrafatto. Every example of this work which does not bear the stamp of the Italian Society of Authors and Editors must be considered a forgery. I wondered what kind of a society existed in Italy at the time where there was a risk that forgers would steal a collection of poetry. It certainly wouldn’t happen in Ireland. Or perhaps the question I should have asked was: Why was a collection of poetry so important.

Of course, by 1957 Pasolini was already well known. Two years previously, he had published his first novel Ragazzi di Vita which was so scandalous that obscenity charges were brought against him. XXXX Pasolini won the case but the charges themselves brought an unwelcome fame and the author became the target of attacks in the rightwing press. He had previously published some collections of poetry, the earliest in Friulian. He had written two plays, Orgia and Porcile both in 1968. He was working in Cinecittà and would collaborate with Fellini in another scandalous film, Le Notti di Cabiria because of his knowledge of Roman dialect and his familiarity with the life of Roman prostitutes and the underworld. By the time the fourth edition had been published his first film, Accattone had appeared to political scandal and criticism from both Right and Left. Whether he wanted to be or not, Pasolini was an important public intellectual, a leftwing critic of Italian society and politics who was often at odds with the PCI. In fact, later in his short life, he was closer to the Lotta Continua movement, which was far to the left of the PCI, as was another great Italian writer Erri De Luca.

So here I had my copy of Le Ceneri. It’s important at this point to say it was almost twenty years ago, that I was at the very beginning of learning Italian and that I struggled with the most basic texts. I began translating primarily as a way of penetrating the language other than the ordinary humdrum of grammar and vocabulary. In a sense, it’s how I learned Irish and Latin, which in my days in school were largely taught through translation of texts. I suppose I approached Pasolini in the same way that forty years earlier I approached Peig or the Aeneid. So what follows is an account of how a neophyte approached the translation of a great work of art. As with all efforts by neophytes it has elements of both comedy and tragedy.

The first line of Le Ceneri was hopeful. Non è di maggio questa impura aria. It’s a beautiful thing to open on a negative. Non è di maggio. Of course it actually is May, a symbolic month in the leftwing calendar. Il primo maggio is still a day of celebration on the left. Then the impura aria is easy to translate. The only question that arises is about the syntax. It sounds somewhat unnatural to open an English sentence with ‘not’. In that regard, I note that Macafee avoids doing so, which I think is a pity. ‘It isn’t May-like, this impure air’ he begins. Incidentally, there is also a fine translation of the opening section by the late Derek Mahon. Mahon’s opening line is: ‘There’s nothing May-like in this toxic air’, again avoiding that opening ‘non’. Unfortunately, I’m in Italy and most of my library is at home in Ireland so I can’t tell you exactly in which volume that translation appears.

Certainly, ‘Not of May this impure air’ sounds a little exotic, but I think it’s often preferable to avoid making a text flow too naturally in the target language. Instead, I think it’s important to try to catch something of the original syntax.

But the second line immediately raised a question for this neophyte. ‘Il buio giardino straniero’. Whose garden was it? A stranger’s garden, a foreign garden? The garden of the strangers? I knew Gramsci had been buried in what was once called the Cimitero dei Protestanti or the Cimitero degli Inglesi in Rome. I knew it because I had visited the grave on a pilgrimage with an old commie friend of mine from New York. In fact I had visited it more than once and each time someone had left red roses there. So the giardino straniero is OK. By now I was beginning to feel I could do it. It took me some time to work out the structure of the verse. In the end, I read it as: ‘Not of May this impure air which the gloom of the stranger’s garden makes even gloomier.’ Fair enough. It had taken me perhaps an hour to get that far. And the next word was one I didn’t know and I had to turn to the dictionary for: l’abbaglia. In fact the next phrase was beyond me: o l’abbaglia con cieche schiarite

At this point I noted that the poem, in my edition, ran to fourteen pages. 

A tremendous sense of the impossible settled on me. 

I don’t know if other translators experience this. Obviously my Italian was not good enough and I had no real key into what Pasolini wanted to say here. I needed to study the context. 

My next step was to inform myself. Clearly a poem which has ‘The Ashes of Gramsci’ as its title is a public poem. Its themes must be public and must relate to social or political issues of its time as well as whatever of the personal Pasolini wanted to bring to it. What was happening in 1957 in Italy? Why was Pasolini writing about Gramsci at that precise moment?

By 1957 the Italian Social Movement, the direct descendant of Mussolini’s fascist party, had become a force to be reckoned with – it’s back again now unfortunately. It was, at that time, more or less the fourth largest party, and had embarked on a course of cooperation with other rightwing parties. The Christian Democrats, found themselves reliant on support from these neo-fascists. 

Internationally, the Cold War had brought powerful forces to bear against the left, in particular against the communists and, in Gramscian terms, the left felt the full force of the cultural hegemony directed from the USA. And Pasolini was a communist till the day he died, a communist outside the party, feeling very much an outsider and lacking the protection that the party might have brought him, a fellow-traveller one might say, but a polemicist for the left – as early as 1948 he had written that only communism could revive Italian culture.

And then his private life was controversial. In the Pordenone area there had been a charge of ‘corruption of minors’ as early as 1949 which resulted in the loss of his job, but also, significantly, his expulsion from the local Communist Party of which he had been a leading intellectual. I don’t know the details of this affair. I know the expulsion really hurt Pasolini. I know that Pasolini claimed it was a stitch up by the local DC. However I don’t think there’s any doubt that Pasolini was attracted to young men, though it’s important to remember that the legal age of marriage in 1949 in Italy was twelve for a girl and fourteen for a boy with parental consent. Not acceptable now obviously, but it indicates that for the local DC, which had nothing to say on the subject of heterosexual marriage at twelve, the problem was his communism and the solution, for them, was his homosexuality. They would eventually get around to modernising the marriage age in 1957, despite objections from the Church which was also, not coincidentally, actively campaigning against divorce at the time. However, I don’t feel competent to speak on the subject of Pasolini’s relationships which remain controversial among Italian scholars.

Another important element of Pasolini’s despair during this period is his horror of consumerist capitalism – it is, for example, the object of satire in the coprophagy scenes in Salò. He believed that consumerism was enforcing a uniformity on Italy that was close to, if not actually a form of fascism, a conformity which fascism itself tried but failed to achieve despite all the apparatus of the fascist state.

Pasolini called himself a Catholic communist atheist and his relationship with the Catholic church was, to say the least, contradictory. He called the Church ‘lo spietato cuore dello stato’ (the merciless heart of the state), and of course the Church and the Christian Democrats were very much a single unit, despite occasional spats, and historically speaking, the Church had been a willing collaborator with fascism after the Lateran Pacts of 1929 up to and including the Racial Laws of ‘38. Nevertheless, Pasolini was attracted to the idea of a simple Christian peasant piety, which, of course, is the opposite of the consumerism that he detested. He was conscious of what he called, in ‘Le Ceneri’, ‘lo scandalo di contraddirmi, dell’essere/con te e contro te’ (the scandal of self-contradiction, of being/ with you and against you), the ‘te’ in this case being Gramsci and the Communist Party. This didn’t stop him being attacked ferociously by the Church and its associated newspapers and journals to the point that when the organiser of a Christian reconciliation group asked his advisor who was the most anti-Catholic film-maker in Italy, his advisor replied without hesitation, Pasolini. His film ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ is an expression of these contradictions. It’s quite popular now in Church circles, apparently, but in its day it was considered scandalously blasphemous, not least because Mary the mother of Jesus was played by Pasolini’s own mother, quite elderly at the time. He had already been condemned for blasphemy two years previously for La Ricotta. Of course, here in Ireland, we’ve had our own problems with the Church over the years.

Clearly, I was not equipped to address this complex poem. I made a rough draft and set it aside and instead I embarked on a voyage of discovery which brought me ever closer to Italy. I acquired as many texts as I could – from Rosanna Rossanda’s beautiful memoir The Comrade from Milan to Claudio Pavone’s Civil War. I bought all the novels I could find, watched every film in the repertoire from De Sica to Sorrentino, downloaded the music from the canto popolare of the mondine to the songs of De André.

I felt strongly attracted to Pasolini’s public position as a leftwing writer and noted that the writer engagé was an important feature of Italian cultural life before and after the war, and indeed on both sides of the political  divide. I have written myself about the importance of political engagement for a writer – in an essay called ‘Riding Against The Lizard’, for example, published more than ten years ago. It’s a sad fact that at the time I couldn’t say for most Irish writers whether they were on the left or right, and in fact several writers contacted me after that essay to say that they thought politics were irrelevant to writing. On the other hand, I’m glad to say, there are now several Irish writers who are politically aligned. I would instance Sally Rooney, for example, who has declared herself a Marxist. 

But to return to the translation, at some point an Italian friend of mine asked me if I was ever going to translate ‘Le Ceneri’ or had I simply given up. It was a kind of challenge and it sent me back to the text, this time armed with a better understanding of the history, the politics and the language.

I began to work on it consistently and at the same time I began the process of acquiring the right to publish it. Neither proved easy, the poem for obvious reasons and the rights because, I think, of the Italian reluctance to say no. To begin with I tried writing to a generic Garzanti email rights address without any result. Then I asked around among my friends and one of them had a contact at the publisher. So I wrote to this contact who passed me on to the rights department. The rights department informed me that the rights had been sold to Random House, in effect to Norman Macafee.

So I wrote to Random House explaining that I only wanted to translate this single poem, not the entire collection. They replied rather generously that they only owned the North America rights and that, as far as they were concerned there was no problem. I wrote back to Garzanti who told me the same story again as they had told me previously, that is, the rights belonged to Random House. In the end, by a circuitous route, I discovered that the rights holder, a relation of Pasolini, was unlikely to grant permission. In short, the whole ship was dead in the water.

By that point I had made a rough draft of the whole poem but without the permission to publish it I abandoned the project. This was perhaps 2015 or ’16 – unfortunately I lost all of the related emails when I changed server, so I don’t have a precise date. 

Eventually, in 2020, during the lockdown, I was writing a diary in poetry form and when May came around I thought of Pasolini. Poems have multiple lives. They become remade in each reader’s imagination and translations, in particular, are heavily contingent on the context in which the translation occurs. One need only look at the way the title of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ has been translated into Italian from Mario Praz’s canonic 1932 La Terra Desolata to the second world war translation of Luigi Berti (1941) La Terra Deserta to the much more climate-change conscious La Terra Devastata of Carmen Gallo from just last year, the most recent translation I think. The subtle differences between desolata, deserta and devastata speak volumes about how the translated text is to be read in its time. It would make an interesting study perhaps, to see how the lexicon of both translations differs – if at all – and what it says about the changing context. Gallo, in fact, is a poet herself and I’m told that her choice of register is completely different to that of the preceding translations.

So I reread ‘Le Ceneri’ in that May of 2020, possibly the worst part of the pandemic, when we were being warned of contagion in the very air we were breathing, when we were all wearing masks and washing hands and keeping our distance, and this time that opening phrase, ‘Non è di maggio questa impura aria’ had an entirely different meaning for me.

So I begin the poem with ‘not like May this unclean air’. Unclean, of course is a historical term that was used for the plague and for lepers. In some places, lepers were required to call out ‘Unclean’ whenever a healthy person approached. Then came ‘Spande una mortale/pace, disamorata come i nostri destini’ which I translate as ‘spreading a deadly peace/loveless like our cursed fate’. I deliberately chose to read it not as having the mortale pace as it’s subject, but rather as a continuation of the ‘impura aria’ which I imagined ‘spreading a deadly peace.’ This is, I think, a deliberate misreading, one of the reasons I tend to think of it as a rifacimento rather than a translation – more of that shortly. However, I note that Macafee has done something similar, making the month of May the subject of the verb ‘spande’. I think both of us are somewhat caught in Pasolini’s slightly hermetic style. The import of his verses is clear and the emotion they evoke is also clear but quite how he gets there in terms of syntax is another matter quite often.

Then we come to another phrase which for me had an extra significance. One of the themes of my own book is climate change and, indeed, I saw and still see, the pandemic as closely linked to the collapse of nature. So when I came to ‘In esso c’è il grigiore del mondo,/ la fine del decennio in cui ci appare/tra le macerie…’ etc I chose to read it as: ‘the greying of the world is here/this decade’s end…’ a kind of reference to the apocalyptic feeling many of us had at that time, that the world was at some sort of terminal state and things would never be the same again. And so on. The second half of the poem relates more closely to Gramsci and to Pasolini’s view that in Gramsci’s day things were clearer and more hopeful – an assertion, oddly enough, that echoes the words of Jesus in Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo where he accuses the Scribes and Pharisees of using the same excuse. Nevertheless it ends on a negative note that Gramsci is still a prisoner of what Pasolini calls ‘the patricians’.

In comparing my remaking of the poem with Norman Macafee’s translation I see at work my usual reductionist tendencies in verse. My instinct is always to shorten the line, to cut explanatory images, to eliminate pointers to meaning and to leave it to the reader as much as possible, and this is in direct conflict with Pasolini’s own style which Macafee captures much more accurately than me. Although it must be said that I sense in Pasolini the same instinct that I have, to ‘make it strange’, to make the reader work, though we go about it in different ways.

This brings us to the classic question about the the role of the translator – to make a faithful rendering of a poem in the target language, catching, in the process something of the greatness of the original, or, on the other hand, to think of the translation as a completely new work whose foundations lie in the original. I tend towards the latter in my own writing. I have translated individual poems by other Italian poets from Quasimodo to Maria Luisa Spaziani and also several contemporary writers such as Rosaria Lo Russo, Silvia Secco, Daniele Serafini and Elisa Audino. In each case I would argue that instead of a true translation what I produced was a rifacimento. Always, I might add with the agreement of the author – at least of the living. The dead don’t complain.

So to conclude, I have been asked to read my version, but apart from this opening section, I feel the translation as a whole is far from ready. In looking it over for this paper I found several notes to the effect that more work was needed, lots of question marks, passages underlined and so on. When I left it I literally dropped it.

Before we read I want to issue some caveats. Since the translation was destined to be in one of my books I chose to dispense with, for example, the three line verses in favour of my own approach to structure; the lines are stripped back to bare necessity as is my own style; there’s no rhyme; none of my poems contain any punctuation, so poor old Pasolini has to suffer the same fate etc etc. In other words, this is more a remake, a rifacimento, a version, a new poem closely inspired by the original, than a faithful translation. 

Gramsci’s Ashes
not like May this unclean air
that darkens the shade
of the stranger’s garden 
or the glare that blinds
or the sky drizzling 
over the yellow attics
a half circle of veils 
on the sweep of the Tiber 
and the blue hills of Lazio
spreading a deadly peace
loveless like our cursed fate
between the ancient 
autumnal walls of May
the greying of the world is here
this decade’s end 
which reveals among the ruins 
the profound and simple power 
of remaking life
in the drenched and barren silence
you   young man in that May 
when error was still life
that Italian May that gave 
some force to life
so much less frustrated 
and compromised
than our fathers 
my poor brother 
already with your fine hand
you sketched the dream 
that lights this silence
can’t you see it
you who sleep 
in this stranger’s place
a prisoner still
still the tedious 
patricians wall you in
and fading out
some few notes reach you 
from the workshop 
anvils of Testaccio
easing into evening
between miserable shanties 
raw tips of cans scrap iron
where an apprentice rambles
singing his cruel song
his day already ended
as the rain dries away
After the Italian of Pier Paolo Pasolini
May 20th 2022