PAUL HOFMANN has lived "the sweet tempestuous life" in Rome since the war, working as a foreign corrspondent for The New York Times . This portrait of the city, composed of brief chapters raisined with detail, resembles a cubist collage: Rome is seen from nearly every possible angle, as Hofmann patches in the lives of a political kingmaker, a prostitute, students at the Pontifical Gregorian University, soccer fans, a Red Brigade sympathizer, a paparazzo, the Knights of Malta, and even a counterman in an espresso bar.
"A good barista has the reflexes of a racing driver and the control of an orchestra conductor. He can simultaneously keep an eye on the coffee oozing from the espresso machine into a battery of cups, pour vermouth and bitters and add a lemon twist to create an americano , take a shouted order for a cappucino and a sweet roll, whisper to a woman patron that she looks particularly pretty with her new hairdo, and discuss the miserable showing of the Lazio soccer team with a boisterous cluster of fans while quickly wiping the marble counters clean with his free hand."
The book's organization may seem haphazard but is in fact thematic, almost musical. A chapter on life at the espresso bar precedes one on the young priests who now frequent such pagan hangouts; their youthful celibacy then provides the counterpoint to the following section on the well-tuned life of an aging prostitute. Within each chapter the structure is reliably similar: an opening personal event, virtually a news item, followed by some generalizations and commentary, leading to historical reflections, and ending with a return to the personal. It's a standard journalistic technique but Hofmann works it well.
In the course of this Roman holiday, Hofmann also manages to pass on vast amounts of fascinating trivia about life in the Italian capital. Romans, it seems, don't rush anything: "An Automobile Club office was held up by a couple who had been patiently standing in line until they reached the cashier and could whip out their guns." More bureaucratically, there "was an office that had once been set up to take care of the orphans of World War II, and which was still in existence at a time when the youngest of them were in their thirties, old enough to look after themselves."
One fact I found especially thought-provoking in this diverting, agreeable guide to post-Dolce Vita Rome: "A second-string paliamentary reporter . . . earns more than an army general." Sounds reasonable to me.