"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 6, 2014

"The Skin" by Curzio Malaparte (1944)

When you like Celine, you may also like the Italian author Curzio Malaparte, who wrote the same type of delirious and amoral prose about war, destruction and degradation. And just as in the case of Celine, you need a strong stomach and a very thick skin to survive this verbal onslaught. The Skin contains many passages of savage invective and toxic stereotypes and is a sustained assault on every kind of piety and political correctness. When it was published in 1944, The Skin was immediately placed on the index of prohibited books maintained by the Vatican. Recently, New York Review Books have published the first complete and unadulterated English edition.

[Curzio Malaparte - Photo Wikipedia]

The Skin (La Pelle) is a near-novel, a mixture of autobiography, reportage and fantastical elements. The narrator has the same name as the author (but is of course not the same, although it remains unclear how much both differ in their opinions) and is an Italian liaison officer working in 1943 with the Americans at the time of the liberation of Naples - the first major city in Italy and in Europe to be liberated by the Allied forces. His friend and colleague is Jack, an American colonel who likes to speak French as often as he can. The novel is a surrealistic tale about the degradation of values in Naples, where everything is for sale after the city has been liberated by the Allied forces (a universal human trait).

The title refers to Malaparte's comment that once people have lost all spiritual values, they are only out to save their own skin. 
“Our skin, this confounded skin... you've no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”
The fact that Malaparte works with the Americans provides ample room for intercultural comparisons, unfailingly given with a lot of smirking irony. The Americans are innocent, simple-minded, blandly Christian, optimistic and generous, but also shallow and uncultivated, while the Italians despite their hunger and squalor feel culturally superior. Malaparte praises the Americans so much that his overdone praise and false admiration change into pure irony. He in fact sees them as a plague — a moral plague that sweeps Naples like the terrible illness of the body in the Middle Ages.

Much of the bad state of affairs in Naples is caused by the unholy combination of a victorious army in a city where everyone is poor and literally starving. It is like a seething ruin filled with jackals. So countless women fall into prostitution, not only from the city but from everywhere in Italy - there is a long line of women traipsing to Naples to earn a few dollars. The ideal situation is to have your daughter entice a soldier to your home, where he will shower everyone with canned foods, chocolate and other delicacies. There exists a fierce competition for soldiers. Catching an American soldier means food and dollars. The population stages a frantic show of welcoming the liberating army, “singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been emblems of their foes.”

There are many surreal scenes in the book. Malaparte comes across a place where they make blonde wigs, because African-American soldiers like to embrace a blonde woman. But the wigs have a hole in the middle and are not meant to be worn on the head... Mothers stand in line to sell their young sons to North-African soldiers, a veritable meat market. In intense language, Malaparte describes all the indignities and desperation of the fight for life.

In one particularly surreal chapter, rare fish are served on silver platters to assembled officers and their important guests at a banquet. It appears those fish have been removed from the Naples aquarium, as it is impossible to fish in the bay because of the presence of mines. One of the fish encircled with a wreath of coral is a "siren fish" and looks suspiciously like the body of a young child - horror straight out of Dali. The diners suddenly feel ill and have the dish removed.

Another unreal scene occurs when Malaparte recounts an earlier experience he had during the war (he could travel rather freely through Axis-controlled territory as a journalist for a major Italian newspaper). In the summer of 1941 he traveled on horseback in the Ukraine, through a countryside infested by gangsters and marauders. Towards evening he rides through a deep forest and hears eerie voices calling out to him from above. Looking up, he sees that men are hanging crucified on all the trees along his path. They snarl at the pity he shows, some even beg to be shot. They are Jews, and this is one of the many undocumented pogroms that took place all over Eastern Europe. The next day, Malaparte has to return along the same route. He listens for voices, but the forest is strangely quiet. Looking up, he sees that crows are sitting on the shoulders of the crucified men...

[Villa Malaparte on Capri - Photo Wikipedia]

Malaparte owned a famous house in Capri, situated on a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean, which he designed himself between the years 1938 and 1942. It has been called the most beautiful house in the world and was used by Godard as a location for his film Le Mepris (Contempt) - with an iconic scene of Brigitte Bardot sunbathing on the large, flat roof with its pyramidal stone steps. The house also features in The Skin, where the anecdote is told of a visit to the house by the German Field Marshal Rommel. The legendary "Desert Fox" asked if the author had designed the house himself. Malaparte pointed at the seascape, seen through the large windows, and answered: "I only did the scenery." When Rommel left, he kept glancing back suspiciously, apparently feeling that his leg had been pulled.

As if war alone is not enough, the book also contains a devastating eruption of the Vesuvius (which really took place in 1944) and some gruesome war scenes when the Allied army chases the Germans out of Rome and the northern Italian cities. When they reach Florence, an Italian man overjoyed to see the liberators, rushes towards the convoy and is crushed beneath the caterpillar wheels of a Sherman tank. What is left over, is so flat that it seems as if both clothes and skin have been neatly ironed. Malaparte remembers another similar occasion, where bystanders took part of the skin of the flattened man and waved it in the sky like a flag - another reference to the title of the novel.

And as everywhere in Europe, accounts are settled as soon as the occupied cities have been liberated. A group of partisans has cornered a number of teenage boys, followers of Mussolini, and gloatingly kill them off, the blood splashing down the steps of the church where the massacre takes place. Malaparte also sees Mussolini hanging by his feet from a hook, “bloated, white, enormous.”

The book is full of such cruel anecdotes, told with a combination of irony, disgust and grim playfulness.

Malaparte ("Bad Side," an ironic reflection on the name "Bonaparte") was born Kurt Erich Suckert (1898-1957) from an Italian mother and German father. He fought in WWI and in the 1920s became a sympathizer of Mussolini, whom he joined in the march on Rome. Along with many in the European avant-garde, Malaparte embraced fascism because of its celebration of violence. After having experienced WWI, he saw death and destruction as something beautiful, a dangerous sentiment which paved the way for the outrages and terrible crimes of the Fascists and the Nazis.

But Malaparte was also a strong individualist who could not feel at home in any mass movement (and, it should be said, he probably was also a slippery opportunist) and from around 1933 he seems to have offended Mussolini with his independence of opinion and suffered several years of banishment. Later he was allowed to continue his journalistic work (for example, traveling to the Eastern front with the German army), but continued to be viewed with suspicion. And when the Allied Forces arrived in Naples, Malaparte effected a major shift in loyalty and joined the victors as a liaison officer - just like his alter ego, the Malaparte in The Skin.

Besides The Skin, Malaparte also wrote the novel Kaputt about his wartime experiences in the years immediately before 1943 - a book that is just as strong. Both were long neglected because of Malaparte's obnoxious association with Fascism. But in these two novels, perhaps thanks to his peculiar and ambiguous position, Malaparte manages to give an authentic picture of the cruel chaos of wartime Europe from an unusual viewpoint.

The Skin was translated by David Moore and has been published by New York Review Books. The same publisher also brought out a translation of Kaputt.