Friday, September 2, 2011

The Girl on the Via Flaminia, by Alfred Hayes

It would be easy to dismiss Robert, the US soldier in Alfred Hayes’s short “The Girl on the Via Flaminia,” as a typically clueless American abroad. Sure, Robert is naïve. But focusing on his flaws would not only be stereotyping--every bit as objectionable when applied to us Americans as when applied to those of any other nationality--but also would be to miss the forest for one tree: with the possible exception of a British sergeant and an Italian woman named Nina, all the characters, American and Italian alike, display a form of tunnel vision.

Weary of sharing a barracks with seventeen other soldiers in Rome as World War II is winding down, Robert asks Nina, an Italian woman who’s having an affair with an American officer, if she could find a room for him somewhere and another young woman to play the part of his wife in his off duty hours. She contacts a friend, Lisa, who assents to the arrangement.

For Robert—and for Nina—it’s a simple business transaction where everyone should benefit. He’s completely up front about who he is and what he wants. Unlike Nina’s paramour, he doesn’t pretend that he has any higher military or civilian status than he does, nor does he profess any interest in marrying Lisa. He intends to treat and compensate her well, considering the circumstances. Italy is in ruins, food and shelter are scarce, and Italians do what they must do to survive. For many, if not most, that means swallowing their pride and even compromising their morals. Robert sees his offer, which includes food, shelter, and some entertainment, as a good one. So does Nina.

A business transaction it is, but for Lisa, it’s not at all simple. She agrees to the arrangement, she says, because she thinks nothing matters anymore and because all Italian women appear to be taking American soldiers, who are more flush than those from other Allied countries, as lovers. With no money, no other relatives or friends who can or will help her, and no marketable skills, Lisa has no meaningful options. But Italians who see her with Robert make it clear, through looks and actions alike, that they understand what she has done and despise her for it. Perhaps even worse, Lisa despises herself.

The room Nina finds for Robert and Lisa is in a flat in an apartment house on the Via Flaminia near the Tiber River. As you leave the house, go one way and you’re at the river; go the other, and you’re at the Piazza del Popolo, in the heart of Rome. Assisted by a young maid, the flat owners, Ugo and Adele Pulcini, serve eggs and wine in their dining room in the evenings to Allied soldiers who stop by. Nina has been staying with them and, as part of her rent, sharing the coffee and food that the Allied officers she goes out with give her. She’s moving out, though, to follow an American officer to whom she says she’s engaged, even though she knows he has a wife back in the US. The Pulcinis’ sullen, hostile son, Antonio, described several times as a “boy” even though he’s served in the Italian army, also lives there.

Lisa makes it clear from the beginning that she loathes playing house with Robert. She participates in the real-life play only because she has no other way of getting food or a roof over her head. That’s true of Nina and the signori Pulcini, too, but they view their compromises, and Lisa’s, as merely doing what they have to do in order to make the best of a bad lot.

Not so Antonio, who makes his hostility to the Allied occupying forces and to his countrymen who have, in his view, sold their honor to foreigners, glaringly obvious. At first, he idolizes Lisa, who he’s told is married to Robert. He views her as an exception to the general rule of Italians’ selling out to the foreigners. When he learns she, too, has compromised, she falls in his estimation from Madonna status to whore. Yet Antonio never appears to reflect on his parents’ actions, nor on his own situation, which would be considerably less comfortable without the money and supplies that his parents receive from the despised soldiers and fallen women such as Nina and, now, Lisa. His parents, likewise, have chosen to accept the fairly obvious lie that Robert and Lisa are married. Later on, when the Roman police give Lisa a summons for prostitution without being registered, signora Pulcini exclaims that Lisa would have had no problems had she chosen an Italian instead of an American—a patently illogical assertion.

Hayes’s narrative takes place over just a few days’ time. Though Robert doesn’t understand Lisa’s overt hostility, it starts to dawn on him that the play he’s arranged has real life consequences just before the police arrive, when he and Lisa are talking about love and the absence of it in their arrangement. I had to read that part a couple of times, because the jacket copy speaks of their “passion” for one another. I didn’t detect any passion at all; Robert says he likes Lisa, and Lisa says she thinks she hates him. I don’t think she really does, though she does despise herself and, like Antonio, the compromise she’s made for survival.

At only 147 pages, “The Girl On The Via Flaminia” is a quick read. I was surprised that such a fine writer as Alfred Hayes, who wrote it in 1949 and died in 1985, is virtually unknown today; I’d never heard of him. Hayes, whose style reminded me of Hemingway at the beginning, does a fine job of showing and not telling.