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The Skin , by Curzio Malaparte

Die Haut - Curzio Malaparte


Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957)


To win a war - everyone can do that, but not everyone is capable of losing one. - Curzio Malaparte



Curzio Malaparte, born Kurt Suckert to a German father and Italian mother, was a journalist and novelist who was a member of the Italian fascist party and took part in Mussolini's march on Rome in 1922. I don't know why he was initially a fascist, but he was too much of a free thinker to be one for long. He was kicked out of the party for his free thinking (and for lambasting both Hitler and Mussolini in various publications) and exiled on an island for five years; subsequently he was arrested and imprisoned multiple times. In between incarcerations he was an editor of a literary journal and of La Stampa for a time. During the Second World War he was a war correspondent for the Corriere della Sera. His most important novels, Kaputt (1944) and La pelle (1949), were both set in the war, the former on the Eastern Front and the latter during the invasion and occupation of Italy by the Allies. 


I first read La pelle (The Skin, available in English translation) decades ago and was deeply affected by its merciless depiction of the misery and degradation of both the Italians and the occupying forces. After finishing John Horne Burns' outstanding satirical promenade through occupied North Africa and Naples, The Gallery, in which the same misery and degradation are among the primary focuses, I thought it was a good time to revisit La pelle, to see these portrayals of the same circumstances, one from an Italian and one from an American,(*) side by side.(**)


Though Burns added touches of bitter humor to his portrait, for Malaparte it is a dominant color right from the outset, where the first person narrator - a captain in the newly formed Italian Liberation Corps, garbed in the recycled uniforms of British soldiers killed in North Africa and Sicily - is introduced to his company of former POWs, whose pale, inexpressive faces and uniforms on which one could still make out the blood stains and sewn up bullet holes convince him that he is commanding dead men.


Burns was an upper middle class American idealist, so his primary reactions to what he saw in North Africa and Italy were outrage, disgust and disillusionment. Malaparte was twenty years older (he had served with distinction in WW I) and more experienced, not to mention Italian and thus not quite so laden down with illusions. Illusions like: the victors are not merely the winners but are chosen of God and are Right, whilst those others are not merely defeated but are cast down into the fires and must clamber back out by the grace of our helping hands, with the proviso that they accept our True Beliefs and open their markets to our entrepreneurs, of course.


Both authors skewer America. Burns' tone is satirical or directly accusatory, while Malaparte's is bitterly ironic, though Malaparte seems to manifest more sympathy for the Americans than Burns does. And while Burns' portrayal of the misery, degradation and widespread corruption was graphic enough, Malaparte is just merciless. In fact, I hope he was exaggerating for effect.(***) The delicate of spirit should steer well clear of this book. But for the strong of stomach La pelle is a powerfully written panorama of mankind in extraordinary circumstances, both the good and the horrible, savorously spiced with all the idiosyncrasies of that ancient city by the beautiful Golfo di Napoli, whose people - as Malaperte emphasizes - have become through centuries of domination by others masters of survival and gaming the system, every system.


Yet other elements are brought together in this agonizing masterpiece. The narrator, who is called Captain Curzio Malaparte, is constantly torn between admiration/respect and distaste/hate for the victors and, for the Italians, sympathy/love and shame/hate. He can oscillate from one extreme to the other within a five minute conversation. The man's tension is incredible. The author Malaparte also looks closely at the many and varied relationships between victors and the defeated in a manner significantly more nuanced and multifold than Hegel's famous analysis of Herrschaft und Knechtschaft. And along with all this, Malaparte effortlessly incorporates allusions to wide swaths of English, American and Greco-Roman literature. 


I must mention a final element which caused me much thought in light of current events: the Italians were both defeated and liberated, but even the anti-fascists were made to taste the defeat on occasion. Another pair of oscillating poles, that of gratitude/joy and resentment/shame towards the liberators/conquerors, contributes to the shimmering, shifting, contradictory nature of this remarkable and unclassifiable text.



(*) In point of fact, Burns excoriated Americans and American culture in The Gallery and returned to Italy permanently after the war to write and drink himself to a very early death.


(**) Norman Lewis' Naples '44 is occupied with the same set of circumstances, but it appears he saw quite a bit less of the misery and degradation than Burns and Malaparte did (or at least chose not to write of most of it in such a graphic manner).


(***) Exaggeration is certainly part of his ironic stance, but some of the most horrible passages are provided with detail that does not grace the passages which are clearly exaggerations.