On Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Long Road of Sand"

Setting out in his Fiat 1100 from the Ligurian coast in June of 1959, Pier Paolo Pasolini spent the next couple months wending his way around Italy’s seemingly endless shoreline, arriving—at summer’s end—in the northeastern seaport of Trieste, not far from the Slovenian border. Commissioned by the magazine Successo, Pasolini’s spirited travelogue appeared in successive issues, illustrated with shots by the photographer Paolo di Paolo of chaises longues and beachside cafés, the holiday jet-set and throngs of teenagers clad in swimwear. Expertly translated by Stephen Sartarelli (whose renderings of Pasolini’s poetry came out from University of Chicago Press in 2014), this handsome English-language edition of Pasolini’s features photographs by Philippe Séclier, who retraced Pasolini’s journey, taking images that provide striking counterpoints to the text and update di Paolo’s repertoire in a more personal, intimate vernacular.

A notoriously heretical Marxist and sworn enemy of modernity, Pasolini calls to mind anything but the bourgeois trappings of “success.” His verse, cinema, journalism, and theater waged, in fact, tireless opposition against Italy’s neo-capitalist transformation, in nearly every medium imaginable. Yet here, just as the country’s post-war “economic miracle” picks up steam, we find Pasolini waxing enthusiastic about its future, reveling in those countless pockets of dialect and regional culture that still marked the peninsula’s coast, from sprawling resort towns to tiny fishing villages. Unique in Pasolini’s body of work, this hybrid genre—journalistic, diaristic, conversational, impressionistic—offers a window on to numerous facets of his prodigious oeuvre. The volume also includes the integral version of Pasolini’s chronicle, restoring—thanks to the manuscript provided by his cousin Graziela Chiarcossi—numerous passages cut from the magazine feature.

“I am happy. For a long time I was not able to say this.” Thus Pasolini scribbles on a sheet of stationary from the Hotel Savoia one July afternoon in 1959, on the Island of Ischia. Fired from his teaching job (for consorting with minors) and ejected from the local Communist party in the northern province of Friuli, he had fled to Rome in 1949 under a cloud of humiliation and hardship. A decade later, his prominent—if controversial—place in Italy’s literary scene was unquestionable. Indeed, as much as The Long Road of Sand describes contemporary coastal life, it offers up a lively cross-section of the cultural elite. Pasolini visits Alberto Moravia in the town of Fregene, where the latter is finishing the novels Boredom and Contemplation; he stops in on Federico Fellini on the set of La Dolce Vita (for which Pasolini served as a consultant); the actress Elsa De Giorgio briefly travels with him on the way to Naples, where he joins “the other Elsa—Elsa Morante.” On the beach in Forte de Marmi Pasolini stumbles across the Fiat industrialist Gianni Agnelli (“fat, florid, tanned”), while among the docked yachts of Portofino he chats with a restaurant owner who expects Ava Gardner for dinner.

Yet the chronicle’s keenest reflections—like those out of which Pasolini forged an entire worldview—emerge in his discussions of provincial life: Ligurian curses and Neapolitan slang, class mores and rituals, local superstitions and aromas. On the road from Naples to Vallo Lucano in the province of Salerno, he notes the scent of wet straw, liquorice, sewage, and citrus—“surviving smells of a civilization that, for us, has vanished.” The threatened extinction of Italy’s varied, millennial regional cultures—by virtue of neo-capitalist “homologation”—formed Pasolini’s most consistent and urgent admonition. As Italy’s economic boom gathered momentum, turning the country almost overnight from a largely agrarian country to an industrial powerhouse, his warnings began to take on substance.

Chatting with the prominent abstract painters Giulio Turcato and Giuseppe Santomaso in Venice, Pasolini notes their complaints regarding the lagoon’s stifling waves of sightseers—a mass tourism increasingly aped by Italians themselves on the new “American-style” beaches which Pasolini finds all along the coast. The country’s famed “Autostrada del sole” (“Motorway of the sun”) would open just a few years later, shuttling northern Italians to sun-drenched beaches in the cars that definitively transformed Italian culture, linking regions long isolated from each other. What the automobile could not link and level, the television did. And it was against the latter that Pasolini aimed countless penetrating invectives in the years that followed. On the cusp of those transformations, however, The Long Road of Sand reveals a still sanguine Pasolini, who remarks with a certain detached amusement upon radios and jukeboxes, Lambrettas and green suede shoes spotted on the Ligurian Riviera. He draws reassurance, in any case, from phenomena that remain unchanged. Driving between the cities of Catania and Siracusa in Sicily, he travels for forty kilometers without seeing another car or kitchen light. He likewise finds the island of Ischia “as it was two thousand years ago.”

Aside from their own aesthetic qualities, one of the chief merits of Séclier’s accompanying photographs is the continuity and the change they register in the sites Pasolini describes. Several shots of southern locales—a crumbling balcony in Catania; light glinting off the cobbled streets of Vallo Lucano; boys frolicking in the ocean spray—evoke the timelessness that Pasolini savors (“Night in the south is still what it used to be centuries ago”). Occasionally blurred, though still strikingly composed, many of the images evoke breathless passages reporting snippets of overheard conversation. Conversely, the photographs’ frequent disjointedness from the narrative proves equally poignant. Pasolini’s description of the Hotel Savoia in Casamicciola, Ischia forms a case in point. Here he meets the director Luchino Visconti among bustling porters, employees of a landmark boasting “hot springs, gardens, and a panoramic view.” Séclier’s camera records the tufts of grass and weeds that have overtaken the building’s courtyard, and the paint that peels from its derelict walls. Other shots evoke a different sort of melancholy—most strikingly in a framed photograph of Pasolini himself, now hung on the wall of a barber shop in Calabria. While Pasolini is best known abroad (and certainly in the English-speaking world) as a director, Italy remembers him chiefly as the “civil poet” he aimed to be.

Over the course of this same year, Pasolini authored nearly a dozen screenplays for other directors, from Bernardo Bertolucci to Marco Bellocchio. Even before trying his hand as a director, in fact, he expresses himself in cinematic terms. The jetty in the port of Lerici, he writes, merits “a long tracking shot” which “would make an entire film.” Numerous painterly metaphors creep into his language as well (he famously studied in Bologna under the distinguished art historian Roberto Longhi). On one beach he finds “blankets in colors worthy of Matisse”; a landscape between Tuscany and Lazio conjures up Corot. Literature remained, however, Pasolini’s abiding passion, and its conceits appear mapped onto a host of sites, from “imaginary dunes out of Kafka” near the city of Reggio, to man he meets in Ischia, “as asthmatic as an Andersen hero.” Pasolini’s vocation as a poet simmers to the fore of his language at every turn, as when he describes the sea as “the color of cold broth.” As humorous as anything he ever wrote—perhaps befitting its general audience—the text does not want for wit and mischief. Chiavari, we are told, “looks like the Hague, with a bit of jungle added,” while one beachside scene in Lerici is described as “a little circle of hell,” occupied by a shamelessly kissing couple: “The man is big and fat, nasty and rough.… She’s ugly and just as nasty and stupid.”

In his people-watching, Pasolini projects elaborate narratives onto unwitting, anonymous subjects. One young woman on the beach at Lerici wears a sun-bleached bathing suit, “showing herself off, hot, humble, innocent and already perfidious, already conscious not of the good but of the bad that lies in her barely blossomed breasts.” The writing frequently conveys as much about his own psyche as the environment around him. We learn various superstitions (his unlucky numbers are seventeen and thirty-one) and predilections (besides Rome and Ferrara, the port of Livorno is where Pasolini claims to want to live most): “I always leave my heart on its vast seafront, full of boys and sailors happy and free.” It proves strange to witness Pasolini indulging in moments of leisure, as when he visits Capri’s famous Blue Grotto; for all his obsession with Italy’s subproletariat, after all, his own work schedule was incessant. Of course, the task of writing and mere observation are what The Long Road of Sand blend so effortlessly.

Pasolini often picks up hitchhikers along the way. Italian literature bore no real tradition of the “road novel.” Very few Italians had the means or time to travel for traveling’s sake. Yet something of Kerouac’s On the Road, published just two years earlier and hitting Italian bookstores in translation this same year, perhaps echoes here, however faintly (Pasolini would eventually seek to cast Kerouac himself as Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew). Pasolini’s documentary film, Comizi d’Amore (Love Meetings) (1964), for which he traveled all over Italy interviewing people about sex and sexuality, also finds something of its origins here. So, too, does his subsequent career as a journalist for the newspapers Vie Nuove and Il Tempo, for which he maintained regular columns during the early and late 1960s, respectively, responding to letters from all over the country and all walks of life.

The Long Road of Sand reveals numerous flashes of the social criticism which marks those entries. Arriving at the seaside town of Caorle above Venice, he intones against rampant construction, symptomatic of changes all over the peninsular:

Now who was the idiot, the criminal who granted permission for all the houses to be newly stuccoed the color of baby shit? With the ghastly pinks and yellows of eternal bourgeois stupidity? … Squalid, depressing guest houses, mobs of them, along a new seafront that still smells of fresh cement, have throttled the old town, a monster of colored purity.

Even more suggestive of Pasolini’s subsequent work is his analysis in a different, but related vein: those areas of Italy, whether linguistic or cultural, which could resist the bourgeois “purity” engulfing the country. At Cinquale he finds “a proletarian family that has just finished eating outside of a Bedouin-like tent.” As the ’60s witnessed the inexorable, cultural “homologation” of which he had warned, Pasolini turned his eye outside of Italy, to those zones still redolent of resistance to neo-capitalist development. “My journey drives me South,” he writes in The Long Road of Sand, “ever farther South. As in some delicious obsession, I have to keep going down.” We could ask for no better encapsulation of Pasolini’s future trajectory, which took him to India, the Middle East, and all over Africa in search of a vanishing (third) world.

As he arrives in Lazaretto in the Veneto, he writes, “I’m at the end of Italy, the end of the summer.” In just a couple of years he would be writing about the end of Italy in another, more apocalyptic sense. Crossing from Italy’s south to its north toward the journey’s end, meanwhile, he remarks about leaving behind “swarming hive of paupers, thieves, starvelings, and sensuals, pure, dark, preserve of life.” It was in search of that dwindling preserve—and its evocation in vital, compulsive lyricisms—that Pasolini would dedicate the rest of his brutally abbreviated life. Like the frequent trials that plagued his novels and films, his murder near a beach in Ostia one morning in 1975, at the hands of a male hustler, remains the shattered prism through which we approach Pasolini’s lyricisms. That he died within sight of the shore lends a horrible irony to The Long Road of Sand.

Yet, in its drollness and mordancy, the volume offers an alternative lens through which to consider his life—one rehearsed in the pages themselves: In Ischia, he writes, “I go out for a walk with only my eyes, which are more naïve and happy than I thought.” The Riviera di Ponente finds him on “splendid beaches, everyone at maximum potential…in a festival of love.” In La Spezia he reports “one of the best Sundays of my life,” sitting at beachfront cafés amid “children, mothers, sailors, and poor people.” Pasolini’s writing here brims with hope in a different future, and breathe a sensual exuberance. As much as to his vicious death, or the other horrors that his work documented and predicted, it is perhaps to this future—and its loving adumbration—which we might still cling.

Ara H. Merjian is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and the Department of Art History