I love the NYRB Classics series of books, both for the eclectic selection of English-language works and translations and for the (usually) reliable introductory essays that accompany the texts. My preference is usually to skip directly to the main text and to return to the introduction afterward so that I can appreciate the introduction as I digest what I just read. Usually this is a leisurely process of gaining new appreciation for the depth of the novel or for the author; sometimes it is a necessary confirmation that I indeed understood the absurd, shocking, grotesque thing that had just unfolded. The latter was my experience with The Skin.
Jimmy Wren, of Cleveland, Ohio…was, like the great majority of the officers and men of the American army, a good fellow. When an American is good, there is no better man in the world. It was not Jimmy’s fault if the people of Naples suffered. That spectacle of grief and misery offended neither his eyes nor his heart. Jimmy’s conscience was at rest. Like all Americans, by that contradiction which characterizes all materialistic civilizations, he was an idealist. To evil, misery, hunger and physical suffering he ascribed a moral character. He did not appreciate their remote historical and economic causes, but only the seemingly moral reasons for their existence…
Jimmy had certainly not achieved an understanding of the moral and religious considerations which let him to feel partly responsible for the suffering of others… It was not even to be expected that he should know certain essential facts about modern civilization–for instance, that a capitalist society (if one disregards Christian pity, and weariness of and disgust with Christian pity, which are sentiments peculiar to the modern world) is the most feasible expression of Christianity; 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 would not prevail.
It is 1943. Naples has been liberated. Our narrator, Curzio Malaparte, is a liaison officer in the Free Italian armed forces accompanying American officers and watching the newly-free city rot from the inside. The Skin is composed of vignettes about life in liberated Naples, Capri, and the subsequent campaign northward to Rome, interwoven with observations and imaginations of the narrator. The suffering and depravity were real, but in Malaparte’s hands the situation turns into a nightmarishly surreal comedy.
The Skin is not an easy book to sum up, in large part because the lurid details–whether of the plague, the last virgin in Naples, the triumphant entry into Rome, the eruption of Vesuvius, or the preparation of the marine life from the Naples Aquarium for a banquet– are, to a great extent, the point. In fact, the quote included above is itself misleading. It is an example of Malaparte’s style where he picks up on a point or an observation and teases it out as far as it will go. Malaparte’s Naples is a pre-Christian relict, infused with pagan mysteries, where “your tanks run the risk of being swallowed up in the black slime of antiquity.” Malaparte’s Americans despise the Europeans for having caused their own problems, and “believe that a conquered nation is a nation of criminals, that defeat is a moral stigma, an expression of divine justice.” Malaparte’s Neapolitans are scrapping to save their own skin at any cost, prostituting and abasing themselves. The shining light within this grim vision is Jack Hamilton, an optimistic American officer, an Olympian who speaks French and reads Pindar. Hamilton represents the best America has to offer, one untouched by the blight of the old-world, but appreciative of its deep antiquity.
Curzio Malaparte–the nom de plum of Kurt Eric Suckert, and a name chosen as an inversion of “Bonaparte”–was a correspondent on the eastern front during World War 2 before returning to Italy and assisting the American forces in Italy. He was criticized for his similarly surreal account of the war in the east (published in his book Kaputt), and was a supporter of the Italian fascist movement, but served a stint in prison after publishing a manual under the title The Technique of the Coup d’Etat. As the introduction to The Skin noted, there are parallels to nearly everything Malaparte included in this book, but his presence at every turn, even where he could not have been, blurrs the line between reporting and reimagining. Malaparte is elusive throughout. By turns he despises, pities, and mocks those around him. He is an acute observer, but bitter, frustrated, and convinced of his own superiority. Not his own morality since he seems to locate himself more in the deep antiquity–an heir to Pindar, at times [note: I was reading Pindar in Greek when I started reading this book]–than in the contemporary moment, more with paganism than with Christianity, but in his own superior intelligence and ability. I am not rushing out to do so, but I was intrigued enough by this that I will at some point read Kaputt, but Malaparte also convinced me that I need to also read books that are a little less morbid from time to time.
Since finishing The Skin, I also finished Master and Commander, the first in Patrick O’Brian’s historical fiction series. It was a mostly enjoyable read and I’m going to read at least the first few books, but I wasn’t so smitten that I’ll commit to all twenty just yet. Even well-done Horatio Nelson fan-fic only does so much for me. Now I am in the middle of Augusto Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme, which stitches together multiple narratives give a portrait of the dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who ruled Paraguay from when he was elected in 1814 until 1840. At a third of the way through, this is one of the densest books I have yet read. The Supreme coyly asks “Don’t you think that I could be made into a fabulous story?” If you check out the Wikipedia page, the answer is yes, but Bastos takes those features that beg for a titillating historical story and asks much deeper and more meaningful questions. A fuller review will probably follow when I finish reading it.
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