The Skin
Curzio Malaparte
David Moore, Translator

(New York Review Books)
In January of this year, the TLS published a scatterbrained review of The Skin entitled "Afflicting the city." The reviewer, one Christopher Duggan, takes Malaparte to task for his Fascist past, implies that Malaparte tried to hide it under cover of his late-in-life "Marxist faith." The review also dwells lovingly and long on the lusty parts of The Skin as "moral depravity:" The writer cites "wizened dwarf prostitutes," a public display of the "virgin of Naples," and the "deep spiritual malaise" of the city.

Duggan also chronicles a rather famous banquet scene, in which an American general stationed in Naples serves forth a so-called "Siren fish." It resembles "a little girl who had been boiled." This picture, according to Duggan, manages to "strain credibility" with its "baroque exoticism." Oh if it could be so simple. Because Malaparte is one of those adroit writers who makes it possible for him (and the rest of us) to have our cake and eat it too

We are allowed in this scene --- among others --- to be of two (or more) minds. The little girl is served up to several American officers and Clare Booth Luce. Or better, the fish on the platter might be a girl parboiled to a fare-thee-well by our unfortunate chef; or she may be an exotic sea creature stolen in the night from the war-strained Naples aquarium. Nowhere in the passage can the diners, much less the reader, be sure quite exactly what's there in front of us on the table:

    In the middle of the tray was a little girl, or something that resembled a little girl. She lay face upwards on a bed of green lettuce leaves, encircled by a large wreath of pink coral stems. Her eyes were open, her lips half closed; and she was gazing with an expression of wonderment at Luca Giordano's painting of the "Triumph of Venus" which adorned the ceiling. She was naked; but her dark, shining skin ...was exactly like a well-fitted dress in the way in which it outlined her still callow yet already well-proportioned form, the gentle curve of her hips, her slightly protruding belly, her little virginal breasts, and her broad, plump shoulders.

§   §   §

One can indulge in fantasies --- as Duggan does --- of tales of moral depravity and/or at the same time speak of imagination, tipping points, or even glory. One can delight in a picture of heroic, well-fed American soldiers striding into Sicily ... and then soon afterwards hear their gibbering when they come under attack by German bombers. Shortly after, we can admire the buying and selling of the same American soldiers, because (unknown to them) each soldier had his price as he was traded back and forth by the Neapolitans as they took them deep into the heart of the city.

It was possible, says the writer archly, "to buy white slaves in the jungle there that was Naples; but they showed little return, and so cost less." Blacks were much preferred.

    After a few days the fortunate Negro, having become the slave of this poor, warmhearted Neapolitan family, would become engaged to one of his master's daughters, and he would return home every evening laden with gifts for his fiancée --- cases of corned beef, bags of sugar and flour, cartons of cigarettes, and treasures of every kind, which he filched from the military stores, and which the father and brothers of his financée sold to dealers on the black market.

"Drivers were the most expensive of all," Malaparte tells us. "A black driver cost up to two thousand dollars. There were drivers who presented their fiancées with complete vehicles laden with flour, sugar, tires and cans of gas."

    One day a black driver gave his fiancée Concerta Esposito ... a Sherman. In two hours the tank, which had been hidden in a yard, was stripped of all its bolts and dismantled. In two hours it disappeared: not a trace was left of it save for a patch of oil on the flagstones of the yard.

And, even better, "one night a Liberty ship, which had arrived from America a few hours before in convoy with ten other ships, was stolen from Naples harbor. Not only was the cargo stolen, but the ship itself. It vanished, and was never heard of again."

Malaparte also writes of what may or may not be to be a bestial orgy in the palace of the Prince of Candia, with a hunchback by the name of "Gennariello" who turns and smiles as a woman "past her prime" comes at him with outstretched arms. "In a twinkling they had all gathered around him. One held out her glass, another tried to snatch the jug from his hand, and finally a third, as if in the grip of some divine frenzy, kept rubbing her flabby bosom against his hump..."

This scene is interrupted by a young girl from Naples who has just been killed by a fallen beam. She is brought to the villa where she will be laid on the royal table, bathed and dressed for a funeral which gave the scene the melancholy air of an episode from the Gerusalemme liberata. The dead girl was Clorinda, "and those about her were Clorinda's obsequies." The nobleman had her placed on the mansion table, and "Our host lifted the edges of the precious tablecloth and draped it about the naked body. But Consuelo's hand was laid upon his arms, and Consuelo said 'Go away and leave it to us; this is woman's work.'"

There are few writers who can take us in so many directions at once, and within the same page: farce and tragedy, love and ridiculous lust, beauty and squalor. It reminds us of Jean Genet who can propose that the higher purposes of man's way are ""sodomy, thievery treachery." Or Vladamir Nabokov who could make a hero of a man whose ideal love comes through the kidnapping of what he calls a "girleen." We have here a most peculiar writer, Curzio Malaparte, who managed to get arrested by Mussolini (five times), banished (for five years) because of his radical writings (both for the left and for the right) ... and his singularly bizarre reading of Hitler as first outlined in the Technique du coup d`etat.

Malaparte is seated with several Germans, including the vicious Governor-General of occupied Poland, Hans Frank (along with several other high Nazi officials). During the dinner, Frank asks Malaparte directly what he thinks of the dictator. Before he can answer, another guest (a representative of Heinrich Himmler's SS) calls out that "Herr Malaparte has written in one of his books that Hitler is a woman."

    "Just so," I added after a moment of silence. "Hitler is a woman."

    "A woman!" exclaimed Frank, gazing at me, his eyes filled with confusion and worry.

    Everyone remained silent, looking at me.

    "If he is not quite a real man," I said, "why should he not be a woman? What harm would there be? Women are deserving of all our respect, love, and admiration. You say that Hitler is the father of the German people, nicht wahr? Why couldn't he be its mother?"

    "Its mother!" exclaimed Frank, "die Mutter?"

    "The mother," I said. "It is the mother who conceives children in her womb, begets them in pain, feeds them with her blood and her milk. Hitler is the mother of the new German people; he has conceived it in his womb, has given birth to it in pain and fed it with his blood and his..."

"Hitler is the father, not the mother of the German people," said Frank sternly.

"Anyway, the German people are his child," I said, "there's no doubt about that."

"Yes," said Frank, "there's no doubt about that. All the people of New Europe, to begin with the Poles, ought to feel proud to have in Hitler a just and stern father. But do you know what the Poles think of us? That we are barbarians!"

"And do you feel hurt?" I asked, smiling.

Milan Kundera's view of the Kaputt is summarized in his essay "The Tragedy of Central Europe," in which he writes,

    It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.

And according to the translator's editorial note at the beginning of The Skin:

    Malaparte extends the great fresco of European society he began in Kaputt. There the scene was Eastern Europe, here it is Italy during the years from 1943 to 1945; instead of Germans, the invaders are the American armed forces. In all the literature that derives from the Second World War, there is no other book that so brilliantly or so woundingly present triumphant American innocence against the background of the European experience of destruction and moral collapse.

--- Richard Saturday
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