Since I started writing these reviews I have become aware of the fact that quite a few things scare me. Children terrify me! The Devil terrifies me! Death terrifies me! Do you want to know what else goose-pimples my skin and has me yearning for the shoulder of a stout motherly woman? Great White Sharks. Yeah, that’s right: Great White Sharks. I hate the pointy-nosed, multi-toothed, evil-looking motherfuckers. Of course, as they cannot be kept in captivity I am very unlikely to ever come face-to-face with one, so my fear is completely irrational. I don’t know, maybe it’s the lifeless eyes, the almost apathetic malevolence, the propensity for extreme violence, the sense of danger that surrounds them. Now, there are no Great White Sharks in this book, but there are Nazis, high-ranking ones; and I couldn’t think of a more suitable, appropriate, metaphor. The Nazis fascinate and frighten us for perhaps similar reasons. Indeed, there is a line in Primo Levi’s wonderful Auschwitz memoir If This Is A Man where he describes how baffling it was to be struck without anger, or dispassionately.
Malaparte, to extend the metaphor, was an Italian journalist who swam with these sharks; he interviewed and wrote about Nazis during the war, and Kaputt, to some extent, is an account of these meetings. However, it is clear that this isn’t merely a work of reportage, as too many of the things he describes in the book just could not have happened or would not have happened in the way that he presents them, so I am inclined to consider it a novel. Some of these unlikely occurrences necessitate further mention, because there are things in Kaputt that genuinely made me feel uncomfortable. Listen, I am generally of the opinion that an author’s personal beliefs are none of my business, nor is what he gets up to in his own life outside of his work; Malaparte could have spent every evening snorting cocaine off the backsides of teenage boys for all I care. Lamentable it might be, but if one was to delve into the biography of any author one would most likely turn up things that are objectionable. [See: Hamsun, Celine, etc.] The thing is, you’d never read anything if you based your choices upon the moral uprightness of writers.
There is evidence to suggest that Curzio was a sympathiser, if you know what I mean, and yet I can even let that slide [which is not the same as saying I agree with him, of course. That couldn’t be further from the truth]. He was, according to some reports, also an arch opportunist; and so when he realised that the Nazis were going to lose the war he returned to his work and re-wrote it in a less sympathetic manner. Again, I can accept this, but he did so in such a way as to present himself as some kind of agent provocateur. It is this sense of smugness that gave me brain-ache and made me waver in my regard for Kaputt. There is one scene in particular where he is shown around a Jewish ghetto by some Nazis and Curzio has himself commiserating with the inhabitants in the most excruciating manner. He apologises to them and tells one poor unfortunate Jew that one day things will be set right. Ugh. You horrible, self-serving bastard. I nearly gave up on the book at this point. But, I didn’t. And that is because Kaputt is an extraordinary, unique work. It is so beautifully written, so strange, so memorable that I was, just, able to overlook its flaws. Therefore I recommend it, but not unreservedly, to everyone.