Thursday 4 August 2011

Penguin no. 1200: The Girl on the Via Flaminia
by Alfred Hayes

Because hope and possibility and illusion had begun even then to vanish, and more and more he had let the idea of his own extinction become part of the way he lived, and part of the way he felt, and all the values he put on everything were part of the knowledge and the certainty that he would occupy such a grave as he had passed himself so many times since: earth no higher than the surrounding earth, and the crossed sticks planted in the earth, and a helmet on the crossed sticks, and under the helmet the dogtags hanging, and the rain falling on all of it. 

The Via Flaminia is a street in Rome that starts near the stone arches on the far side of the Piazza del Popolo, and runs down to the river. It's situated close by some of the most wonderful parts of Rome for the visitor: it's walking distance from the Vatican museums and the gardens of the Villa Borghese, near the Basilica di Santa Maria with the Caravaggios which can be viewed for free, and the Piazza del Popolo which neatly summarises Rome's essential qualities: the symmetry and the overwhelming scale.  But this author isn't interested in these aspects of the city. The location seems chosen for the context it gives the story, illustrating the options available to the main character Lisa. If she cannot reconcile herself to life in the rented room inside the apartment of Signora Pulcini on the Via Flaminia, she can choose the river or the city: death or prostitution. Her situation is desperate and her options are limited.

The Rome evoked here is simply unrecognisable. This is Rome at the end of 1944, six months after it was liberated from Nazi occupation by the Americans, the year after it has been bombed by the Allies, and with the war still being waged in other parts of Italy. Rome seems tawdry and defeated, its roads lined with prostitutes. On New Year's Eve drunken Allied soldiers celebrate by firing off weapons. The Italian government is unstable and the people are without hope. There is the frequent lament that Italy, and by extrapolation Europe, is finished. The future belongs to America; escape is the preferred strategy.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this novel is the way in which the author has captured a particular moment in the city's history and described the dynamics of survival, and the way people felt. He presents disparate views of the situation, where people view the world from their own small window, and never very rationally. This author acts as observer, describing the spectrum of attitudes without judgement. There is no sense that one view is correct and the other wrong; simply that in a difficult situation people behave as they behave. Life in Rome is bleak, with a lack of money, of food and of accommodation, and in their relentless destitution the people look for a way to cope, all the while blaming and condemning without troubling to reflect on whether their assessments are fair. So the Americans are resented for their advantages; and the Italian women are condemned  for trading sex for food, and for deluding themselves with the hope that the next American man they meet will be their ticket to a better life.

And of course, some of the American soldiers take advantage of this desperation, conceal the existence of wives and girlfriends at home, offer the Italian women false hope. But this story focuses on one G.I. who tries to behave honestly. He wants to trade the food he doesn't need for the warmth and sex he craves, while making it clear that he isn't promising anything more. Having faced the prospect of his own death, and living for months without privacy in the company of men, he longs for some kind of domesticity: a door that can be shut, a clean bed, a pillow, a girl, and some warmth. The girl can be any girl; it's a simulation of domesticity that he craves. A friend of a friend recommends Lisa, and she accepts the trade out of desperation, but she is unable to reconcile herself to what she been forced to choose. Does a pretence of domesticity differ that much from prostitution? Does it have any meaning when the individuals haven't chosen each other? As it all unravels the G.I. justifies himself, but slowly begins to recognise the price she has been required to pay, and to see the impracticality of his intentions.

It is no surprise to find that Alfred Hayes was a screenwriter. This book reads like a play: there is very circumscribed cast of characters, one individual representing each viewpoint, almost all the action taking place inside the apartment at the Via Flaminia. The dialogue works well, while the descriptive passages are unpleasant to read, with long rambling sentences and one idea merging into the next. Perhaps it captures the disorder and disintegration, but it seems like an attempt at originality, which reads like a pointless novelty. But this is only a minor criticism. The novel is interesting for the insight it offers into life in Rome at the end of the war.

I have to thank French Sydneysider for very kindly sending me a copy of this book after she looked through my Penguin lists and noticed I didn't have it. It was lovely to have it arrive in the mail last week.


  1. I like the sound of this book. I'm very attracted to books set in Italy at the moment.

  2. Hi Karyn - don't know if they told you beforehand, or if anyone else has, but you're mentioned in The Guardian today!

  3. Dear Stuck, please direct me to The Guardian reference. My curiosity is more than a little piqued! Many cheers, K

  4. Thanks Guy, Joanne and Simon. And Kevin, the blog was given a mention on The Guardian's website on Saturday in Internet Picks of the Week

  5. There are good and bad books about the WWII. This is a good one.



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