PETROLIO.<i> By Pier Paolo Pasolini</i> .<i> Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein</i> . <i> Pantheon: 470 pp., $27</i>

<i> George Armstrong was for 28 years the Rome correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper and is a regular contributor to the Economist and to this paper's Opinion pages</i>

Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in 1975 by a 17-year-old male hooker. This book--written between 1972 and 1974--was not published in Italy until 1992. Had the author lived longer than his 53 years, “Petrolio” would never have been published anywhere. It is the first draft of a book that, as Pasolini said in a letter to his pal, the widely read novelist Alberto Moravia, he hoped would eventually be issued in only a limited edition. This sprawling draft of what might have developed into a novel culls “documentation” from the overheated Italian press relating to the nefarious doings of Italy’s political bosses, the Christian Democrats and the fascists in particular. The dark nature of the material also raised questions concerning his death.

Pasolini’s killer did not convince the film director’s friends and admirers that he acted alone. Ergo, fascist thugs had followed the Marxist Pasolini and the youth to a deserted place outside Rome and they may have done the actual killing. (The argument was that Pasolini was too smart and too athletic to be subdued by a kid armed with a wooden plank.) The aura of mystery surrounding his death probably convinced the Italian publishers to give this very botchy draft a try.

But publishing it has proved a disservice to all. It is maddeningly incoherent and self-contradictory. The time-frame is not linear, which would not have been a problem if, at the end, the pieces fell into place. Alas, they never do.


Pasolini’s letter to Moravia, which was never mailed and is included in the book, reveals some of his high ambitions for this unfinished work. He mentions planning to insert quotes from the classic Greek texts (for example, the “beginning lines from the Oresteia”). He also envisioned his work as a “monumental work, a modern Satyricon.”

Carlo, the principal character, is a “Catholic of the left wing” with a top position in the state-owned oil refinery company. Another Carlo in the novel is the same man but with a different personality. Oh, good, the reader may think: What we have here is another “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” leitmotif! Pasolini says that he will call them Carlo I and Carlo II. Later on, he opts for Carlo and Karl. Pasolini soon forgets to distinguish between the two, and the reader is left adrift and, in my particular case, angry. For the sake of this review, I will give the two Carlos their numbers.

Carlo I, “a wealthy cultivated engineer” of 35, starts off, interestingly enough, by seducing and having sex with his mother; he then goes on to expose himself to her servant girls. His hand is seldom far from his crotch. Carlo II lives in the slums of Rome. He is unwashed and seeks out cheap female whores.

We follow Carlo I to a literary salon where Pasolini gives us a neat sketch of Moravia and himself, though not identified as such: “Timid, and so more aggressive, an aggressiveness mixed with natural sweetness. . . . He did not seem to feel at all at ease; if anything, he seemed to feel he had been placed there by his success and his stormy reputation.”

Is there any chance that, with the alleged collapse of Communism in the Western world, no one will ever again dismiss his or her adversary as being “bourgeois”? Pasolini, a purer Marxist than most members of the Italian Communist Party, writes of “stairs smelling of bourgeois wax” and of a worker who “was clearly distinguishable by his physical presence alone, from a bourgeois, as a mechanic from a student, a left-wing intellectual from one of the right, an academic from a writer. Confusion was not possible.”

At one moment, Carlo I looks in a mirror and realizes that he has two large breasts and that his penis has vanished. On the next page, Carlo II goes to a dump heap outside Rome where someone has set up 20 working-class boys for him to sexually service. The first five or six encounters are described in vivid detail. This is hard-core stuff. And how does the reader know if this is No. 1 or No. 2 out there amid the garbage? Pasolini offers one clue: One of the boys compliments Carlo on his servicing by saying “Bravo!” Had it been Carlo I, with those breasts and that vulva, it would have been “Brava!”

Apparently, the reader is expected to understand that Carlo I’s painless and almost instantaneous sex change takes place when his alter-ego is being possessed by the 20 boys. Later, he looks in that mirror again and still sees the breasts, but when he is importuned by a handsome Sicilian restaurant worker in Rome (Pasolini suggests that Carlo I is in the pay of the fascists and that blackmail is the motive for this sexual liaison), he manages to sexually satisfy the youth as an anatomical male. The youth then vanishes forever from these pages. In reflection, Carlo I muses: “If boys of the people were supposed to have penises bigger and more powerful than those of their masters, who are farther from nature, then that penis (his one-night-stand’s) confirmed a common and current conviction.” This is certainly in keeping with Pasolini’s own view of Marxism.

When the young Pasolini applied for his Communist Party card, he put down “intellectual” on the line asking for his occupation. Fair enough, in a country where even journalists are classified in that category. He was a screenwriter once for Fellini; he wrote a series of intelligent, coherent political columns for the once staid Milan paper, Il Corriere della Sera. He directed numerous films, but I would consider only two low-budget ones worthy: “The Hawks and the Sparrows” and “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” perhaps the best film about Jesus ever made and the one least likely to become dated. Pasolini’s last film, completed a few days before his murder, was “Salo--the 120 Days of Sodom.” It was about the last-ditch stand of depraved Italian fascists in the last days of the German occupation.

Translator Ann Goldstein was heroic in her herculean undertaking. But twice she has a character smelling the scent of “lime” trees. As once the owner of Italy’s only lime tree (imported from Los Angeles) I think she meant “linden” (Tilia europea).