Books: Field of dreams

Michael Arditti reads a rough draft
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The Independent Culture
Petrolio by Pier Paolo Pasolini, translated by Anne Goldstein, Secker, pounds 9.99

Few stable doors can have been closed as tardily as that of the Pasolini family, when they tried to suppress this novel. Given the savage satire and subversive sexuality of Pasolini's films, it's hard to imagine any reader being shocked by the style or content of Petrolio, although familial sensibilities may well have been hurt by the episode in which the protagonist has sex with his mother, sisters and grandmother, not to mention 40 other women.

Pasolini planned Petrolio as a 2,000-page consummation of his life and work. In its unfinished state, it runs to a quarter of that length but still constitutes a compendium of favourite themes: Marxism; anti-clericalism; the fetishism of working-class youths. It eschews linear narrative in favour of more than 200 "notes": their long detours into dreams, visions and myths echo Sterne. But whereas Tristram Shandy's digressions are the heart of the novel, Petrolio's often appear to be superfluous limbs.

The novel concerns the political, sexual and social development of Carlo, a young engineer working for the state gas and oil company ENI in the Sixties and Seventies. And yet it is no Bildungsroman. Pasolini rejects coherent characterisation, declaring that "psychology is forcibly replaced by ideology". He splits Carlo into two: Carlo the first and Carlo the second; or Carlo and Karl. As a conceit, this neatly expresses the psychic divisions Pasolini attributes to capitalist society, even if the two Carlos are such mirror opposites that they don't so much reflect as cancel each other.

Carlo 1 is usually the successful industrialist and Carlo 2 the freer spirit devoted to "an infinite series of sexual fulfilments". This second Carlo also changes sex, but in a manner closer to the crude confusions of Yann Martel's Self than the witty logic of Woolf's Orlando. His transformation is instigated by exposure to a truck-load of seductive Young Communists. Then, in a scene which veers close to pornography, he services 20 boys in a field. Pasolini's social determinism is paralleled by a sexual determinism, whereby attraction to men literally makes one a woman.

The novel's incompleteness makes it particularly hard to criticise. Even so, it seems wilfully to ignore the advice it quotes from De Sade not "to require too much from the reader". The long digressions tax the reader's patience. Some of them run to 50 pages, including stories of an intellectual who meets the devil and a sadistic English film-critic (whose identification in a footnote would appear to be libellous) who buys a young girl.

Nonetheless, Petrolio offers a compelling testament to an inventive mind and a dyspeptic vision. One feels an intense intimacy with the author, present both explicitly, in direct address, and implicitly, as puppet- master to his mouthpieces. The repetitions and marginalia take one very close to authorial intentions which are customarily buried in a second draft. To read it is a strange experience, more akin to scanning a musical score, examining architectural drawings or even listening to cricket on the radio than immersion in the imagined world of fully realised fiction.