Curzio Malaparte and I have a strained and complicated relationship. It is natural, of course, to have a number of different emotional responses when reading, but Kaputt, the most well-known work by the oddball Italian journalist and novelist, is the only one to ever make me angry. This was not because I thought the novel bad, but because I found it to be, in places, unpleasantly smug. One passage sticks out in this regard, which is when Curzio [fictional or not, the main character shares the author’s pseudonym] takes a walk around a Jewish ghetto in the 1940’s, commiserating with and comforting the inhabitants.
To understand why this upset me you have to bear in mind that Malaparte wrote the novel while all this stuff [i.e the Holocaust] was actually going on, that he did meet and travel with high-ranking Nazis, and that his own stance was at the very least questionable. So that he positioned himself in his work as some kind of Mother Teresa figure was a bit hard to take; at best it is insensitive, at worst exploitative and horribly self-serving. As a result of this previous experience, I have long been putting off reading The Skin, even though there is much about it that appeals to me, so much, in fact, that I actually bought it on the day of its release. I finally picked it up a few days ago, more in hope, the hope that it would contain the things I liked about Kaputt without featuring the things I didn’t, than the expectation that I would enjoy it in its entirety.
The Skin is set in war-ruined Naples, in late 1943, at a time when Allied soldiers have entered the city. These days we tend to talk of liberators, but Malaparte is keen to stress that the American and British troops are conquerers. Italy, which fought on the side of the Germans, has lost the war, and the people now in control, now being welcomed, were previously its enemies, were the people they were, until recently, trying to kill. Malaparte emphasises the absurdity of this situation by reporting that he and other Italian soldiers are dressed in the uniforms of dead Brits, which are still blood-stained. This perspective is one of the things that makes The Skin so attractive, for there aren’t many novels that deal with the experience of, and consequences for, the defeated; indeed, the author states that anyone can win a war, but not everyone can lose one.
[Priests inside the ruined church at Benevento, Naples, October 24, 1943]
Malaparte’s Naples is a re-born, or re-enacted, Sodom and Gomorrah, it is a Boschean hell, where starvation, death, slavery, cruelty, suffering, prostitution, and, well, all forms of deviancy are rife; it is, in the author’s own words, ‘in the throes of the plague.’ This plague is a moral one, with an emphasis upon the sexual [he doesn’t use the term syphilis, but it is clear that he is referring to that disease]. Indeed, sex plays a central role in the novel, in Malaparte’s vision of a world going to shit, presumably because promiscuity is, generally speaking, seen to be [more so then, than now] an explicit sign of moral degradation. In the opening couple of chapters alone there are dwarf whores, a teenage virgin who, for a dollar or two, will let you ascertain if she is legit, and both male and female children, aged 8-10, who are offered up to soldiers by their parents.
One of the questions that the book inspires you to ask is why has this happened, why is Naples like this? First of all, if you are defeated or conquered then you have, in a sense, been shamed, and so one could understand the disreputable behaviour as being a consequence of this feeling of national shame. More significantly, and more interestingly, the author argues that there is a difference between fighting to avoid death, which is a war situation, and fighting to stay alive. If you are engaged in a war, in an effort to avoid being killed, then, he states, qualities such as honour and justice and nobility and so on are possible, even likely. However, if you are fighting simply to stay alive, i.e. if you are starving, which the people of Naples are, then one becomes capable of every kind of infamy.
“The price of freedom is high — far higher than that of slavery. And it is not paid in gold, nor in blood, nor in the most noble sacrifices, but in cowardice, in prostitution, in treachery, and in everything that is rotten in the human soul.”
It is necessary to point out that Malaparte appears to blame the Allied troops, particularly the Americans, rather than the ‘dreadful Neopolitan mob’ themselves. One knows this because throughout the book he relentlessly, sarcastically, mocks them, calling them things such as the ‘loveliest, kindest army in the world’ and making statements like ‘only Americans can move with such easy smiling grace through crowds of starving people.’ He talks repeatedly about their child-like simplicity, their goodness, their purity. He also points out that Naples, prior to the arrival of these tall and handsome victors, was not what it has become, suggesting, in a not-so-subtle fashion, that they are, therefore, responsible. I imagine that if you are American some of this stuff might sting or rankle, although I have to admit that I was, at least in the early stages, rather amused by it, as I tend to enjoy unsophisticated sarcasm and bitter pissiness, if not lazy stereotyping.
There is no question that Malaparte is fond of generalisations and stereotypes and that this does present problems for the text as a whole. Indeed, at the beginning of this review I touched upon the aspects of Malaparte’s previous work that I objected to, and wrote that I had hoped that The Skin would be free of similar unpleasantness. In this regard, it would be remiss of me not to mention that this particular book is frequently criticised for its homophobia and racism, amongst other things. However, while I felt no desire to defend the Italian previously I do think one can do so with a clear conscience in terms of some of what we encounter here.
I imagine that one of the passages that most upsets readers is that in which Malaparte describes black soldiers as being enslaved by the locals. At first glance what this seems to suggest is that the author believes black people to be born slaves or easily enslaved due to their own stupidity. However, I would argue that this is not the case, that he is mocking the stereotype, not the race, and that, if anything, the objects of his disdain are the Italians, or more specifically the corrupt and degraded state of Naples, a city where morality has broken down to the extent that people are engaged in buying and selling other human beings. What one finds is that throughout the novel it is the group that he showers with the most exuberant praise – i.e. the Americans – that he is most opposed to, and that those who he openly appears to criticise or make fun of are invariably the ones with whom he sympathises.
Having said that, there is a significant section of the novel, including The Rose of Flesh chapter, that left a bad taste in my mouth, what with the repeated use of the words ‘mincing,’ ‘inverts’ and ‘fairies’, but that is not to say that the ideas previously discussed cannot be applied to it. Malaparte initially presents homosexuals as predators and pederasts, yet later explains that it is the men who pose as homosexuals, the ones whose response to war is to reject heroism and resort to decadence, not only sexual but political also, that he has a problem with. So, once again, he appears to be using a stereotype in order to make a critical point about some other group or type of people [in this case leftist-Communist bohemians, who are using the state of the world as justification for indulging themselves].
Of course, this defence of Malaparte can only be taken so far, it is only a theory. You might think that my argument does not hold up; and I certainly would not sneer at any reader for abandoning the book on the grounds of it being intolerant and offensive. What I would say, however, is that this, a lack of common decency, and compassion and tolerance, is one of the book’s major themes. In any case, although at times this stuff acts like speed bumps, which is to say that it slowed me down and took some of the energy and enthusiasm out of my reading, it is not, in my opinion, the book’s biggest flaw.
For me, the biggest problem with The Skin is the repetition. Despite some reservations, I flew through the opening 60-70 pages, enjoying them immensely, but what I found as I made my way through the rest of the text is that Malaparte often makes the same points, sometimes in almost the same words, again and again. For example, the whole thing with the American soldiers, and how much he loves their apple-pie awesomeness, becomes tiresome the 7th, 8th, 9th, 20th time around.
I feel as though I have dedicated more of this review to the negative or questionable aspects of the book than I intended. On this basis, I want to finish with something positive. The Skin is full of memorable lines, and memorable scenes, and is worth reading for those things alone. But that is not all. As a portrait of a city, a country, a civilisation collapsing under the weight of its own faeces, it is as powerful, challenging and moving as any I have encountered. Yes, read it for that reason.