I did not especially enjoy Pasolini Requiem. The fact that I had to copy the book word by word for four hours at a time probably had something to do with this, but I also felt that the book did as much to obscure Pasolini as to reveal him. The narrative is flooded with digression and historical detail about everything from Mussolini’s cabinet to the various vixens of Italian cinema. In the opening chapter, my first introduction to Pasolini, Schwartz relates in minute detail Pasolini’s interactions with various Swedish literati during his last visit to Stockholm, none of whom ever resurface. Fifteen years of research gave Schwartz a prodigious amount of material to work with, but by the end of the book I felt no closer to understanding who Pasolini was than when I had started.
In August of 2015, a year after I began, I had only one chapter of Requiem left to type. At that point, I left my job to study in Rome.
“A Desperate Vitality” opens as Pasolini drives toward Rome from the Fiumicino airport, “speeding down the motorways of Latin neo-capitalism … in a sunlight so heavenly it cannot be put into rhymes not elegiac.” When I arrived in Rome and took a taxi from the same airport, I had never read this poem, nor did I see the “papal colossus, huddling with its battlements amid coastal groves of poplar” that the Pasolini of the poem passes in his Alfa Romeo. Even having slogged through the biography, I still felt no connection to the man who drove into Rome feeling “like a cat burnt alive, crushed by a tractor-trailer’s wheels, hung by boys from a fig tree, but with eight of its nine lives still left …”
On my second day in Rome, some classmates and I walked from our house in Trastevere to a large park nearby, the Villa Doria Pamphilj. On the way back home, we passed through the sprawling neighborhood called Monteverde, outside the old city. While we were waiting at the Via di Donna Olimpia, I spotted a plaque on a nearby apartment. “To Pier Paolo Pasolini,” it read in Italian, “for his intellectual creativity and his relationship with the neighborhood of Monteverde.” I had wandered by accident into the neighborhood where Pasolini had lived for seven years in Rome, and where his most famous novel, The Ragazzi, was set.
When my classmates went sightseeing in the historic city a few days later, I took the tram in the opposite direction, back to Monteverde. Passing through the piazza, up Via Federico Ozanam, I discovered an artist’s studio with a façade covered in paintings and articles relating to Pasolini. A row of murals extending up the block showed Pasolini writing, talking to children, posing with his chin in his hand. In one of them, he stood in the posture of the pietà, holding his own disfigured body. Three days later, while walking along the banks of the Tiber, I saw the same mural of Pasolini in the pietà posture on the underside of the Ponte Sant’Angelo. I stopped in the dark and stood face-to-face with him, the man whose life I had plodded through page by page. I saw another mural a few days later in Trastevere, then again while I was drunk in the Campo de’ Fiori. I spotted one when I got lost in Testaccio, then another in the Jewish ghetto and one more while I was drunk with my classmates, again in Trastevere. I walked up to this last mural and looked Pasolini in his peeling eyes until an Australian man tapped me on the shoulder to ask me why I was making bedroom eyes at a piece of graffiti, and whether I wanted the rest of his Jack and Coke.