Brutal tale of life in Italian slums. A `camera' on street hoods.

The Ragazzi, by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Translated by Emile Capouya. New York and Manchester, England: Carcanet. 256 pp. $8.50 (paper). MORE than 30 years ago, when Pier Paolo Pasolini penned ``The Ragazzi'' -- originally published as ``Ragazzi di Vita'' in Italian in 1955 -- he was writing from recent experience, from the years he had spent living with the poorest of the poor in the slums of post-World-War-II Rome. Three decades later, ``The Ragazzi'' has lost none of its searing immediacy, none of its relevance to contemporary society. The story of Ricetto, and of the life he leads in the squalor and amorality of the slums on the outskirts of Rome, is a story that -- tragically enough -- could be retold today with little variation in almost any urban setting anywhere in the world.

``The Ragazzi'' is a brutal tale of one of the most vicious tolls that can be taken by extreme urban poverty -- the breakdown of the community that fosters allegiance to a ``greater good'' and the transcendence of a debased individualism that grinds along on a code of survival at any cost. First published in this country in 1968, ``The Ragazzi'' was out of print for several years until this publication by Carcanet. In his first major novel, the late Pasolini -- a celebrated and controversial Italian poet, critic, author, and filmmaker -- unfolded an unflinchingly harsh tale of the street hoods -- the ragazzi -- of Rome.

The story revolves around Ricetto, a young punk who steals, cheats, fights, and connives his way to a meager existence in which cohorts betray one another as often as they are betrayed. The truth of his life, voiced as he watches a drowning boy swept away in a river current, is, ``I got to look out for Ricetto.''

Ricetto's world is a vulgar place of filthy back alleys, polluted riverbanks, and a poverty so inhuman that it robs its victims of humanity. Everyone is scarred and tough; the innocent are the vulnerable. There is no resolution to this tale -- but then, there seem to be all too few resolutions to the injustices of modern living for the ``others'' everywhere.

Pasolini presents his tale not as a moralizer or philosopher or even a storyteller, but as a literary cinematographer. The camera of his writing pans the vast landscape of the urban slum, zooming in and focusing here and there on bits and flashes of human life, unfolding his horrible tale without so much as a single moralistic statement. He has documented a way of life -- it is up to readers to make judgments of their own, to react or remain indifferent.

It is a relief to put this book down, but it is impossible to leave it behind. Decades ago, Pasolini shocked Italy's religious and social institutions with his grating realism. (``The Ragazzi,'' in fact, was tried for obscenity when it was first published in Italy, although the book is certainly tame by current standards.)

Today, Pasolini's numbing novel still leaves readers with a dilemma -- how to respond in a meaningful way to a world in desperate need.

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