The Skin does for Naples what Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt previously did for Europe. Only the subject changes, Malaparte continues to paint a repugnant and satirical picture of moral, physical and intellectual decay, of abject squalor and of a pervasive gloom that hindered Europe’s regeneration in World War II’s aftermath. He does it very well so I have no complaints about the formula. Malaparte clearly wrote the novel to upset readers. He sets the tone of confrontation and polemic even before the first page, when he dedicates the novel to his friends the “honest American soldiers, my companions in arms between 1943 and 1945, uselessly killed for the liberation of Europe.”
At the end of Kaputt Malaparte has arrived in Naples and is preparing to leave to the isle of Capri, where he built his house years before. The Skin finds him back in Naples, serving as a liaison officer to the American army. In the company of American soldiers he walks the streets of the city, observing the people in their heroic struggle to keep misery at bay day by day. Half novel half memoirs, and what is real and fictional isn’t clear, this book is as much a panegyric to Malaparte’s adoptive city as it is a chronicle of the Neapolitan people’s war-inflicted dehumanization. Malaparte remains ambivalent about the citizens throughout the novel, torn between praise for their resourcefulness and censure of their depravity. Malaparte’s feelings are verbalized in Colonel Jack Hamilton’s patronizing encomium. “I like Italian people. I like this bastard, dirty, wonderful people.”
Malaparte is in one of his better days when Colonel Hamilton says this, so he humours the officer. “I know, Jack, that you wish well to this poor, unhappy, wonderful people. No other people on earth have ever suffered as much as the Neapolitans have. It has suffered famine and slavery for twenty centuries, and doesn’t complain. It doesn’t speak ill of anyone, it doesn’t hate anything: not even its misery. Christ was Neapolitan.”
Malaparte is ironic and detached at times, at others very sentimental and unable to disguise his hurting at seeing his people subjugated and humiliated. “If it’s never an honour to lose a war, it was certainly a great honour, for the Neapolitans, and for all the other vanquished people of Europe, to have lost the war against soldiers so courteous, elegant, beautiful, so good and generous.”
There isn’t a plot to speak of. The novel is divided in twelve chapters, each one focusing on a theme or situation or set of characters. Most of the situations serve to illustrate the points, over and over again. Malaparte and his American friends visit Naples’ slums, observing and commenting on the squalor of the Neapolitan people, amidst digressions on European art, culture and history, and differences between America and Europe. These digressions are wholly intentional and essential; they’re there to make a powerful contrast with the pictures of misery. Naples in 1943 was, for a brief time, hell on earth. People are starving, and everything is for sale. For instance, women rent underage children to the soldiers. “Two dollars the boys, three dollars the girls!” the women shout, probably their mothers. Prostitution and human trafficking is a theme the author keeps coming back to as the lowest condition the people have sunk to. At the times the novelist gives room to the journalist with his objective recording of facts:
The prices for the girls and boys, for some weeks now, had fallen, and continued to fall. While the prices for sugar, olive oil, flour, meat, bread, had increased, and continued to go up, the price of human flesh lowered day by day. A girl between twenty and twenty-five years, who a week ago was worth up to ten dollars, now was worth only four dollars, bones included. The reason for such a drop in the price of human flesh on the Neapolitan market was due perhaps to the fact that women arrived to Naples from all parts of middle Italy.
Only the clever, wicked and resourceful succeeded in these circumstances. Everything was acceptable in order to survive, and duping American soldiers was considered fair play. A common scheme used was pushing daughters onto American soldiers and forcing an engagement, making the soldier responsible for taking care of the family and supplying it with goods. This was just another form of prostitution. A different method, for those with the courage and the means, was to steal provisions from the American army. Malaparte, jokingly or not, relates how one night an entire Liberty ship was stolen, it simply vanished from the dock, never to be seen again. Everything had value on the black market.
Malaparte observes without fierce judgments. He says with irony that he’d likely be as corrupt as his countrymen. “Who knows? If I had a boy, perhaps I’d sell him to be able to buy American cigarettes. We have to be a man of our times. When you’re vile, you must be vile all the way.”
Malaparte doesn’t overlook the intelligentsia, a class for which he had a lot of loathing. The novel Kaputt juxtaposed the horrors of the several war fronts and Jewish ghettos with parties attended by important guests, from intellectuals to high-ranking officers. Here he tries to do the same. My immediate impression is that Malaparte raised the bar too high in the previous novel when he used Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, as a character, and there’s nothing in The Skin in that league. If any of the literati Malaparte lambasts is real, or a real person in disguise, I’m unaware. The sections with the literati are bizarre, and because of the unforeseeable changes of history, may be the most upsetting pages of the book nowadays. Malaparte didn’t take kindly to homosexuals and according to him the whole intellectual class was nothing but a bunch of nihilistic pederasts who took advantage of generalised underage prostitution to sate their lust. It really must be read to be fully taken in. I have no tolerance for intolerance, but in Malaparte’s defence – he was a Fascist sympathiser, it’s not like he has much of a reputation to protect – he was a Christian, with all the cultural strictness of the age. Since, however, I always try to be generous to writers, there’s a passage that I think of interest. This is Malaparte talking with Jean-Louis, one of his despised nihilists:
“It’s always the same story, after a war. The young react to heroism, to the rhetoric of sacrifice, of heroic death, and react always in the same way. Out of disgust with heroism, with noble ideals, with heroic ideals, do you know what young men like you do? They always choose the easiest revolt, that of vileness, of moral indifference, of narcissism. They think themselves rebels, blasés, affranchis, nihilists, and are nothing but whores.”
“You don’t have the right to call us whores,” shouted Jean-Louis, “the young deserve respect. You don’t have the right to insult them!”
“It’s a matter of words. I met thousands like you after the other war, who thought they were Dadaists and surrealists and were nothing but whores. You’ll see, after this war, how many young men will believe to be communists. When the Allies have liberated all Europe, do you know what they’ll find? A mass of disillusioned young men, corrupted, desperate, who’ll play at pederasts as if they were playing at tennis. It’s always the same story after a war. ”
I think this is a very acute observation. The rhetoric of war always looks back to traditional values like heroism, nationalism, sacrifice, and after the war there always tends to be a backlash against its strictness. It leads to developments in the arts, like the dada and surrealism that Malaparte did not approve, and to civil rights movements, but also leads to a disenchantment with life, the feeling that life is meaningless.
To Malaparte, there’s a ‘moral plague’ hovering above Naples, against which there is no defence. In an appendix I discovered that he originally intended to name the novel The Plague, to make a connection with the ancient Greek tragedies, which use plagues to indicate moral decay or guilt over a character. This, of course, makes think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play The Flies, which also used the plague metaphor. So we have a series of works of literature in the 1940s that had the same idea. Malaparte, however, came up with a different metaphor for his vision of decay. And, I presume, as the Christian he was, he saw the question in terms of matter versus spirit, saving one’s skin versus saving one’s soul:
“You can’t even imagine what a man is capable of, of what infamy and what heroism he’s capable of, to save his skin. This, this filthy skin, see? (And saying that I pinched the skin of the back of my hand between two fingers, and pulled it here and there.) In the past one suffered hunger, torture the most horrible sufferings, one killed and died, one suffered and made one suffer, to save the soul, to save one’s own soul and the soul of others. One was capable of every greatness and every infamy, to save the soul. Not just one’s soul but others’. Nowadays one suffers and makes one to suffer, one kills and dies, one accomplishes wonderful and horrible things, not anymore to save the soul but to save the skin. One believes to be fighting and suffering for the soul itself, but in reality one fights and suffers for the skin, only for one’s own skin. Everything else doesn’t matter. Nowadays one’s a hero for a very poor thing! Look. It’s a disgusting thing. And to think the world is full of heroes ready to sacrifice their own lives for such a similar thing!”
Before the Allies arrived in Naples, the population fought to push the German army out of Naples. Now it’s fighting just to survive:
“It’s a humiliating, horrible thing, it’s a shameful necessity, fighting to live. Only to live. Only to save one’s own skin. It’s no longer the fight against slavery, the fight for freedom, for human dignity, for honour. It’s the fight against hunger. It’s the fight for a piece of bread, for a bit of fire, for a rag with which to cover the kids, for a bit of straw on which to lay down. When men fight to live, everything, even an empty can, a cigar butt, an orange peel, a crumb of dry bread picked up from filth, a stripped bone, everything has for them an enormous value, decisive. Men are capable of any vileness to live: of every infamy, of every felony, to live. For a piece of bread any of us is ready to sell his own wife, his own daughters, to smear his own mother, to sell his brothers and friends, to prostitute himself to another man.”
Malaparte, thanks to his connection with the American army, was spared these deprivations. But what do you do when you survive the war to witness the rest of your people subjugated and humiliated? How do you cope with that? I wonder to what extent his dark humour isn’t a way of masking his shame. Perhaps The Skin is his hymn to his people as a way of making amends with his consciousness. I’m merely speculating, of course. But for whatever motives he wrote this book, it’s one of the most remarkable, gut-wrenching and heartbreaking war novels I’ve ever read.
I read this book for the European Reading Challenge.