written by Luigi Bartolini
(my review of the 1948 film adaptation)
World War II still rages in Italy. The fascists are cornered in the north as a line of Allied troops steadily presses through, leaving in their wake a free Italy. Free in the sense of anarchy as the same corrupt politicians turn on their overlords with the hopes of staying in power, an over-tasked police force takes bribes and turn blind eyes so as to not be swallowed up in mobs that favor the criminals, and thievery becomes such a way of life that anyone who finds his property stolen is derided for not knowing well enough to hold onto it better.
This is the world shown to us through our unnamed narrator (likely the author himself), an educated and eloquent man struggling to chip an honest living through articles and etchings. In this dark world where little things cost a fortune, his most treasured possession is his bicycle, which not only allows him to spread his freelance work to a broader range of publications, but covers the distance to the countryside which he escapes to each day just to clear his soul.
On the first page of the book, this bicycle is stolen, and our narrator plunges into the underworld he loathes with the hopes of recovering it.
Told in a chapterless, stream-of-conscious prose filled with digressions and sudden flashbacks, this very much feels like what it likely is: the author's own journals edited into something resembling a narrative. There's a personal intimacy this brings to the material as he questions things sweeping and profound - his view of Italy's historical connection with thievery; political systems that left the man in exile for years - and offers little details like the types of friends he looks for, why he hates movies, and why he thinks Italian women have ugly butts. It is a ramble of sort, but a very polished and thoughtful one that takes us deep into a man who loathes a society he can't escape from, and thus does his best to work around it.
And then there's the city itself, with its grimy, bombed-out alleys, peddlers living a symbiotic relationship with thieves who steal back what's sold, topless whores hanging out the windows of brothels the Allied occupation officially stamped out, and foreign soldiers that everyone buddies up to because only they can afford a round of the best drinks. This is a world where everybody steals, whether it's through physical theft, the hiking up of prices, the refusal to do anything without a cut, or the taking advantage of people for whom the label "friend" never really fits. And as everyone gets used to crime, so must people grow accustomed to looking out for themselves and their belongings. And woe on anybody who tries to publicly enforce the laws, for any accusation of "Thief!" brings out mobs that are likely to turn on the victim.
The big problem is the narrator. An honest man buried amidst deception makes for a good story, but we only know he's honest through his own admission. He makes a big show of how he always tries to help or knows just the right thing to say to diffuse a situation, but a lot of it feels like glorified bunk on Bartolini's part, as though he's defending himself with the same high-minded pride as the thieves.
And it's this perfect knowledge, the way he can disguise himself, pick locks, or work various connections, that takes a lot of the drama out of things. He almost comes off as a hard-boiled American detective hero at times, perfectly maintaining control as he takes on a gang of punks, works through a police station, or strikes up a deal with some prostitutes. This makes the odds all the less daunting, and thus all the less dramatic. Especially when we not only learn he has a second bicycle ready and waiting at home, but when he purchases yet another only 30 pages in. So what's the point?
Which brings us to his utter hypocrisy. He's got another bike, and goes out of his way to buy a new one, yet absolutely must track down the stolen model. He holds up his purity and degrades and denounces the vile society around him, but knows all of its inner workings to the point where he can perfectly blend in. He complains about not getting enough work done or longs for time to escape to the countryside, but fills his schedule with an admittedly meaningless quest to find a needle in a haystack. He goes on about how terrible and completely beneath him the local women are, all the while bedding models and neighbors and a man's handicapped wife. All of this would make for an interesting portrait, but it must be deciphered through his own biased voice. There's no irony, no moral, no lesson, just a bitter man rambling on without catching how many times he contradicts himself.
And ramble ramble ramble. There's a lot of interesting stuff about clouded morals and political breakdown, but a lot of it does get long-winded and repetitive, as numerous situations play out to the same conclusions. And then there's stuff like the last few pages suddenly putting a huge focus on the narrator's daughter whom we'd never heard about up till then, nor do we really know where she is or when he last saw her. The whole search for the bicycle just kind of fizzles out as she comes in and becomes a new symbol for hope and escape, yet it's so out-of-left-field that it feels hollow.
Frustrating and long-winded at times, this is nonetheless a fascinating, thoughtful, and piercing look at a country hopelessly trying to find its identity after a total and crushing defeat.