For those who seem to have forgotten that anti-American sentiment didn’t merely arise when Donald Trump assumed the presidency, let us turn back time to the thick of the nationality’s sudden involvement in World War II, once the Japanese tapped the sleeping giant that was the U.S. on the shoulder with a friendly little bomb on Pearl Harbor. It was then, already two years into the massive war, that the United States finally surrendered to involving themselves. Some were thrown into France, others England or Germany, while an entirely separate sect got tossed into the boot called Italy. Arguably the hub of where it was the best of times and the worst of times, particularly for a lonely GI like Robert, the soldiers could, at the very least, find ephemeral comfort in the home of a woman like Adele Pulcini, providing a place for soldiers to come in from the proverbial cold and feast on eggs and wine as reward for their commitment to fighting the good fight. Even if, to Italians, that commitment was tinged with a vexing air of superiority. As though to say, “Yes, we will help your uncouth kind that is so beneath us, that is how beneficent we are despite not being a Catholic country.”
In addition to steering these “valiant” men toward food and a brief sense of camaraderie commingled with sustenance, Adele also has an “in” with some of the girls who have found more enterprising ways to make money during the war. Adele also knows that this is often the best way to placate the drunken desolation the soldiers soon express by the end of the night, yearning so desperately for the physical comfort of a woman–any woman–that they’ll pay any price to get it. So “Mamma” Pulcini recommends them one, simple and “innocent” as that.
After all, the Italians are no match for arguing against the greedy and expectant demands of Americans so accustomed to always getting their way in the land of plenty. So it is that Alfred Hayes deftly writes of an exchange between Adele and one such voracious and entitled soldier, “The Signora Pulcini accommodatingly felt his ankle. ‘So?’ she said. ‘Busted,’ the soldier said. ‘Off a cliff in Velletri. That’s what I got liberating your goddamn city… Could I march with an ankle like that, busted?’ the soldier said. ‘Could I, Mamma?’ ‘Of course not,’ the Signora Pulcini said, knowing that one must always agree with the soldiers who came to drink in her dining room on those nights when the city was dark and cold and lonely.”
And even someone as “good” as the more wholesome in his interests Robert can’t resist what a few American dollars might buy him when it comes to an Italian girl. One who turns out to be named Lisa. As it transpires, however, Lisa isn’t necessarily of the belief that just because an American pays for something means he ought to get exactly what he wants. After all, that’s what has conditioned their kind to be so spoiled in the first place. And what Robert wants is a girl to come home to in the same room every night instead of the dingy barracks he’s accustomed to sharing with his fellow soldiers. A girl who will hold him (and his penis) and serve as his single-serving faux wife while he’s marooned seemingly eternally in the Eternal City.
Of course, a fellow part-time prostitute, Nina, is the one to arrange the affair, never letting on to Adele that Robert and Lisa aren’t married so that they can rent a room (taken over in Nina’s place) from her without too much scrutinio. As Adele and Nina speak in envy of American excess, Lisa is defiant toward such a reverence. Adele wistfully remarks, “‘What a country it must be, their America.’ ‘An Italian discovered it,’ Lisa said. ‘And the English stole it,’ Adele said. ‘What hasn’t the Italian lost?’ Nina said.” This idea of the Italian constantly losing yet shrugging off that loss with a plate of pasta and a glass of wine is a running theme throughout The Girl on the Via Flaminia.
Robert’s ignorance is also ironically pitted against what is “supposed to be” Lisa’s and the others in the house, with their “rustic” Italian ways. But it is Robert who seems to know so little of the world, admitting, “I haven’t been in Europe before. I haven’t been any place before. I grew up when Americans didn’t think it was patriotic to travel to Europe. Europe was degenerate. A good American stayed home and discovered the beauties of Buffalo.”
Now, instead, a good American “liberates” and takes his leave in Rome where he can carouse and drunkenly act out his glory with the other conquistadori americani. This Lisa tells Robert to his face as they argue over politics and American barbarism in the room they’re finally shown into by Adele. That first night together sets the tone for the rest of their three-week stint, with Lisa slapping him across the face and Robert slapping her right back. While Robert wants everything to be “simple” and “pleasant,” Lisa can’t reconcile what she’s allowed herself to do, that she’s conceded to be sold in this way to the very kind of person whose fault it is that she’s in such a position in the first place. So yes, she gives Robert a “hard time,” goading him at every turn, perhaps most especially when he’s trying to be sweet and perform the role of husband. It is this, most of all, that Lisa cannot stand. For it plays into the game of pretend everyone around her has fallen prey to. The game of pretend that somehow they’ve all become so adept at playing despite the sky literally falling.
Lisa might have been paid and in so doing consented to a transformation (as opposed to transfiguration) into a prostitute. Just like everyone else who hasn’t yet surrendered to throwing themselves into the Tiber. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be compliant about it. Every now and then, she can even manage to laugh at the absurdity of it all, as evidenced by a political cartoon that “showed Romulus and Remus and they had just completed cutting that long furrow within Rome which was to be built according to the legend. They were lying under a tree, resting, and the plowshare was still deep in the earth beside them. Then Romulus said to Remus: Now that we have completed building a city where the Alleati can have a good time, let us build one for ourselves.”
Alas, Italy has not the finances to build a separate city from the Allies. And certainly not Lisa, relegated to that sordid room with Robert. And the more Robert tries to make things come across between them as anything other than unseemly, the more disgusted Lisa becomes. For she can’t help but fall under the description of how Adele’s husband, Ugo, describes Italians: “You see, in Italy we’re always a kind of something. Not the exact thing, like the Germans or the English. But only a kind of, with many shades.” And Lisa’s shades are becoming evermore untenable to her as her time with Robert wears on.
And while, sure, she should be “grateful” for his politeness in going about “conquering” her, the passive aggressiveness–as is the usual modus operandi of the American–makes the situation all the more unbearable to her. In one version of the book’s cover, the tag line reads, “He conquered her body but not her heart.” In so many ways, this is what has happened to Italy itself time and time again over the centuries when various forces have decided to infiltrate and overtake it. In the present, that form of Italian prostitution comes in pandering not to American soldiers, but American tourists who see it as a quaint little novelty that they can go back home and boast about to the ones who are truly ignorant in all matters save for complacent whoring: gli americani.