As Goes Naples

The disastrous, corrupt "recovery" of war-shattered Naples in Curzio Malaparte's The Skin reflects the rot at the core of the European peace

In the decades before World War II, most people in the Mezzogiorno—the southern region of Italy—worked land they did not own. Networks of strongmen who controlled large agricultural estates or criminal networks—such as the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the N’dragheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Naples—were the dominant organizing force in society. When the Fascists took control, they suppressed the growing Communist activity in the Mezzogiorno and dismantled the feudal crime networks. When the Allies liberated Italy and removed the fascist apparatus, they had to choose between the two social forces able to reestablish order: the crime networks and the Communists. They chose the criminal dons, reinstating them across southern Italy, and turned away as mafiosos wiped out peasant organizer and party leader alike.

The crime families took an iron grip on the Mezzogiorno, forcing an alliance with the Christian Democratic Party (which dominated Italian politics until the 1990s). Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah—an account of modern Naples’ control by the Camorra—shows that the plague of defeat and corruption that reigned after the war still lingers in the streets and ghettoes of the city, if not in the body politic of the Italian state, or, perhaps, the entire continent. “In Europe,” Curzio Malaparte writes in his fictionalized memoir The Skin, “we are all more or less Neapolitans.”

Naples is the largest city in the Mezzogiorno, a linchpin between north and south with strategically significant industry. During the war, the Allies bombed it mercilessly—more than any other city in Italy. Still, after Mussolini fell, Naples was first to rise against the Nazis, who had invaded Italy after Mussolini was deposed in 1943. The Germans were driven out, but sabotaged what they could as they retreated north. The Allies followed their withdrawal, leapfrogging from Sicily to the mainland, and occupying Naples as they inched up the boot of Italy.

Italian writer and journalist Curzio Malaparte came to the broken city an officer in the newly formed Italian Co-Belligerent Army (established to fight alongside British and American troops against the Germans). He set out to paint a dense and colorful picture of the surreal horror visited on the city. But Malaparte didn’t just document. He fictionalized and heightened the degradation of war and defeat, drove them to their spectacular extremes, all the while foregrounding himself in their nightmarish panoramas. To do so, he developed his own style of infra-fiction—a blend of self-aggrandizement, reportage, pastoral description and gallows humor. He recorded what he saw in anecdotal snippets, which he later crafted into a novelized account entitled La Pelle (The Skin) in 1949. The New York Review of Books recently released an unexpurgated translation by David Moore, with a forward by Rachel Kushner (author of The Flamethrowers). It is a companion to his earlier account of the German eastern front Kaputt (also in translation from NYRB) and follows in the same vein: a chilling landscape, filled with corpses and the mangled aspirations of the twentieth century.

In The Skin, Malaparte arrives in Naples as liaison officer to a francophone American Colonel, Jack Hamilton. The two of them wander through a city awash in well-paid, well-fed American soldiers and Neapolitans dying from starvation, German bombs and disease. The disparity between the liberator’s wealth and the destitution of the populace has created a market of flesh. Bodies are the only thing left in this ancient city, bodies to be sold and bodies to be buried. In a litany of unsettling vignettes, Malaparte describes a “plague” which corrupts “not the body but the soul.” Prostitution of all kinds permeates what is left of Naples. Soldiers pay a higher price for blonds and virgins, and the market caters to their needs, fabricating where natural resources fall short.

Across the city, bar and brothel owners pay fees to street urchins who guide American soldiers to their establishments. American GIs are so valuable—especially African-Americans, Malaparte claims, alluding not-so-subtly to the American slave trade—that urchins ‘sell’ the unwitting soldiers back and forth, taking them by the hand from place to place until they are out of money and dead drunk, where at last they take their clothes, boots and anything else of value they still possess. (Roerto Rosellini’s 1946 Paisan depicts one of these transactions, juxtaposing the urchin’s actions against the Neapolitan’s destitution.)

The American officers also suffer from the plague they have unintentionally brought, watching with dismay as their own noble intentions crumble before them. As much as the book is a lament for the Italians’ lost dignity, it is also an elegy to Americans’ idealism as they transform from liberators to occupiers. “When an American is good,” Malaparte writes, “ there is no better man in the world.” In one surreal scene, an American general tries to hold a banquet in the “Renaissance style” in honor of a visiting American dignitary, but cannot get fish because floating mines have closed the harbor and dried up the fishing industry. The General had gotten into the habit of sending his adjutants to take fish from the Naples aquarium, but they have so depleted the tanks that the only fish left is a baby “sirenoid” (a manatee). When it is served, the assembled Americans think is a small girl and react in shock and disgust. The General orders the fish buried instead of eaten, and a chaplain supervises to make sure none of the cooks give into hunger before the manatee is given a proper burial. When Malaparte notices the guest of honor crying he reasons “if she wept for a fish, it is certain that in the end, someday or other, she would also feel compassion for the people of Italy, that she would be also be moved to tears by the sorrows and sufferings of my own unhappy people.”

Throughout The Skin, Malaparte professes over and over that he is an Italian, a “wretched, defeated Italian,” but throughout his life he was only an Italian so much as it served his personal and literary needs. Born Kurt Eric Suckertt to a German father and Italian mother in Prato, Italy, he left school at sixteen and volunteered to fight for the French in World War I. He was wounded by a German gas attack and came back, like so many other young European men, deeply affected by the war. He worked as a journalist and joined the nascent Fascist party, participating in the March on Rome, but disillusionment with the movement soon took hold. He was expelled from the party and imprisoned in 1931, not long after writing Technique for a Coup-D’Etat—a satire of Mussolini and Hitler. Throughout the thirties, he fell in and out of favor with the Fascists (and was in and out of jail), as he kowtowed and lambasted them in alternation. When World War II broke out, he was freed from prison and got a job writing for Corriere della Sera, a Milanese daily newspaper. He was attached to the German army on the Eastern front (experiences that would form the raw material of Kaputt) as an Italian officer until 1943, when he switched sides. He left journalism after the war and moved to Paris to work on film and theater. He veered toward communism, and even visited China several times, but on his deathbed, he allegedly received last rites from a Catholic priest.

His pseudonym means the “bad part” and is a play on Bonaparte—the “good part.” But was Malaparte bad or simply a fictional synthesis of the world around him? He put himself in the center of his literary work, but it is impossible to tell where the fictions of his life end and the fictions of his literary work begin. Despite making himself the protagonist of his novels, he remains an ambivalent character, impenetrable and without complexity of emotion. His relationship to other people is always ambiguous. In his books, women are objects of disdain or pity but never desire; men are either beautiful and manly or cowardly hypocrites (but lacking any real sexual appeal).

Throughout The Skin, Malaparte describes his emotions in a way that he doesn’t do in Kaputt, but they feel forced, a mimesis of desirable sympathies rather than the genuine article. His professed discomfort—his rages, his tears—seems more calculated than genuine or even aesthetic. In Kaputt he describes the suffering of Germans, Poles and Ukrainians with indifference, so his flat outrage and sorrow in The Skin seems cynically deployed to maintain some amount of Italian goodwill, and thus his access to the powerful. His good looks, wit and cultured manners let him move easily among the upper classes, which he often did, and his writing reflects their propensity for armchair horrors and gossipy name-dropping. It shows in The Skin, which is as concerned with those who did not fight the war—the generals, diplomats and aristocrats—as it is with those who suffered the war and the peace, whose bodies burned and were sold in the streets while the powerful had dinner parties at a safe remove.

The Skin is divided into twelve titled chapters but follows no narrative arc. It is set within the framework of historical events but jumps back and forth—sometimes to locales that were part of Kaputt: Berlin, Hamburg and the Ukrainian steppe. His descriptions contrast minute details with sweeping panoramas and appealed especially to film people. (Liliana Cavani directed an adaptation of The Skin in 1981, and film editor Walter Murch was so obsessed with Malaparte that he translated a collection of his stories into English.)

The prose resembles an episodic travelogue: a journey through a landscape increasingly ravaged by the peace as much as the war and evokes—explicitly at times—Dante’s Inferno. One of the darkest chapters, entitled The Black Wind, concerns not the dead or the living, but the dying: Jews crucified on trees in the Ukraine, dogs vivisected in a Naples veterinary school, an American boy gut-shot on the road to Cassino. The Black Wind is a natural phenomenon on the Ukrainian steppe, a wind that covers the earth with ashen dust and foretells death. Malaparte charges through it on horseback to find Jewish men nailed to tree trunks, men who spurn his help and ask to be put out of their misery, which he finds himself unable to do. Their agony is juxtaposed against a fierce and natural beauty, which runs as a leitmotif throughout the book. Towards the novel’s end, Vesuvius explodes, engulfing small villages with lava, and darkening the sky over Naples, as if nature itself must reassert its predominance over the human realm.

Malaparte spent his life and literary work chasing the ideals and historical currents of his era, the movements and events that transcended the individual—things worth living and dying for. Perhaps the source of his arch-cynicism was the failure of these romantic ideals and their eclipse by ragged self-interest—his own and others. He is often compared to Celine—another misanthropic veteran of World War I and collaborator in World War II—but this misses the unique trajectory of Malaparte’s work. Celine wanted to lambast European society for its hypocrisy and decadence, to stand outside and cast stones. Malaparte, on the other hand, reveled in those contradictions, placing himself at their toxic center. He made himself the bad part of Europe and makes his readers complicit in all that was surreal and rotten about the war. His books cling to guilt at a time when most of Western Europe was declaring itself—politically and aesthetically—innocent of the war and its genocides, instead looking greedily to the potential profits of the postwar era.

The Skin chronicles the germination of the mythic “economic miracle,” which buoyed so many western European countries after the war. It established democracy and capitalism as the only bulwarks against civil war and politically and psychologically suppressed any call for social revolution, whether from the right or the left. “The imbeciles and the madmen, together with the partisan groups, had taken to the maquis and were fighting at the side of the Allies or swinging from the lampposts in the city squares. But the wise and the prudent, all those who one day, with the danger over, would laugh at us and our mud-spattered and bloodstained uniforms, were there in their secure hiding places, awaiting the moment when they could come out into the square uttering cries of ‘Long live freedom!” But the illusions of that freedom—built on finance capital and forgetting—have collapsed, and Italy staggers under corruption, political intransigence and insolvency. The Christian Democrats fell apart, only to be replaced by a myriad of smaller equally corrupt political parties—most notably Berlusconi’s Forzia Italia.

Modern Naples is a different kind of ruin, a nightmare of free markets and urbanization, corruption and toxic waste. The farmers and criminal dons of the Mezzogiorno abandoned the countryside, crowding into the city, looking for work and markets to exploit. Decrepit public housing blocks replaced the refugee dwellings at the city’s edge, and industrial infrastructure projects ravaged the landscape once ruined by Allied bombs or German sabotage. It is the apogee of Western Europe’s post-war capitalism, and a dark portent for Italy and the rest of Europe. Malaparte put himself at the heart of a continent that gorged itself on war. Reading him now, we might wonder, who will do the same for a continent that destroyed itself with peace?