Five for

"Do you want to know," said Pierre Lyautey, "what Malaparte will say about this lunch of ours in his next book?" And he proceeded to give an extremely amusing description of a sumptuous banquet, the scene of which was not the heart of a wood on the high bank of the Lake of Albano but a hall in the Pope's villa at Castel Gandolfo.

Seasoning his discourse with a number of witty anachronisms, he described the porcelain crockery of Cæsar Borgia, the silver ware of Pope Sixtus --- the handiwork of Benvenuto Cellini --- the golden chalices of Pope Julius II, and the papal footmen, busying themselves about our table while a chorus of angel voices at the end of the hall intoned Palestrina's Super flumina Babylonis in honor of General Guillaume and his gallant officers.

They all laughed amiably at Pierre Lyautey's words. Only I did not laugh. I smiled and said nothing, keeping my eyes fixed on my plate.

"I should like to know," said Pierre Lyautey, taming to me with an urbanely ironical air, "how much truth there is in all that you relate in Kaputt."

'It's of no importance," said Jack, "whether what Malaparte relates is true or false. That isn't the question. The question is whether or not his work is art."

"I would not wish to be discourteous to Malaparte, for he is my guest," said General Guillaume. "But I think that in Kaputt he is pulling his readers' legs."

"And I don't wish to be discourteous to you," retorted Jack warmly; "but I think you are wrong."

"You won't ask us to believe," said Pierre Lyautey, "that all that Malaparte relates in Kaputt actually happened to him. Is it really possible that everything happens to him? Nothing ever happens to me!" "Are you quite sure of that?' said Jack, half closing his eyes.

"Please forgive me," I said at last, turning to General Guillaume, "if I am forced to reveal to you that a few moments ago, at this very table, I had the most extraordinary experience of my life. You were not aware of it, because I am a well-mannered guest. But inasmuch as you question the truth of what I narrate in my books, allow me to tell you what happened to me a few moments ago --- here, in your presence.

"I am curious to know what happened to you that was so extraordinary," answered General Guillaume, laughing.

"Do you remember the delicious ham with which we began our meal? It was a ham from the Fondi mountains. You have fought over those mountains --- they rise behind Gaeta, between Cassino and the Castelli Romani --- and you win therefore know that in the Fondi mountains they breed the finest pigs in the whole of Latium and the whole of Ciociaria. These are the pigs that are referred to in such affectionate terms by St. Thomas Aquinas, who came, in fact, from the Fondi mountains. These pigs are sacred, and they root within the precincts of the churches in the little villages situated on the high ridges of Ciociaria. Their flesh has the perfume of incense, and their lard is as soft as virgin wax."

"C'était en effet un sacré jambon," said General Guillaume.

"After the ham from the Fondi mountains came miniature trout from the Liri. A beautiful river, the Liri. On its green banks many of your goumiers have fallen before the fire of the German machine guns --- fallen face downward in the grass. Do you remember the Liri trout --- slim and silvery, with delicate fins that diffuse a faint green radiance and have a darker, mellower silveriness? The miniature trout from the Liri are like those found in the Black Forest; they are like the Blauforellen of the Neckar --- the poets' river, the river of Hölderling --- and of the Titisee; they resemble the Blauforellen found in the Danube at Donauescbingen, where the Danube has its source. That regal river rises in the park of the castle of the Princes of Fiirstenburg, in a white marble basin that looks like a cradle and is adorned with neoclassical statues.

"That marble cradle, pleasance of the black swans celebrated by Schiller, is frequented by stags and fallow deer, which go there at sunset to drink. But the Liri trout are perhaps brighter and more transparent than the Blauforellen of the Black Forest; and the silvery green of their light scales, which in color resemble the old silver candelabra that hang in the churches of Ciociaria, does not yield the palm to the silvery blue of the Blauforellen of the Neckar and the Danube, which diffuse the same mysterious blue radiance as the dazzling white porcelain for which Nynphenburg is famous. The soil that is washed by the Liri is ancient and noble; it is some of the noblest and most ancient soil in Italy; and just now I was moved when I saw the Liri trout curled up in the form of a crown with their tails in their pink mouths, even as the ancients used to represent the serpent, symbol of eternity, in the form of a wreath, with its tail in its mouth, on their columns at Mycenæ, Pæstum, Selinus and Delphi. And do you remember the flavor of Liri trout --- delicate and elusive as the voice of that noble river?"

"Elles étaient délicieuses!" said General Guillaume.

"And finally an immense copper tray appeared on the table. It contained the kouskous, with its barbarous, delicate flavor. But the ram from which this kouskous is made is not a Moroccan ram from Mount Atlas or from the scorched pastures of Fez, Teroudan or Marrakesh. The Itri mountains above Fondi --- where Fra Diavolo ruled --- are its habitat. On the Itri mountains, in Ciociaria, there grows a herb similar to horsemint, but richer, with a flavor that reminds one of sage. The people who live among those mountains call it by the ancient Greek name of kallimeria. From it pregnant women make a potion that facilitates childbirth. It is a pungent herb, and the rams of Itri devour it greedily. It is, indeed, to this herb, kallimeria, that the rams of Itri owe their rich fat, so suggestive of pregnant women; because of it they have the feminine indolence, the fullness of voice and the weary, languid eyes of pregnant women and hermaphrodites. You should look attentively at your plate when you eat kouskous. The ivory whiteness of the bran in which the ram is cooked is in fact as delightful to the eye as the flavor is to the palate, don't you think?"

"Ce kouskous, en effet, est excellent!" said General Guillaume.

"Ah, if only I had closed my eyes when I ate that kouskous! For a moment earlier I had suddenly become aware that the warm, strong flavor of the mutton had an unpleasant sweetness about it, and that I was chewing a piece of meat that was colder and softer than the rest. I looked at my plate, and was horrified to see a finger appear in the middle of the bran --- first one finger, then two, then five, and finally a hand with white nails --- a man's hand."

"Taisez-vous!" exclaimed General Guillaume.

"It was a man's hand. It was undoubtedly the hand of the unfortunate goumier, which the exploding mine had neatly severed and hurled into the great copper pot in which our kouskous was cooking. What could I do? I was educated at the Collegic Cicognini, which is the best college in Italy, and from boyhood I have been taught that one should never, for any reason, interrupt the general gaiety, whether at a dance, a party, or a dinner. I forced myself not to turn pale or cry out, and calmly began eating the hand. The flesh was a little tough. It had not had time to cook."

"Taisez-vous, pour l'amour de Dieu!" cried General Guillaume in a hoarse voice, pushing away the plate that lay in front of him. They all looked ghastly, and were gazing at me with wide-open eyes.

"I am a well-mannered guest," I said, "and it is not my fault if, as I silently nibbled the hand of that poor goumier, smiling as though nothing were amiss so as not to interrupt such a pleasant luncheon, you were imprudent enough to start pulling my leg. One should never make fun of a guest while he is devouring a man's hand."

"But it isn't possible I can't believe..." stammered Pierre Lyautey, who was green in the face, and he pressed his hand stomach.

"If you don't believe me," I said, "look here, on my plate. Do you see all these little bones? They are the knuckles. And these, ranged along the edge of the plate, are the five nails. You will forgive me if, in spite of my good breeding, I wasn't equal to swallowing the nails."

"Mon Dieul" cried General Guillaume, gulping down a glass of wine at a single draught.

"That'll teach you," laughed Jack, "to question the truth of what Malaparte relates in his books."

--- From The Skin
Curzio Malaparte
©1988, Marlboro Press

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