The Skin by Curzio Malaparte – A Review
Published by: The New York Review of Books
Prefaced by a dedication to “the honorable American soldiers who were my comrades-in-arms… and who died in vain in the cause of European freedom,” Curzio Malaparte imparts a warning before The Skin opens. It’s a warning that should be heeded.
Naples has been liberated, or is it conquered? Amidst a city in the grips of “the plague”, an abominable infestation of moral degeneration, which arrived alongside “the loveliest, the kindest, the most respectable army in the world… born like Venus, of the sea foam…” containing, “…not a soldier who had a boil, a decayed tooth, even a pimple on his face,” Curzio Malaparte acts as liaison, interpreter and guide to Colonel Jack Hamilton, a “sophisticated”, classically educated American, as they explore the devastated city of bombed out Naples.
In the banlieu de Paris, a.k.a. Europe, the people are hungry, and nowhere more so than in Naples. A black market has sprung up with everything for sale, and in which blond pubic wigs are sold to cater for the tastes of Negro soldiers. Women and children are for sale and there is but one virgin left in Naples—a young girl whose family offers her for display to American servicemen. Nothing is as it seems, and everything is twisted, “… an appalling and at the same time a delicate, exquisite, unreal scene.”
That Europe, is at a crossroads, Malaparte feels acutely.
“I was Europe. I was the history of Europe, the civilization of Europe, the poetry, the art, all the glories and all the mysteries of Europe. And simultaneously I felt that I had been oppressed, destroyed, shot, invaded and liberated. I felt a coward and a hero, a ‘bastard’ and ‘charming’, a friend and an enemy, victorious and vanquished. And I also felt that I was a really good fellow.”
But it is a crossroads with perversions at every turn.
“‘Blackshirts!’ I cried. ‘Our American allies have at last landed in Italy to help us fight our German allies. The sacred torch of Fascism is not spent! It is to our American allies that I have entrusted the sacred torch of Fascism!”
Both actor and backdrop, the war informs the many conversations and musings that ensue. In a sad, even anguished, and utterly ironic tone, we are led from one ridiculous and grotesquely comic vignette to another. When asked about the difference between American’s and Europeans, he states with a ridiculous air of superciliousness, “The difference,” … “is this—that the Americans buy their enemies, and we sell ours,” only to receive, as though drunk, the equally ridiculous reply: “I have a suspicion,” said Major Morris, “that the peoples of Europe have already begun to sell us so as to get even with us for having bought them.” It took me a moment of further reading to realise that buried in these seemingly nonsensical statements there is a perverse logic. Everything is for sale, even hunger.
That the hyper-fertile hinterland of Naples would in the post war era provide almost a third of all agricultural produce in Italy, and that the Italians would provide the world with so many wonderful dishes, only makes it appropriate that some of the more amusing and richly imagined parts would revolve around food. Eerie parallels with real events sees a girl shaped fish, named “The Siren”, taken from the local aquarium to be served to American officers, only to invoke the disgust of a rather prudish guest, whilst the Italian waiters serve up Spam with hilarious contempt.
“People that have an ancient and noble tradition of servitude and hunger respect only those masters who have refined tastes and lordly manners. There is nothing more humiliating to an enslaved people than a master with uncouth manners and coarse tastes.”
With apparent ease, Malaparte offers contradiction after contradiction. Virtually impossible to decipher, there are no easy answers or views to be taken. He lambasts cowardice and heroes alike. He often appears scathing. The young of Europe are on their way to being pederasts: “They always choose the easiest form of revolt—degradation, moral indifference, narcissism.” Italy is simultaneously both saved and shamed: “Italian policy is based on the cardinal principle that there is always someone else who loses wars on Italy’s behalf.” Of “the wise and the prudent” … “the false ‘resisters,’ the blasé defenders of freedom, the heroes of tomorrow, lay hidden, pale and trembling, in the cellars.” Even the dead receive his withering eye: “They had invaded Italy, France, all of Europe … We had to defend life—our true country, life—even against them—the dead.” No-one is spared. And yet, there is such humanity, evident when he pleads with some frightened and inexperienced Americans to not move a wounded man, for he is dying, or when he goes searching for his dog, Bebo, only to find him in the university hospital, enduring suffering in silence-one of the most touching and grotesque moments in a novel where such events are not in short supply.
There are other novels that touch on war with caustic humour. Josef Skvorecky’s Engineer of Human Souls is one such book; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5 is another; Joseph Hellers, Catch 22 is yet another satirical gem, but none of them are so confusing, so utterly unclassifiable, so perverse, and yet so honest and cutting. Meandering between cynicism and innocence, laughter and sadness, Malaparte appears to be in mourning. I felt like I was at a wake, laughing along at the jokes, marveling at the humour and the wisdom, but still aware that there is a grieving widow in the room. That scenes of life and death can prove so touching and yet so comic, marks the genius in this work. That it elicits humour does not diminish its horror, nor its serious intent, but amplifies it. That it should prove prophetic, confounds the senses, for it is a surreal piece that should be read, and read widely, for it drives home thoughts that we rarely consider, such as, “It is a shameful thing to win a war.”
I recommend this book but with one reservation: Read it with an open mind. It is not gentle.