Webs of complicity: Reading Moravia’s The Conformist in India today


Italian literature and cinema have explored the issue of fascism in more subtle and fascinating ways than most comparable traditions elsewhere in Europe. In Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), Elio Petri’s brilliant political thriller about a police commissioner who murders his lover in cold blood, then deliberately leaves clues at the scene of the crime to demonstrate his own untouchability by the law, Petri gave us a theory of the state in its most lucid and penetrating form, set against the background of the political turmoil in Italy in the late sixties.

Alberto Moravia’s earlier, even more brilliant novel The Conformist, published in 1951, was structured on comparable lines, exploring the deep structures of the fascist state in Italy under Mussolini. Moravia himself had been ostracised under fascism, having his books seized or banned, and had an acute sense of how ‘society’ adapted to regimes of the most authoritarian kind. The essay below summarises the story in the novel and shows why its underlying themes (the search for ‘normality’ and the wider complicities abetted by this) resonate or should resonate with us in India today.


The great Italian writer Alberto Moravia (1907–1990) published The Conformist in 1951, less than a decade after the fall of fascism in Italy. The English translation of the novel by Tami Calliope runs to some 320 pages. The novel has an exceptionally strong plot line and the narrative is conveyed entirely through the eyes of its hero or anti-hero, a young Italian called Marcello Clerici.

The story revolves around a mission to assassinate his former professor, one Edmondo Quadri, who has left Italy to play an active role against fascism from his newly chosen base in Paris. Quadri leaves his academic job in Italy when Marcello is still a student, and one surmises from the briefest chronological hints in Moravia’s novel that this must have been some time at the end of the 1920s. The assassination of Quadri is, in many ways, the narrative backbone of the novel, which is partly told like a thriller. However, the chief interest or even contribution of the work lies in what it tells us about Marcello himself and in the retrospective act of reflection which makes the reader ask, at the end perhaps, ‘so why did he call it The Conformist?’  She’s bound to ask this because the words ‘conformist’, ‘conformism’ don’t appear even once across the tense expanse of Moravia’s story.

The novel is divided into a Prologue of three chapters (approx. 60 pages), Part One (approx 80 pages), a long Part Two (of close to 140 pages) and a brief Epilogue (just over 30 pages). The structure alone shows that the narrative concentration is in Part Two, which deals with the mission itself, that is, Marcello and his wife leaving for Paris on their honeymoon and Marcello setting Quadri up for the assassination by passing crucial information on to an agent he works with called Orlando. Both the Prologue and Part One set the scene for these chapters but they do so through a vivid intense portrait of the protagonist. The Prologue is about Marcello as a child driven by an obsessive sense of his own ‘abnormality’. The term appears repeatedly through the novel, as does its ostensible opposite ‘normality’, even more frequently. Marcello’s ‘abnormality’ is not a physical one, it is entirely of his own making and linked, in his mind, to acts of violence that stemmed or once stemmed from a childish cruelty.

Philosophically, Moravia was probably closest to existentialism but to an existentialism of despair such as Kierkegaard’s, more than one of choice and moral dilemma such as Sartre’s. Marcello’s character is repeatedly painted in terms of an underlying anguish or melancholy that he is never quite able to pin down and which may well have a lot to do with his loveless childhood in a home dominated by a violent father. What he was about to do, he reflected, was certainly much worse than killing a few lizards; just the same, so many people were with him…’. In short, here was a criminality no longer suffered in solitude and, therefore, perhaps not criminality at all. The crime of Quadri’s murder, Marcello reflects at one point, ‘would have been a crime if he had not known how to justify and make sense of it’.

The Prologue, immersed in the memory of this drab childhood, contains two seminal events of the type that Sartre himself in Saint Genet came to call ‘original crises’. These are events that have the potential to define the rest of your life, so forceful or traumatic is one’s experience of them in childhood. The first of these crises is the rapid escalation of Marcello’s acts of violence from a wanton destruction of a flower bed to a mass slaughter of lizards to the killing of the neighbour’s cat. When Marcello kills the cat, he does so unknowingly, firing shots from a sling at a mass of ivy in the garden that separates his own from the neighbour’s and with the vague thought that his childhood friend Roberto may well be there behind the fence. He is mortified to find that he has killed Roberto’s cat and could well have killed Roberto himself.

The feelings of shame and remorse that dog him then and for much of his childhood lie at the root of Marcello’s deep need for absolution either through the complicity of others, such as when he tells Roberto about the slaughtered lizards but fails to evince any approval, or by ‘being the same as everyone’, absolutely indiscriminately ‘normal’.

The second ‘original crisis’, as I called it, is more devastating for Marcello. Once he starts going to school, he is often ragged for being effeminate. The same ambiguity that Moravia hinted at in the killing of the cat (Marcello could have killed Roberto if he had been there) recurs here as a motif of sexual ambivalence. This culminates in a group of his classmates (his ‘fiercest tormentors’) following him from school one day and then pouncing on him to forcibly tie a girl’s skirt round him. He is saved from this attack by a man in a dark grey uniform who turns out to be someone now working as a chauffeur who was, in his own description, a defrocked priest. This man, Lino, is a pederast and takes Marcello home. Nothing happens on this occasion but, the following Monday, when they meet again (Lino has promised to give him a pistol if he comes home with him again), he flings Marcello into the bedroom, throws him onto the bed, and starts to assault him sexually. Marcello grabs the gun which is lying on the bed and fires at Lino. This act of homicide, as Marcello imagines it to be, concludes the Prologue, filling Marcello, once again, with a ‘stunned premonition of doom’, just as the killing of the cat had inspired him with the sense of a ‘solitary and threatening destiny’, the feeling that in ‘some fatal and mysterious way’ he was ‘predestined to commit acts of cruelty and death’. Like remorse, like the need for absolution and the ‘desperate aspiration’ for ‘normality’, this sense of being ‘predestined’, of having no control over the things you do or will do, is a major leitmotif in The Conformist.

Let me run through the major parts of the story as rapidly as I can. The four chapters of Part One largely revolve around Giulia, Marcello’s wife to be and the role this marriage and the fabric of domesticity connected with it play in constructing a sense of normality for him. But it starts with him going to the public library to look up old newspaper reports of the death of Lino; and then to ‘the ministry’, we are not told exactly which one, to learn of his assignment to assassinate his old professor. As with his impending marriage, Marcello’s insertion into normality hinges even more decisively on this assignment or ‘mission’. Between these episodes, both in the same chapter, Moravia inserts a passage that I shall come back to, because it strikes me as one of the best insights I myself have read into the nature of contemporary politics.

This part of the novel also includes a chapter where Marcello who is not a religious person, by any stretch, goes to Santa Maria Maggiore for confession. In the confessional, he tells the priest about his encounter with Lino and the subsequent killing, but holds back from saying anything about the murder he will be committing. Part One ends with a searing description of the madness of Marcello’s father whom he and his mother have gone to visit in an asylum. Marcello was frightened by the thought that there might be a link between his father’s madness and his own distressing sense of abnormality.

Part Two is the narrative crux of the novel. The eleven chapters that make it up move rapidly across a series of encounters that Marcello and Giulia now have with Quadri and his wife Lina (Anna in Bertolucci’s film of the novel), all of this of course in Paris. Here Moravia introduces a new theme entirely, of the violent sexual attraction that Marcello now feels for Lina, which he himself thinks of as ‘love’.

Bound up with this new feeling (Marcello does not love Giulia, he has married her because he needs the stability that his life with her will offer) is an ‘intoxicating sensation of freedom’, the sense that if his feelings are reciprocated he can start an entirely new life, even betraying his ‘political faith’. This ‘new and violent emotion’ as Moravia describes it, generates the dream of an ‘angelic kind of normality’ secured by ‘the strength of love alone’. But Lina, it turns out, detests him and makes no effort to conceal this. She hates him politically because her husband has told her that Marcello is almost certainly a fascist spy, and finds him no less repugnant physically, since she, on the contrary, is strongly attracted to Giulia.

In the interval between their first meeting at Quadri’s apartment and the dinner scheduled by them for that evening, Marcello walks through Paris delirious at the idea of a possible affair with Lina. But, when he returns to the hotel, the concierge tells him that his wife has gone up to the room ‘with a lady’. Sure that Lina has come as well, he enters the room without knocking and finds the door to the bedroom slightly ajar. Giulia is sitting on the bed half naked and Lina is embracing her legs with both arms and pressing her breasts against Giulia’s shins.

It was clear to Marcello that, while Giulia was flirting, Lina was simply mad with desire for her. He watches them for a while and then heads for the stairs, profoundly shaken. Again, Moravia brings in the theme of ambiguity, this time an intensely sexual one, the ‘ambiguous figures of men-women and women-men who crossed paths at random, doubling and mingling their ambiguity’ (p. 237). Marcello promptly abandons his dream of a life with Lina and readjusts painfully to the mission he has come to Paris to pull off.

Moravia’s chapter describing their dinner that evening has the agent Orlando follow them into the restaurant (Marcello has to identify the target by shaking hands with him so Orlando can see what Quadri looks like), and, from time to time, Orlando’s head stares at Marcello in one of those massive mirrors that Parisian restaurants are so full of, looking as if it’s ‘suspended in midair’. Moravia alludes to this image at least three times in the chapter, for example, Marcello ‘lifted his eyes to the mirror again: Orlando’s head was still there, suspended in the void, his eyes fixed on them’. The dinner itself is laden with the most subtle emotional intrigues as Lina navigates between her passion for Giulia and her repugnance for Marcello. By the end of the evening, Marcello, repeatedly rebuffed, has developed a ‘bloody, murderous hatred’ for Lina, but a hatred ‘mixed in with and inseparable from his love’. In the end, Marcello lets the agent know exactly what Quadri’s movements will be the next day.

This, the longest part of the novel, ends with Marcello back in Rome, scanning the French papers to discover that both Quadri and his wife were murdered out in the countryside. Orlando tells him that an order from the ministry countermanding the assassination because it was more useful for the Italian government to have Quadri alive than dead since they now wanted a rapprochement with the French was never actually received by him, so the murders were, he says, pointless. ‘All that effort, two people dead, and it wasn’t necessary, in fact it was counterproductive’ (p. 283). The absurd contingency of all this is not lost on Marcello, who is also given a first-hand report which tells him that when they opened fire Lina threw herself on to her husband to protect him from the bullets. Quadri tried to escape but had his throat cut.

Moravia’s short epilogue begins with the day Mussolini’s government falls, 25 July 1943. There is a subdued panic in Marcello’s mind, even more in Giulia’s, that he had, ‘as they say, bet on the losing horse’. Marcello discovers that his wife has always known, ever since their trip to Paris, that he was ‘part of the political police’ (Lina had told her) and had always suspected his role in the murder of the Quadris. That evening they drive around Rome to watch the crowds celebrating the dismissal of Mussolini by the king. Later that night they end up in the gardens at the Villa Borghese where Giulia wants Marcello to make love to her when he is suddenly accosted by Lino, the chauffeur he thought he had killed all those years ago. It strikes him that all these years he had been searching for redemption from an ‘imaginary crime’.

In the final chapter Marcello, Giulia and their small daughter head out for the town of Tagliacozzo in the hills east of Rome when some hours later their car is consumed in flames from an air strike. Marcello and his family are killed in a tranquil sunlit countryside the day after Mussolini is brought down.

There is clearly a strong moral-political subtext to the novel which the writer is careful never to articulate didactically, and I would like to look at a few remarkable passages where this pushes through the controlled exuberance of Moravia’s prose. The idea of a former student agreeing to assassinate his professor for reasons of state seems at least mildly shocking at several levels but to the writer it is part of Marcello’s underlying quest to affirm his absolute and complete ‘normality’ by engaging in an active expression of loyalty to the state. That loyalty, Moravia tells us in a striking phrase, ‘had origins deeper than any moral standard’ (p. 73). To Marcello, the regime embodied an authority which was ‘mysterious’, ‘like all authorities’, but deeper and more powerful than the authority of the Church (p. 117). Moravia elicits a notion of loyalty to an authoritarian regime as somehow impervious to morality, as if it lies in a different galaxy governed by completely different laws of motion. Moreover, in the confessional at Santa Maria Maggiore where Marcello does not confess the crime he is about to commit, he was held back from the confession by ‘something that would not let him go forward’.

‘It was neither moral disgust, nor shame, nor any other manifestation of guilt, but something very different that had nothing to do with guilt. It was an absolute inhibition, dictated by a profound complicity and loyalty. He was not to speak of the mission, that was all; the same conscience that had remained mute and passive when he had announced to the priest, “I have killed”, now imposed this silence on him with great authority’ (p. 117). Here, the notion of complicity ties into the wider solidarity of a sort of ideological community bound by its invisible codes and faith. Being part of this community of faith gave crime itself a different meaning. Waiting for his mother to get ready so they can visit his father at the asylum, Marcello is again confronted by a lizard (‘It was a big lizard of the most common kind, with a green back and a white belly that throbbed against the yellow enamel of the table’), and he ruminates,

He had been left alone to face the death of the lizards, and in this solitude he had recognized the clue to the crime. But now, he thought, he was not and would never again be alone. Even if he committed a crime – as long as he committed it for certain ends – the state; the political, social, and military organizations that depended on the state; great masses of people that thought as he did; and, outside of Italy, other states and other millions of people would stand behind him. What he was about to do, he reflected, was certainly much worse than killing a few lizards; just the same, so many people were with him… (p. 125).

In short, here was a criminality no longer suffered in solitude and therefore perhaps not criminality at all. The crime of Quadri’s murder, Marcello reflects at one point, ‘would have been a crime if he had not known how to justify and make sense of it’ (p. 271). It made sense because there were wider solidarities behind it, others who needed to do their ‘duty’ to make fascism a resounding success. “The others”, as he knew, were the government he had understood he was serving with that murder; the society embodied by that government; and the very nation that accepted guidance by that same society’ (p. 272).

Here finally is the passage I said I would come back to. On his way to the ministry to be told his assignment, a newspaper seller is shouting as a headline announces Franco’s latest victory in Spain. Marcello reads this news with true satisfaction.

From the beginning he had wanted Franco to win, not fervently but with a sentiment both deep and tenacious, almost as if that victory would bring confirmation of the goodness and rightness of his tastes and ideas, not only in the field of politics but also in all others. Perhaps he had desired and still desired Franco’s victory for love of symmetry, like someone who is furnishing his house and takes care to collect furniture all of the same style and period. He seemed to read this symmetry in the events of the past few years, growing ever clearer and more important: first the advent of Fascism in Italy, then in Germany; then the war of Ethiopia, then the war in Spain. This progression pleased him, he wasn’t sure why, maybe because it was easy to recognize a more-than-human logic in it, a recognition that gave him a sense of security and infallibility. On the other hand, he thought, folding the newspaper back up and putting it in his pocket, it couldn’t be said that he was convinced of the justice of Franco’s cause for reasons of politics or propaganda. This conviction had come to him out of nowhere, as it seems to come to ordinary, uneducated people: from the air, that is, as when someone says an idea is in the air. He sided with Franco the way countless other people did, common folk who knew little or nothing about Spain, uneducated people who barely read the headlines in the papers. For simpatia, he thought, giving a completely unconsidered, alogical, irrational sense to the Italian word. A simpatia that could be said only metaphorically to come from the air; there is flower pollen in the air, smoke from the houses, dust, light, not ideas. This simpatia, then, arose from deeper regions and demonstrated once more that his normality was neither superficial nor pieced together rationally and voluntarily with debatable motives and reasons, but linked to an instinctive and almost physiological condition, to a faith, that is, shared with millions of other people. He was one with the society he found himself living in, and with its people. (pp. 72–3)

In this passage, Moravia comes close to describing what Sartre would some years later, also in the fifties, describe as ‘seriality’ and the stronger forms of it which he calls ‘recurrence’. Those are Sartre’s drably mathematical expressions for the structures of alterity through which ‘ideas’, inert ideas, take root and circulate, becoming self-evident and unshakeable. They ‘come out of nowhere’ because they stem from a perpetual flight of otherness, since the other is always only other to the other, and Moravia’s ‘chain of normality’ or Sartre’s flight of recurrence are pure infinite regresses. More importantly, however, the lived experience of these ensembles generates a notion of truth that Moravia himself goes on to spell out a few lines after the passage I just quoted. ‘What else could the truth be, in fact, if not that which was evident to everyone, believed by everyone, held irrefutable?’ And, for Marcello, ‘possession of the truth not only permitted action but demanded it. It was like a confirmation he must offer to himself and others of his own normality…’ (p. 73).

The best commentary on this is what Moravia would tell his biographer Enzo Siciliano in an interview he must have given in the late seventies: ‘Integration into Fascism…always had to be paid with a crime: to begin with, a betrayal, the first thing Mussolini asked an intellectual was to write an article against one of his enemies’.

In India, in recent times, we have lived through all of this, through something frighteningly similar to the regime in Marcello’s Italy, the same unshakeable sense of a ‘nation’ under siege, a nation that demands loyalty, weaves its subtle webs of complicity in crimes committed at many different levels, a nation one is either for or against, and so on. We have seen the most dreadful pogroms being orchestrated in secret and publicly televised as well as openly defended on TV; fake encounters being exposed by judicial enquiry, then publicly defended as part of a drive to get the killers off; extra-judicial killings being condoned and the killers let off because they were acting under orders, viz. doing their ‘duty’, that is, fighting a fabricated ‘terrorism’;  ministers being covertly assassinated because they told the truth about crucial events and implicated (‘betrayed’) their leader; and so on, forever. And all of this is camouflaged behind an equally constructed ‘nationalism’ that is pure manipulated hysteria. Read the way Moravia wanted it to be read, not as a purely moral text but a political one, The Conformist speaks directly to us today, more directly indeed than the brilliant and amazing film that Bertolucci made out of the novel in 1970.

​​​​​​​By Jairus Banaji