Pier Paolo Pasolini is perhaps best known as a film director, but he also wrote a number of novels, as well as poetry and plays. The Street Kids is a new translation, by Anne Goldstein, of his first novel, Ragazza di vita, originally published in 1955 and previously translated as The Ragazzi. It’s a story of adolescents and young men struggling to survive in post-war Rome which caused a scandal on publication for its honest portrayal of the ‘underclass’ – the Trainspotting of its day.
It also shares with Trainspotting its episodic nature. Riccetto is the unifying character, with others coming and going, and not all surviving until the novel’s conclusion. The first chapter provides a good example of this. Chronologically first – it begins with mention of Riccetto’s first communion – it presents us with a picture of a country with little to offer where survival day-to-day:
“At the market there was nothing, not even a cabbage stalk. The crowd began to move through the warehouses, under the shed roofs, into the stores, because it wouldn’t stand for coming away empty-handed.”
Finding a cellar with tyres, tarpaulins and cheeses, the crowd surge through the door, Riccetto and his friend Marcello included, “swallowed up by the suck of the crowd and their feet barely touching the ground.” Marcelo manages to stuff some tyres in a sack – jumping over the corpse of a woman killed in the crush – but loses them later to the police. This struggle to stay alive by any means possible, however, is contrasted (as it is throughout) with the joy of youth: one moment they are stealing a manhole cover, the next swimming and bathing in the sun. The chapter ends with the boys on a boat which they have somehow raised the money to rent. Riccetto spots a swallow thrashing in the water and dives in to rescue it:
“’It’s all wet,’ he said after a while, ‘Let’s wait for it to dry off.’ It didn’t take long; in five minutes it was flying off among its companions, over the Tiber, and Riccetto could no longer distinguish it from the others.”
It is this lyrical ending which gives the chapter the shape of a short story, and also indicates that Pasolini will present his characters in three dimensions, not simply as hard men and hooligans.
Money is a constant obsession, and what can be done with it is measured exactly:
“Riccetto had just a few cents left, enough to buy two or three cigarettes and take the tram.”
At one point he uses the last of his money to buy a tram ticket so he can steal a woman’s purse form her bag. With money in his pocket he feels like a king:
“Riccetto sang… at the top of his lungs, completely reconciled with life, full of great plans for the near future, and touching the cash in his pocket: cash which is the source of every pleasure and every satisfaction in this filthy world.”
As in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, poverty means every coin is counted and every moment of sufficiency regarded as great wealth.
Though Riccetto grows older, this is not a coming of age story, or one where character development is Pasolini’s primary concern: in a sense his characters have must survive first, and develop later. Even when Riccetto becomes engaged it is suggested that his maturity is to some extent superficial, “content to play the part of a serious youth,” though perhaps also indicating a longing to do more than simply live of the streets. Life, however, is precarious, as is perhaps best demonstrated by the final chapter when another boy, Genesio decides to swim across a river, but gets into difficulties on the return journey:
“Genesio no longer put up any resistance, poor boy, and flung his arms around, still not asking for help. Every so often he sank under the surface of the current and then re-emerged a little further down.”
From the woman killed in the crush to find food to the boy swept away by the current, the novel’s characters live their lives under threat, knowing that one wrong step might mean the end.
The Street Kids is not only a vivid historical document, but a valuable reminder that war and its aftermath are merciless, and that we should be careful not to condemn its survivors. At the same time, it also radiates a love of life, a joy in simple pleasures, which we might also learn from.