Dec/Jan 2014

The Winner Loses

Curzio Malaparte's horrific novel of Naples after the war

Eric Banks


Near the outset of The Skin, Curzio Malaparte’s novel about Naples following its occupation by Allied forces in October 1943, the author drily notes that it is harder to lose a war than to win it: “While everyone is good at winning a war, not all are capable of losing one.” Three hundred and forty-three pages later, in the last line of the book, the author’s alter ego, Colonel Curzio Malaparte, liaison officer for the Allied forces, mutters, “It is a shameful thing to win a war.” Sandwiched between these two banalities is a bleakly humorous episodic novel—one of the greatest and still-surprising literary products of World War II—about the extremes of moral and physical squalor and the desperation of survival. What kind of shameful victors were these friendly, smiling US troops who now roamed through Naples, with their happily dispensed Lucky Strikes and chewing gum and their odor of fresh bars of soap? And what kind of Europe—or at least Italy, which switched on a dime from fighting the Americans to fighting the Germans—had they found themselves conquering? “Instead of slavery, the Allies had brought [the Neapolitans] freedom. And the people had immediately loved these magnificent soldiers—so young, so handsome, so well groomed—whose teeth were so white and whose lips were so red. In all those centuries of invasions, of wars won and lost, Europe had never seen such elegant, clean, courteous soldiers.”

Elegant, clean, and courteous: Anyone familiar with Malaparte’s particular brand of corrosive irony will immediately be skeptical of that adoring flourish. But what makes The Skin, which is being brought back into print by New York Review Books, such a seductively ambiguous read more than a half century after its publication in 1949 is that the author both means what he writes and somehow doesn’t. Is he lying or telling the truth, or both? It’s only a sign of Malaparte’s still somewhat shadowy presence in world literature—an obscurity that has lifted gradually over the past decade—that his name hasn’t become an adjective used to describe a narrator whose love of making things up dovetails with a breathtaking sense of authorial honesty. Nothing but Malapartian ambivalence could be adequate to the task in The Skin, as the author buries himself in the bleakness of Naples, transformed by defeat into an open-air market of duplicity, prostitution, and half-interred bodies, all of it overseen by Americans who in their star-spangled na´vetÚ never completely understand exactly why they are there.

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Curzio Malaparte's house as seen in Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Contempt.

The author himself led a life of political convictions that were no easier to pin down than his perspectives in the novel. After making his bones as a Fascist in the 1920s, Malaparte found himself banished in the ’30s to the island of Lipari (purportedly for making jokes about Mussolini’s taste in neckties), the first of several periods of internal exile or incarceration. He adopted political positions that were all over the map: He died in 1957 as either a newly minted member of the Communist Party, an unaffiliated supporter of Mao, or a freshly baptized Catholic, depending on which deathbed conversion one takes as his ultimate destiny. Whatever his beliefs were, they remain elusive in his reportage and his mature novels, in which he seems convinced of nothing other than the exigencies of his own writing.

Malaparte foregrounds his profound ambivalence in The Skin even more than he did in Kaputt, his novelized news from fronts elsewhere (Ukraine, Finland) published in the thick of the war. In one of The Skin’s more celebrated passages, as Malaparte the character accompanies a group of American and French officers to the outskirts of Rome, a mine goes off nearby, and afterward the French officer overseeing the Moroccan goumiers notes that one of his men has been lucky to lose only a hand (which hasn’t been located). As the group sits down for a meal of couscous, General Guillaume joins another in teasing Malaparte about what tall tales he will put in his book describing their meal and parroting the criticism about his audacious “reporting” in Kaputt. (“I would not wish to be discourteous to Malaparte, for he is my guest,” says Guillaume. “But I think that in Kaputt he is pulling his readers’ legs.”) It is left to the American officer Jack Hamilton, Malaparte’s French-speaking Virginian colonel and boon companion in The Skin, to issue the author’s own truth-in-labeling disclaimer. (“It’s of no importance . . . whether what Malaparte relates is true or false. That isn’t the question. The question is whether or not his work is art.”) But it is Malaparte himself who will have the last laugh: Pointing out that the one bit of flesh in his couscous was colder and softer than mutton, he reveals that the mystery meat he has just nibbled was the severed hand of the maimed Moroccan. (“One should never make fun of a guest while he is devouring a man’s hand.”)

This is a fiction about fictions, and the conviviality of friendly lunches and elaborate feasts thrown by American officers or the crusty counts of Capri is a generous goad for some of Malaparte’s most extravagant flourishes. Sometimes the joke is on everyone, as when the hapless General Cork scandalizes the landed dowagers who greet him by mistaking a coat-check girl for an aristocrat. Other times it’s not clear exactly who’s the butt. At an officers’ banquet in honor of an arriving WAC bigwig named Mrs. Flat, held in the baroque, sumptuous digs of the Duke of Toledo, the Neapolitan waiters blanch with contempt as the first course—“cream of carrots seasoned with Vitamin D and disinfected with a two per cent solution of chlorine”—is served on a resplendent platter loaded up with fried Spam (“it lay in purple slices on a thick carpet of boiled corn”). This sets the scene for an even more macabre second act: the boiled “fish” that an American colonel named Brand has promised, a luxury as rare as truffles in a city whose waters have been spiked with mines. So he selects a specimen from the city’s aquarium, the “famous Siren,” which, as it happens, looks a lot like a dead girl when it is served cooked on a platter. The Americans, horrified, baffled, and nauseated, refuse to eat it. Mrs. Flat protests, “I haven’t come to Europe to be forced to eat human flesh by your friend Malaparte. . . . Let’s leave it to these barbarous Italians to eat children at dinner. I refuse. I am an honest American woman. I don’t eat Italian children!”

The boiled fish/child isn’t an (im)modest proposal, and though it shocks, its aim isn’t merely satirical: Instead, it condenses all the themes of The Skin, particularly the city’s borderline famine and the fledgling market in prepubescent prostitutes that Malaparte describes in disturbing detail. Malaparte repeatedly trains his eye on the fakery that has erupted in occupied Naples, and on the ways in which human beings have been reduced to fungible objects. A would-be garmento sells merkins for prostitutes since, he reasons, black GIs prefer blondes. The pelt of a man run over by a tank is scooped up by a bystander and displayed as a makeshift flag. A chapter titled “The Virgin of Naples,” which tells of a man who, for a dollar, lets soldiers finger his daughter to prove that her hymen is intact, only partly explains why the book was proscribed by the Catholic Church. (Other sections were expurgated in translation, and the British edition dropped completely a chapter that describes a homosexual orgy starring a handful of English officers who seem to have stepped straight out of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The NYRB edition is the first uncensored English-language publication of The Skin.) The episode is nothing short of an essay on the nature of shame, and how no one—the GIs, the Neapolitan girl, her john of a father—seems immune to shamelessness, which rages like a plague over Italy.

Fake pubic hair, fake flags, real virgins in a (real or fake) episode, fake resisters who are soon to climb out of the cellars like rats and reinvent themselves as real heroes, the false superiority of the would-be conquering forces: Malaparte’s parade of falsehoods continues to get stuck in the craw of readers, especially Italian ones, who insist that The Skin is a betrayal of historical accuracy. A mere five years ago, Milan Kundera wrote an essay defending the marvelous novelistic genius of The Skin; the Italian press responded with tendentious articles and opinion pieces pointing to Malaparte’s mendacity. But to fact-check Malaparte is to miss the point. As Gary Indiana wrote in a remarkable essay published in these pages, the shearing away of invention in Malaparte’s wartime writing is folly, because his falsehoods actually point to deeper truths. I have no idea if there was a bustling market in pubic wigs in Naples or whether the invasion of Capri included a coat check (!), but the shame and fear and loathing and confusion certainly existed, and no one captured that as well as Malaparte did.

This partly explains why Malaparte excelled at firing up the truth-invention crucible. Even the most touchingly rendered funeral scene, in which mourners bury a young peasant girl who has been crushed by a bomb, is interrupted by the eruption of Vesuvius, which indeed occurred a year into the American occupation. It amplifies the fact that anything that seems nailed down in The Skin threatens to come loose and even nature itself recoiled from the historical moment.

For a long time, Malaparte was as well known for his architectural achievement as he was for his literary output: Casa Malaparte, the folly he built for himself on a rocky crag on the isle of Capri that famously supplied Jean-Luc Godard with the diva-like set of his 1963 film Contempt. Thanks to Godard, Malaparte would likely still be remembered today for his one-off architectural celebrity if he had taken Mussolini’s advice, put his pen down, and retired to his island home. But in The Skin he achieved a work of incredible artifice more solid than a house. The novel still reads like a noble attempt to render an ignoble moment without pity. “What can a king expect from his people today?” Colonel Hamilton says when he hears that a crowd has heckled Victor Emmanuel. “Flowers yesterday, boos today, flowers again tomorrow. I wonder if the Italian people know the difference between flowers and boos.” When the American colonel Brand says to Malaparte, “Your poor king . . . I am very sorry for him,” and adds with a kind smile, “And for you too,” Malaparte replies, “Thanks a lot for him.”

Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.

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