Saturday, September 27, 2014

Curzio Malaparte's "The Skin": Book Review

Born Kurt Eric Suchert, this half-German writer castigates his losing side, as the Allies "liberate" Naples in 1943. Their new Italian allies take up the uniforms of the dead British they have recently killed in the defense of their Fascist nation. Italians now resolve to fight against the deposed Mussolini and the Germans. How the Napolitan natives feel about this has been rarely acknowledged by many who dramatize WWII. Malaparte, as his nom-de-plume indicates, takes the "bad side"; he shows the physical and moral costs of capitulation when one's own loyalties insist one was never defeated, and cannot surrender one's liberty unless once a slave. 

Such complex questions drive this 1949 novel. A work of fiction, but in its headlong prose rush and its tendency to indulge in set-pieces and tirades, I suspect this is better understood as thinly disguised or ambitiously elaborated vignettes from Malaparte's own experiences. The results fit better not as a sustained narrative but as episodic depictions of encounters between the Italians and those who now occupy their territory as erstwhile comrades, but also as avengers, judges, juries, and executioners.

Like Céline, Malaparte brings a complicated and shifty set of his own alliances into play, as he survives the shifts in regimes and ideologies. Similarly, this also needed an editor, for parts lapse into opprobrium, and the long conversations untranslated in David Moore's English version from French, between Malaparte's mouthpiece and his charge, Colonel Jack Hamilton, may slow the pace or dissuade a less cosmopolitan reader. But in the central section, "The Black Wind," one glimpses, finally, the power Malaparte can summon.  He had traveled to the steppes and witnessed the barbarities of the elite Germans (in this novel he appears slightly anachronistically already as "the author of 'Kaputt'"); he transforms this into a nightmare of crucified victims of the Nazis appealing for his assistance, before this segues into a tribute to his beloved greyhound Febo, and then a moving scene set in the last hour of a wounded American soldier. These three scenes, at first disparate, cohere as a meditation on death, and how we come to it ready or not. Malaparte takes dramatic license here, but the chapter works, as the central pivot in an otherwise metropolitan setting, to free the narrative from its concentration on the the demi-monde of Naples, of satire against the Allies, and lurid excess.

Rachel Kushner introduces the New York Review Classics 2013 reprint (with added passages expurgated from previous English printings) by calling Malaparte a plague or a pest, taking down all with him, and this fittingly finds an echo in the first chapter. On pg. 34, Boccaccio is cited appropriately, as compassion is felt for the afflicted of a great disaster, but this time, also by the Americans for themselves, as Christian benefactors. The trouble Malaparte finds is that such largesse cannot be reconciled with Naples' more pagan heritage, and the fact that Italian suffering predates Christian concepts. The last virgin in the city is shown intact, admission required for gawkers, and this emphasis on the grotesque (dwarf prostitutes, "Negro" soldiers hoodwinked by local "brides" and their scheming, black-market connected families despite smiles, merkins, "inverts" galore) may delight some, even if it soon gets tiresome. I get the point; Malaparte for 330 pages keeps making it.

He avers, in more provocative mood, that "capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions and his happiness; and that without the alibi of Christianity capitalism could not prevail." (63) Malaparte distrusts the civilizing mission of the Allies, he dislikes the craven bargaining of his false nation, and he seeks to distance himself from a Fascist past which despite partisans and reprisals does not recede so rapidly.

As with many European mid-century intellectuals, Communism hovers as a possible alternative. But Malaparte, true to his contrary nature, wonders if "pederasts" and "inverts" flocked to the red flag as if some pawns in a "Five Year Plan" hatched for easy marks among those who sought to deny their bourgeois nature and pretend to be proles, or to seek rough trade and fresh conquests among such who were driven by desperation and hunger to sell themselves to the "international community" of opportunistic coquettes and dilettante poseurs. A horrible interlude of the aftermath of phosphorus bombs in Hamburg conjures up a Dantean diorama, and innocents suffer horribly, cant and ideology aside. Children are sold to Moroccan soldiers, the Church connives, and the author speculates that this is not the inevitable outcome of moral breakdown so much as a sly campaign via Marxists to undermine the standards of a West they despise. Malaparte's suppositions may anger us, but he forces us to consider how popular or romanticized ideas generate unexpected, ugly impacts. People do not try to save their souls. all labor for good or bad only "to save their skins, and their skins alone." (129)

The rest of the book continues in the same mood. A bizarre birthing scene, a banquet of "fried Spam and boiled corn" for the Allies, a girl's death and her posthumous transformation, the eruption of Vesuvius, the entrance of the Allies into Rome--where a man welcoming the troops is run down by a Sherman tank, and a "flag of human skin" seems the appropriate icon for the Europe thus freed, reprisals against teenaged boys who fought for the losing side, and a recognition that it is a "shameful thing to win a war" (343) wrap up this journey into the rotten core of a continent as it is conquered.
(Amazon US 9-27-14)

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