Obituary: Paolo Volponi

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The Independent Online
Paolo Volponi, writer, social worker, politician: born Urbino, Italy 6 February 1924; died Ancona, Italy 23 August 1994.

PAOLO VOLPONI was at once a politician and one of the most important contemporary Italian writers, a novelist of originality.

He was born in Urbino in 1924. After law studies, graduating in 1947, he entered the Olivetti firm in 1950, of which he became the director of social services in 1956. From 1972 to 1975 he worked for Fiat and began studying the relationships between factory life and the realities of urban existence in an ambitious research project sponsored by the Agnelli Foundation. When he joined the Italian Communist Party, this activity was interrupted and the party elected him as an independent senator in 1983.

At the same time, Volponi had been pursuing a productive literary career. It began, as such careers often do, with an initial slim volume of poems, Il ramarro ('The Green Lizard') in 1948, followed by two more collections, L'antica moneta (1955) and Le porte dell'Appennino ('The Gates of the Appennines', 1960). Unlike most novelists who force their entry into the literary establishment through poetry, Volponi did not desert his muse, and published further collections in 1980 and 1986.

Volponi's first novel, Povero Albino (1962), was followed in the same year by Memoriale. His La macchina mondiale was published in 1965, but the bulk of his fiction appeared in the Seventies and Eighties: Corporale (1974), Il sipario ducale ('The Ducal Curtain', 1975), Il pianeta irritable ('The Irritable Planet', 1978) and his best- known work, Il lanciatoro di giavellotto ('The Javelin Thrower', 1981). He won all the top literary prizes, including the Viareggio and the Strega.

Il lanciatoro di giavellotto contains a portrait of a troubled adolescent boy, Dami, which is the most memorable of all such portraits since JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, written 30 years before. The story takes place during the inter-war period of Mussolini's career, between the Ethiopian adventure and the Fascist alliance with Hitler. The drama begins like a realistic film by Comencini or Pasolini. Dami is a working-class boy with an absent father who is confronted at an early age by the unbridled sexual activities of his mother and her lover, the Fascist commandant Marcacci. These traumatic experiences result in the development of an ambiguous nature in Dami, who becomes an obsessed voyeur and rejects any advances from the opposite sex. Indeed, he feels a disturbing erotic attraction towards the brute handsomeness of Marcacci. He betrays an old friend, the shoemaker Occhialini, and murders his sister Vitina just as she is beginning her first love affair.

In this imbroglio of Jacobean tragic proportions, Dami at the peak of sexual development is torn between his excessive sensitivity and an uncontrollable erotomania, completely unable to adjust to 'normal' existence and incapable of telling friend from foe in the sexual jungle. Yet he remains a touching and attractive character who cries out for understanding, even though we know he would reject it with virulent contempt.

In several of Volponi's other novels we find similar human symbols of the modern era's moral disintegration, people totally unable to adapt to a society which is manifestly powerless to offer the slightest encouragement to them in their despairingly marginal existences. In these novels, Volponi shows himself to be an ardent disciple of Alberto Moravia's early writings.

His Irritable Planet continues this exploration of a world without hope into the science fiction ambience of the third millennium. We find an apocalyptic universe destroyed by terrifying atomic devastations, climatic mutations and irremediably polluted urban and natural environments. Here Volponi becomes a pitiless Marxist prophet of the decline of human civilisation. His four characters - a baboon, an elephant, a goose and a dwarf - set out on a quest for something or other. We do not know what this Grail can be until the end of the novel, when it turns out to be nothing at all spiritual or chivalrous, though the ill-assorted quartet go through many of the rites of passage of the conventional quest story, encountering traps and terrifying obstacles, in a perpetual guerrilla activity whose scenes take place under diluvian rains that threaten to engulf the whole planet. There is no real end in sight, and this is the most disturbing aspect of the whole novel. Everything is pointless. Volponi is the Samuel Beckett of science fiction in this work.

Volponi had been hiding in a drawer the manuscript of his last- published novel, La strada per Roma ('The Road to Rome'), for 30 years until it appeared in 1991. It shows that he was from the start a fully accomplished novelist and a stylist of wit and grace in the depiction of characters and scenes not usually associated with such qualities.

(Photograph omitted)

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