Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin: A Seriously Underappreciated Novel About the Second World War
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Actually, maybe the best novel about the Second World War.
The Second World War produced major novels as prolifically as the First produced great poetry. Catch 22, A Farewell to Arms, Slaughterhouse 5, The End of the Affair, and Elie Wiesel’s Night are all based on their authors’ experience of the War, and writers too young to remember it have continued to mine the War for novels like Atonement, The English Patient, and The Book Thief.
But one of the very best novels about the Second World War is virtually unknown amongst English-speaking readers, not least because the full text wasn’t even translated into English until 2013. That’s a shame, because Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin is not only a profoundly disturbing and visionary work of art, it’s a necessary corrective to the prevailing Anglo-American narrative of the War, which tends to focus on the heroic Allies and their Nazi opponents. The Skin is set in Italy, and it allows Anglophone readers a glimpse of what the War meant and continues to mean for the people of continental Europe.
Its protagonist, ‘Curzio Malaparte,’ is a former fascist and an Italian liaison officer to the victorious American Fifth Army in Naples. It is his job to explain to his new allies what life in Naples is like: the horror of starvation, the shame of defeat, how an entire American troop carrier came to disappear from Naples harbour, and why for the first time in the city’s long history the family-loving Neapolitans are prostituting their children in the streets.
But while the American generals are looking to him for answers, Malaparte himself knows only one thing: that for better or worse a new world is in the process of being born, and all the old certainties are swept away.
Malaparte spent a large part of his life labouring to bring about a new world. Born Kurt Erich Suckert—in Italy, to a German father—he was an early and enthusiastic member of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. He began his writing career as a fascist, and he renamed himself shortly after Mussolini’s march on Rome. His chosen surname is a play on Napoleon Bonaparte’s. While ‘Bonaparte’ means ‘good side,’ ‘Malaparte’ means ‘bad’ or ‘evil side.’
He stayed true to his adopted name by continually placing himself on the wrong side of whomever held power in Italy. As a Fascist he vigorously criticized the Italian elite—but when Mussolini came to power, Malaparte offended him so grievously that Mussolini stripped him of his membership in the Fascist party and sent him into exile on the island of Lipari. He would spend most of the next twelve years in and out of prison.
His political allegiances were never very lasting, and he never took the trouble to adopt a moral or religious allegiance in the first place. His lasting commitment was to aesthetics—to beauty, but also to style and panache. A handsome man, he insisted on the best tailoring and shaved the backs of his hands. Between arrests, he designed and built a house for himself on an island off the Naples coast. It’s recognised now as a small masterpiece of European architecture. In The Skin, ‘Malaparte’ tells an anecdote about General Rommel visiting him at his house. Rommel wants to know if Malaparte built it himself. Malaparte replies that he bought it ready-built, but—with a sweeping gesture he indicates the bay, the cliffs, the islands and the Amalfi coast—‘I designed the scenery.’
During the War, when he wasn’t in prison or working on his house, Malaparte travelled to Eastern Europe as a war correspondent for Corriere della Sera, and later returned to Italy to cover the Allied invasion. His experiences during this time form the basis for his two great novels: Kaputt and The Skin.
Kaputt is a Yiddish word meaning ‘utterly broken,’ ‘unrepairable.’ Malaparte’s novel, set in Ukraine during the Nazi occupation, depicts a world that is exactly that. Trains spew bodies as they run. Loyal subordinates present ‘forty pounds of human eyes’ to their commander. But blame is hard to place, guilt everywhere and nowhere.
Upon his return to Italy Malaparte found himself in a curious position. Italy had fought alongside Nazi Germany, so the arrival of the Allies was an invasion and a defeat. But the Allies preferred to portray it as a ‘liberation,’ and, since the Italians were now at their mercy, they were only too glad to play along:
All of us, officers and men, vied with one another to see who could throw their arms and flags in the mud most “heroically.” We threw them at the feet of everyone, victors and vanquished, friend and foe, even at the feet of the passersby, even at the feet of those who, not knowing what it was all about, stopped and looked at us in amazement. Laughingly we threw our arms and flags in the mud, and immediately ran to pick them up so we could start all over again…the Allied soldiers, the British, the Americans, the Russians, the French, the Poles, clapped their hands and threw large handfuls of candies in our faces, crying: “Well done! Encore! Long live Italy!”
Malaparte loves, hates and is fascinated by the Americans who have invaded Naples. He portrays them as fundamentally alien to Europe: they are too decent, too honest, innocent, naïve, stupid and unpitying. They do not know that ‘without the existence of evil there can be no Christ; that capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions and his happiness; and that without the alibi of Christianity capitalism could not prevail.’
American generals are shocked to find that their men can hire the services of a prostitute in Naples for a packet of cigarettes. ‘”With a package of cigarettes,”’ Malaparte points out, ‘”one can buy six pounds of bread.”’ The generals tell Malaparte that American women could never be bought like that, no matter how grave their need. Malaparte ripostes:
"The American soldiers think they are buying a woman, and they are buying her hunger. They think they are buying love, and they buying a slice of hunger. If I were an American soldier I should buy a slice of hunger and take it to America, so that I could make a present of it to my wife and show her what can be bought in Europe with a package of cigarettes. A slice of hunger makes a splendid present.
This tone of searing irony allows Malaparte to slip queasily from criticism to celebration of the ‘liberators,’ and from compassion to disgust for his own people. There are no certainties in The Skin, no solid place to stand. Even the ground underfoot trembles with the death throes of Vesuvius, and the gorgeous scenery of the bay is menacing in its inhuman otherness:
The sea clung to the shore and stared at me. It stared at me with its great green eyes, panting, clinging like some savage creature to the shore.
To read The Skin is to be seized by the shoulders and whirled around, to have the ground turn to lava beneath you. ‘Malaparte’ and Malaparte both lie to our faces. They take up shocking positions, only to seize upon their equally shocking opposites mere pages later. They laugh at awful human degradation, they weep at ‘American’ corniness. But all this movement revolves around a still centre, the median point between a lie and its opposite: the terrible, unspeakable truth. And the heartrending effort Malaparte takes to point the way to this truth is not only a kind of (highly original) honesty, it’s a kind of love. Not despite but because of its undeniable nastiness, The Skin is a novel which plumbs new depths of compassion.