To misquote actor Bill Nighy in Love Actually “War is all around us.” 2014 is an anniversary year and worldwide it has seen books published —or reprinted – films released and exhibitions mounted, commemorating man’s peculiar penchant for carnage and destruction.
The New York Review of Books has just published Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin — a work so surreal, so perverse, and so disconcerting in tone that it remained untranslated in its full form into English — until now.
It was first published in Italy in 1950 to the great embarrassment of its government and was banned by the Catholic Church and the city of Naples. At the time. the critic Emilio Cecchi said: “Silence and hypocrisy are almost better than this ambitious cleverness. He has brought misery, shame, and atrocities into play, and stripped them of all decency, in order to use them for literary purposes.” On the other hand, writer Rachel Kushner observes in her introduction of this new unexpurgated translation: “The Skin is one of the finest novels written about World War II.”
‘Malaparte’ (wrong/bad side) was a pseudonym for Kurt Eric Suckert, an Italian born of a German father and an Italian mother Evelina Perelli near Florence in 1898. After training as a journalist and serving in World War I, he changed his name as a word play on Buonaparte, which meant ‘good side’. Among his friends were the filmmaker Jean Luc Godard, whose film Contempt starring Brigitte Bardot, was partly filmed at Malaparte’s red hammer-shaped villa on Capri. The film was based on the novel by Alberto Moravia, another friend who was one of Italy’s most celebrated novelists. Its broad theme was the plunder of Europe by Hollywood.
Skin is also about plundering. It opens in Naples and ends with rumination on the scourge of Vesuvius, which had conveniently erupted in April 1944 — providing Malaparte with another of his extended metaphors for the scourges of the German, then the American occupation.
In the novel, Malaparte is an Italian liaison officer working with the Americans. We learn nothing of his work, as this is merely a platform for launching an extended comparison between the conquerors: gullible, uncultivated, high-minded and careless, and the squalor, hunger, degradation and cultural superiority of the conquered. His friend and colleague is Jack, an American colonel who likes to speak French where he can.
A mantle of irony, disgust and grim playfulness hang heavily over the book and the reader is often ambushed by sudden changes in tone when Malaparte inserts snatches of dialogue which are clearly modelled on Hemingway. “I know you, Malaparte. You’re in a black mood today.” “I am sad about Cassino Jack.” “To hell with Cassino.” “I am sad, truly sad, about what is happening at Cassino.” “To hell with you Jack.”
The reader is obliged to navigate through his hauteur, his disgust with both Italians and their liberators and his profound cultural snobberies. There’s a virtual shopping list of Greek and Roman poets and the allusions to the treasures in bombed and rubble-filled palazzos might incline the non-visual to a dictionary of painters and sculptors.
In a mocking tone and full of false admiration he parades the so-called American virtues: simple-minded, blandly Christian, optimistic, and generous, but finds the European sensibility (whatever that is) superior. He then unmasks them as a plague — a moral plague that sweeps Naples like the contagions of the body in the Middle Ages.
Everyone is reduced to jackal status. Starving women are selling themselves and their children on the streets, brothel owners commission ‘blonde’ pubic wigs, which will make the Neapolitan women more attractive to the troops, rare fish are removed from the aquarium to arrive on silver platters in banquets for the officers. He describes the indignities and desperation of fighting for life where a straw bed, an orange peal, a meatless bone, have “enormous decisive value” and how the dead seem to cling to us more than the living “can one ever know how a dead man looks at things?”
The corruption and the decline in morality (the inevitable outcome of countries dislocated by war) he links to the spectre of communism and homosexuality — even bracketing them as if they were somehow intertwined.
In one particularly surreal chapter, a large siren fish is served to assembled guests at a banquet. One American named Mrs Flat, swathed in a purple evening gown, has to be placated —she is convinced it is the body of a young female child. At another dinner, Malaparte discovers a severed human hand in his bowl of couscous. He doesn’t flinch.
There are some searing passages in the book as Malaparte retraces earlier experiences of the war the reader is subjected to a description of the Hamburg firestorm and the horrors of phosphorous. And he recalls a time in Ukraine in the summer of 1941. The countryside is raked by criminals and marauders. He comes across a scene of multiple crucifixions on trees. The men were all still alive. They snarl at his pity, some beg to be shot. The next day they are all dead and crows have alighted on their shoulders.
He recalls an earlier time in Pisa where his beloved dog Febo goes missing. He discovers him in a local hospital where a row of dogs has been experimented upon. Their vocal chords have been cut so they can’t make a sound. It requires not a great leap of the imagination to see this as a metaphor for what befell humans beings in the hands of psychopathic doctors.
When the Americans reach Florence, an escapee from Naples, overjoyed to see a convoy of American Sherman tanks rushes towards one only to be crushed beneath its caterpillar wheels. A crowd of partisans has cornered a group of young boys, all Mussolini followers, and gloats as they despatch them on the steps of Santa Maria Novella which runs with blood. The Americans are powerless to stop them.
The gruesome finale occurs in Milan where he and his colleagues encounter a riot in a public square. Mussolini is there —hanging there by his feet from a hook “bloated, white, enormous”. Some sort of malady (possibly a nervous breakdown) finds him in an American military hospital before he returns to Rome and the novel ends with his one remaining friend ‘Jimmy’ contemplating his departure to the rich free world of America from the degraded and ruined corpse of Italy.
The cover chosen for The Skin is a detail of a painting called Concetto Spaziale (1966) by none other than the celebrated Argentinian-Italian artist, Lucio Fontana, who returned to Italy from wartime exile in Argentina and began to puncture canvases in 1949. This, he suggested, had opened up a dimension of space in his work and a galactic space in his mind. The choice of Fontana is a thoughtful one as acts of slashing and puncturing are analogous with violent and anarchic activity — all in keeping with the violence and anarchy of Malaparte’s novel.
And coincidentally, Fontana is the subject of an important retrospective exhibition called Lucio Fontana: Rediscovery of a Masterpiece at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris until 24 August. Its title dovetails nicely with the republishing of Malaparte’s work which may well create a new generation of admiring readers.