It is hard to think of another work of fiction of such savage irony as Curzio Malaparte‘s La Pelle (1949) — The Skin, in an excellent translation (2013) by David Moore in a New York Review of Books edition. Not that such fury is not appropriate: war’s issue is the grotesque, usually forgotten as we humans tell our stories of honor, courage and glory.
Published in 1949, following his explosive first novel, Kaputt, about his time on the Eastern Front with the German army during its invasion of Russia, The Skin was no less a scandal — placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Catholic Church and banned in Naples it nevertheless marked Malaparte — a pseudonym playing on “Bonaparte”– as a seriously talented and imaginative writer. He made a living after the war as a journalist and writer of other fictions, theater, film scripts and essays. He died in 1957.
From the opening dedication of The Skin, to American soldiers “who died in vain in the cause of European freedom” he seldom settles for a gentle humor. He recounts the American uniform he is wearing, riddled with holes and stiff with patches of blood from “our” [Italian] guns, mentions the stench of rotting corpses multiple times and in a stomach turning scene of a rare aquarium fish served to American military officers and a visiting WAC representative, turns Jonathan Swift’s famous suggestion that the wealthy be served Irish babies as a means of satisfying both their hunger and the poverty of the parents into a child’s tale.
Not as ribald as Rabelais nor with the impulse of Commedia dell’ Arte‘s jocular portrayals of human pain, or of the anti war irony of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, or Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s misanthropy in Journey to the End of the Night, or even the bite in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Malaparte invents his own, sustained comedy of the grotesque; no laughter looked for. Furthermore, as a debate champion might, he often argues both sides of the question: the Americans are “goodhearted, ingenuous, overgrown boys” and yet carriers of the plague. Homosexuals are on the one hand corrupting, effete narcissists, purveyors of the hidden vice and on the other, noble heroes rebelling against the divine laws. His turns of phrase, joining two opposites, like “wonderously horrified” or “that smile dazzled me; it made me lower my eyelids and shudder with fear,” are semantic flags of his depiction of the human condition.
Set out in twelve chapters Malaparte, fictionalizing himself, is a 1943 Dante going through the circles of Naples’ hell months after the Allied invasion and “liberation” of the city. The fierce fighting at Monte Cassino is still going on as he, once a fascist supporter, acts as liaison officer to his “dearest friend,” Col Jack Hamilton, “a Christian gentleman,” and Allied officers. But this hell is not the portrayal of men under fire with its fear and witness of gruesome dismemberment but of the lives of the populace, survivors of German occupation and Allied bombing who now, even if called liberated, are occupied by another army, which even if welcomed and friendly, creats a hell of a different kind.
Within a few pages we read of the sale of children –by their mothers– for sexual pleasure, to the occupying soldiers. “Two dollars the boys, three dollars the girls!” one cries. Or, as Malaparte explains it, they are selling their hunger.
“The American soldiers think they are buying a woman, and they are buying her hunger. They think they are buying love, and they are buying a slice of hunger. If I were an American soldier I should buy a slice of hunger and take it to America, so that I could make a present of it to my wife and show her what can be bought in Europe with a pack of cigarettes. A slice of hunger makes a splendid present.”
Negro soldiers are sold as well, among the citizens of Naples, because “ownership” means a steady supply of gifts, trinkets, food and drink from their “slaves,” including for one woman a complete Sherman tank which, within hours of it’s reception is dismantled and sold for parts.
Female dwarfs, ugly and old, are sexual objects commanding high prices; above all, is the onslaught of a plague “which corrupts not the body but the soul” of the Neapolitans — later to spread all over Europe– but which does not touch the American soldiers.
In fact, many of the soldiers realize
“…that the source of the contagion was their frank, timid smiles, in their eyes, so full of human sympathy, in their affectionate caresses. … the source of the disease was in the very hand which they stretched out in brotherhood to this conquered people.”
And yet, in the second chapter, “The Virgin of Naples,” Malaparte sets out the first of many macabre scenes, in which a man sells a young woman not for sex but for a look at that rarest of creatures, a virgin.
“She is a virgin, You can touch, Put your finger inside. Just one finger…”
Is this reportage or invention? One seldom knows with Malaparte… As other writers have woven history with fiction so does he, with no visible seams.
It is often not clear, in fact, whether Malaparte is being ironic or truthful. One doesn’t know how to read his “appreciation” of homosexuals, or indeed of the Americans, whether his comment that American optimism produces men “… who refuse to believe in the necessity of evil, to refuse to admit that evil is inevitable and incurable,” is made in admiration or as a criticism. There is a bone-deep amoral sense running through the book, in which the writer at one moment praises and the next, ridicules. Just as the structures of Naples, and Europe, have been overturned –what was on the top now on the bottom and the bottom piled over the top– so too the values, the age-old sense of what is good and what is bad are jumbled, no longer recognized. Only those who have experienced the full catastrophe of war will recognize the vertigo he describes.
Some of the pages are snips of history, little known to most — the setting upon German soldiers by barely armed citizens as news of the Allied advance arrives, delaying the German counter attack. Men, women and children
“… cornered and massacred them, crushing them beneath an avalanche of tiles, stones, articles of furniture and boiling water dropped from the rooftops, balconies and windows … Many lay, still unburied, two days after the liberation of Naples, with lacerated faces and throats mangled by human teeth…”
And of course the Germans come back, the Allies still pinned to the beaches at Paestum, and take terrible reprisals.
Not content to describe the horrors of Naples he finds time to describe the phosphorous bombing of Hamburg by the Allies, as discussed by two Italian embassy officials in Berlin who are interrupted by radio news from Rome that Mussolini has been arrested… [July 25, 1943]
In a chapter called “The Black Wind,” he remembers coming upon rows of crucified men, many of them Jews, in the Ukraine in 1941 where he was sending dispatches to Corriere della Sera.
For all its powerful description and inventive imagery, The Skin is not so much a novel as a series of observations, sometimes repetitious, organized around tours or events with one of the Allied officers he is assigned to. Most are in Naples, the last several on the way to, and in, Rome, and finally in Florence, then Milan.
Without a set of characters whom we come to know, following changes of relationship and fortune, we aren’t pulled along as in a novel. More like a Hieronymous Bosch painting where any part can amaze and horrify, and be seen as linked to others, but without the ‘story” we don’t have an emotional connection. If we are pulled into the writing it is more to examine particular events and the varying attitudes displayed, to pull apart his mix of admiration and irony, his language of suffering but always as an observer, not as bound together in empathy. As he says of himself, late in the book, “I like to remain detached from danger—to be able to stretch out my arm blindly and lightly touch it, as one touches something cold in the dark with one’s hand.” Just so. He touches a great many objects and describes them in meticulous, imaginative detail, but he, and we, remain outside, amazed and distracted by the story teller’s art. For me, The Skin reads more like a selection of essays, deeply informed and seamed with fictional riches, than a novel.
Along the way, as he skips between irony, admiration, grotesquerie and striking image he makes us think in ways we might not have done before.
He argues there is an enormous difference between fighting not to die –against an enemy– and fighting to live –against hunger; the one bringing pride, the other shame.
He says that “No people can nourish a sense of freedom if it lacks a sense of pity.” He tells one of the Americans that “…capitalism 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.”
Not that his formulation is always right, exactly — the fight to live has often been waged with dignity and pride — but that he’s onto something. We think about it.
In one chapter, “The Rose of Flesh,” he picks up and extends the Swiftian theme of selling children, grotesque to be sure, and “never before done in the thousands of years of Naples history,” but “In Europe today everything is for sale—honor, country, freedom, justice. You must admit that selling one’s own children is a mere detail.”
The heart of his complaint, the title of the book, is that no longer do men fight to save their souls but only their skin.
“One’s skin is the only thing that counts. Everything is made of human skin. Even the flags of armies are made of human skin. Men no longer fight for honor, freedom, justice. They fight for their skins, their loathsome skins…”
And this, like many of his ideas, seems a bit odd to me, a bit of a provocation perhaps, or perhaps indicative of his still incipient fascism: that fighting, and killing for big ideas, for the invisible, untouchable, imagined soul is glorious, that fighting to save something visible and necessary, one’s skin, is loathsome, a step down not up.
He’s a strange breed of cat, as we might guess from his mini-biography: a participant in the Fascist March on Rome, journalist with the German Army in the Ukraine, liaison to Allied forces in the march up Italy, often with anarchist eruptions and eventually an expressed admiration for Maoism he covers the political landscape. Or, as he says in The Skin, he was able “to acquire the contempt for mankind on which the serenity and wisdom of a human being primarily depended.” Though of course he has reason: he has met those men who “when the tyrant is dead, will pose as heroes of freedom.”
But a man with rare imaginative gifts:
“…the moon, pale and transparent as a rose, was climbing above the distant horizon.”
“The sea stared at me … panting like a wounded beast.”
“The voices of men and animals seemed like pieces of black paper drifting through the air in the pink light of sunset.”
For all the difficulties The Skin poses, for certain readers it will be a revelation. Not the least because he at least grapples with the enormous, continuing, unanswered question: why do we humans so often, so willingly, and so savagely set about killing each other? As the Allied armies were between Siena and Florence, he tells us “we were awakened to the fact that among the Germans who were firing on us were some Italians.” He follows with a scabrous recitation of the civil wars “festering like a tumor beneath the surface of the war which the Allies were fighting against Hitler’s Germany. … Poles were killing Poles, Greeks were killing Greeks, Frenchmen killing Frenchmen:
“Why was it we were hurling ourselves like wolves against our brothers … It was that we all felt impelled to hate something that resembled ourselves , something that belonged to us, something in which we could recognize and hate ourselves.. [in orig]
As he finished writing The Skin, his bleakness could not have been greater.
“One morning we crossed the river and occupied Florence. From sewers, cellars, attics and cupboards, from under beds and from cracks in the walls, where for a month they had living “clandestinely” there emerged, like rats, the latter-day heroes, the tyrants of tomorrow—those heroics rats of freedom who one day would overturn Europe in order to build on the ruins of a foreign tyranny the kingdom of domestic oppression.”
Tough is it may be to read, his willingness to immerse himself as a witness and writer in his experiences, to re-experience the terrible and grotesque, is rare among writers of war and its consequences. I’ll likely give Kaputt a close look; not much has been written from that part of the war. If it proves as provocative as The Skin, then perhaps his reportage, collected in 1943 as “The Volga Rises in Europe“, or even Coup D’etat: The Technique of revolution, one chapter of which got him a jail sentence in Fascist Italy.
Note: I’ve been reading The Skin during an extended trip through Italy — part of the motivation for reading it. The exigencies of travel have prolonged the time I like to spend on a single book, and even so to rush the writing a bit. It’s time to put it to rest, for now at least. We return to the U.S. tomorrow and other things await. For those of you who carry with you the great mystery of man’s cruelty to man, as I do, I hope this small light on one who has explored it as few others, is helpful. wbk