Hosting the Stranger

Volume 4 ~ 2011

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Persecution

Pier Paolo Pasolini

I was returning by way of Via Portuense.
Lucid amidst the tumult of other people’s
celebration (offputting, devoid of light,

never for me – I even spurn what is left me),
I parked the car on a crumbling sidewalk,
in the waning evening sun, in the gloomy

chaos of a suburban terminus. The air
was soft as can be, people were idling
about in the shadow of a wretched

hedgerow around a café – a lifeless
barrier against an unspeakable
vision of sun, shanties, and construction sites....

Around those tables sat people
whom the still torrid evening seemed to turn
into spirits: mothers with trampled affections –

daughters in dresses whose cheerful,
bourgeois shabbiness broke my heart –
neighbors… Anyone, in short, who could

afford the pleasure of spending money
at a place that made their faraway borough
seem like the great city centers.

By chance I went into this café to get
something to drink, worn out by the sun,
listless and wilting from sorrow and knowledge.

Then, walking against the light, I saw
the sun darken over the children and teenagers
playing along the wall in the incurable

heat; and from the roofs, the hedges,
the dust-covered or heat-blasted trees,
from the dried-up underbrush

and the sweet rolling hills that break up
the countryside down to the sea, there came
a dark, seething wind, a murky shadow,

monstrous exhalation that soon became
what it had always been: an evening breeze,
which for those spirits lost down there

in the heart of life was a faint banner
beckoning from the summer of death.
Suddenly banding together as if to shout out

that strength lies in numbers, those artless
youngsters put a token in the jukebox,
and a new song sang of their fate.

My passion consumed to a state of frightened
tenderness, I listened to that fate,
an anonymous guest at its consumption.

I was listening to life as a survivor.
But how precious that life still was!
The same life as ever, without hatred, without

love, lost in its infinite form!
The working and middle classes, crass invasion
of the August holiday, as though intimidated,

in that sun, by some dark obsession—
lowliest expression of the masses, little people lost
in their still villagelike neighborhood,

surviving on the margins of the great battle:
the children laugh, the youngest playing
and the bigger ones listening to the jukebox

in the open air, in the bushes, strong, pure,
so alive as to seem even more alive
in the dark breath blowing over them....

I exited the café – a sad presence among
the revelers, flesh among those spirits—
and something tremendous happened ... Just a shudder,

mind you, a feeling, nothing, really... Clearly
I was dazed by all that Sunday sun...
As I stepped outside, into the enclosure

of hedges around the café,
everything was behind me. The people
at their tables, the youngsters with their ignorant

beauty, the puplike children: nothing was
before me anymore, and like a song
for my loneliness – in that gentle wind

that had stirred up as if on cue –
the jukebox raised its voice to the skies.
Behind me. And I went forward.

Why? For what reason, really?
Alone, like a foetus at the mythic
origins of a life, or a career....

Alone as a dog, or better yet, barren
as dry straw, as light that sheds
no light on anything. No, I could not

look back, at the lost forms
of existence: I knew for certain
they would only have been cruelly silent

as they watched me leave. Weak, exposed,
I left them behind me, still alive,
still warm, a dead man still not sure

he’d really reached the end.
The setting sun colored the dust, the low
buildings, the squat, abandoned dry-walls

before me, and in its light, struck from the ranks
of men, hunched and swaying, all alone
in the delicious froth of those nameless,

festive places of summer, I felt in danger
of being lynched – but then a laugh...
a gentle, comic spectre of love....

a body alive and fearless....
rose up inside me, like a statue inside a statue.
And so I set out on my way again.

I could have sought pity, could have surrendered
at that moment: denied myself, disowned
myself, taken refuge in a Church, fled to where

for centuries men have laid down their arms...
But instead, to my luck, that life behind me,
combined with the mournful, vital

rays of evening, over the lots and stables,
set me free: Man has no rights.
No reality, no town, no valley his own...

And my grievance rang out, as it always does,
as henceforth unnecessary, naively
stubborn, a monster of reason and passion.

It rang a bit mad, as though addressed to people
whom it didn’t concern or were too wretched to understand,
innocent objects of an innocent’s hatred.

“How could they have so betrayed
their pastors, their honor, their love?
Ah, maybe it’s ferocity protects the flock.

For he knows their words were sincere:
it was all but a simple, and thus mature,
calculation... No, the heart has no rights!

And it took very little, alas, to deform the form
of this heart, which was already unclear
in the eyes of those cocksure, ironic, ignorant souls

like children under the gaze of fathers
who look kindly on their ancient
cruelties, their stupid rages....

And it was easy to find them complicit in the myth,
these people ‘more royalist than the king,’
heart-rending captives of public housing and slums,

their bodies fed on meagre soups and wretched fats,
their shirts stained with rings of dirt
around the collar, their children screaming

deep inside apartments black as hospices,
the napes of their fragile necks yellow with pommade
or tortured by premature bald spots,

their murderous national highway....
And some are Catholics! And Fascists!
Which lets them say: I too am my own man, I too

am granted my not-unworthy task in life!
My actions, too, are blessed by the knowledge
that to serve is heroic!

And if, among their number, drinking there
in the scorching, threatening breeze, there
were some brotherly men, engaged,

like him, in the fight to make man whole...
they would find the finished work before them:
a man despised by other men.

And they would see him as lost in that crowd.
The pure man has no rights…. Their unbending
passion offended, they would have every reason

to cast a harsh and almost hostile
eye on him, the man who’s lost
his obscure game with public opinion.

Oh, he can scream to himself all right,
immersed in the terror of the hypocrisy
that is the norm in this humble universe:

But in front of others he knows there is
no choice but to accept the outcome of all
that ends in humiliation, or in a little poetry....

Thus an army was ready – some so they could live,
others so they could own in peace –
to relegate this person, here and now,

to the ranks of evil, where he now lies.
O savage masses, whom he loves so much,
O dead land whose life, the naked sun

of Italy, he cherishes so much!
Here is meet reward for his tenderness:
it is a dishonor to shake his hand.”

My victory, my defeat, my wholeness!
Everything is now behind me.... All it took
was a breath of black wind over the lowly

and endless, vulgar and austere merriment
of a mid-August holiday afternoon,
to make me, in my ending, real again.

Eyes, be eyes again! I now recognize
what I knew before: sun and solitude.
Senses, be senses again, life has a new,

atrociously naked place in the world.
I get back in my car, turn on the motor,
and speed off: the grimy evening burns

a clinic with green shutters, the void
of a foundation pit with river reeds,
the Parrocchietta alone against the fire,1

the Trullo2 a detritus of identical facades
the color of excrement, a stream of cars
returning from troubled shoals,

Rome smeared like mud on the fiery blade
of the sky, young boys in bloom,
in the same wretched T-shirt all summer,

ah, shame and splendor, shame and splendor!
A thousand clouds of peace surround the sky.
Love, thou shalt never cease to be love.

     (1961)

— Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli


Footnotes.

  1. The Parrocchietta is an area on the outskirts of Rome, part of the Portuense suburb. In Pasolini's time, and to a lesser degree today, it was home to many sub-proletarian families who had emigrated from the Italian south to the capital's periphery. It derives its name from the parish church (Parrocchia) of Santa Maria del Carmine e San Giuseppe al Casaletto. (Translator's note.)
  2. The Trullo, like the neighboring Parrocchietta, forms part of the larger Portuense district. It draws its name from the presence of a nearby first-century Roman sepulcher along the Tiber, some five meters high and in shape recalling the traditional conical Apulian house known as trullo. (Translator's note.)