The Skin by Curzio Malaparte New York Review Books (November 2013) A review by Jordan Anderson

The Skin
by Curzio Malaparte
New York Review Books (November 2013)

A review by Jordan Anderson

The whole of human history
seems to be the story of men who kill,
and of men who are killed...

—Curzio Malaparte, “Murderer”

 

To create an enemy, we must first create the idea of an enemy. We humans are creatures defined by perception, thought, and language, and the history of humanity teaches us that to wield language is to wield death. The Biblical myth of Adam naming the animals profoundly symbolizes humanity’s recognition of the difference between the self and others; the result, we know, was to destroy those things perceived to be outside of the self.

We use language to shroud the most distasteful concepts of contemporary life, and so the cultures of absolutism use language to hide death: if American and Pakistani political leaders and the citizens they rule can strike out the thoughts and language of drone strike victims, they, too, can banish those victims from the earth with little fanfare or thought of retribution. Like Adam, we cut ourselves off from the world to gain power over it. Thus terrorism becomes a terrible corollary of destruction’s politics, making the violence that had been cloaked in political language real. Terrorism and its mute brother, political murder, are the twin monsters of contemporary life.

Indeed, the relationship between language and violence during wartime is perhaps the most relevant subject matter for art in our time. Just as the Modernist ethos was born in the throes of the First World War and reaffirmed in the Second, September 11 and its roots in the language of politics will arguably define the philosophy of art for our generation. Like the youths whose cultural values were called into question by World War I, our system of artistic philosophy has been engendered in violence and an utter chaos that is both spiritual and moral in character.

As its effects are so far reaching and so destructive, authors who analyze the relationship between this manner of thought and action in culture as it relates to violence are among the most meaningful, and by this standard Curzio Malaparte is, without qualification, a major force in philosophical literature.

Among modernist writers, Malaparte is one of the more obscure but also one of the very best of his generation. His prose demonstrates the elegance of many of his contemporaries, although Malaparte's true antecedent is Baudelaire. Like that poet, Malaparte's desire is to examine assumptions regarding morality through the prism of the Grotesque; in the same manner as Baudelaire, Malaparte's work is expressed through a thematic exploration of decay, death, and an almost Classical conception of sin. In other words, his work flies in the face of conventional morality so as to more deeply understand human nature.

Said to be a work of nonfiction, but like many of Malaparte's accounts of his own life* arguably a blend of fantasy and reality, The Skin is a remarkable book in which the author explores the aftermath of World War II on the citizens of Naples. Malaparte himself appears as our guide through such chaos: he is referred to by name numerous times by other figures in the story, and he often describes his own actions, as though he were a sort of anti-hero of the narrative.

Contrasting the utter degradation of the Neapolitan populace against the naïveté of their American liberators, The Skin is in fact an evocation of post-war Italy as an almost literal recreation of Dante’s Inferno: men prostrate themselves to live, women sell their bodies, everyone struggles for a life among the dead or becomes a corpse themselves. One exchange in the book proceeds as such:

“Let’s get out of here. It’s safer out in the open, under the bombs, than in here among all these people,” I said [….]

“Why? The Neapolitans are fine people,” said Cannavale.

“I don’t say they’re bad,” I answered, “but any crowd is dangerous when it’s afraid. They’ll crush us to death.”

Cannavale gave me a strange look. “I have been sunk six times, and I haven’t died at sea. Why should I die here?” he said.

“Ah! Naples is worse than the sea,” I answered.

Here, Naples is indeed “worse than the sea”: a marketplace of degeneration and depravity, a kind of hell-on-earth that has pushed the lives of Neapolitans into sheer tumult. “There is a profound difference between fighting to avoid death and fighting in order to live,” Malaparte notes, and the people of Naples’ fight for self-preservation not only has dictated the war for them but has defined them as people. In a wider sense, Malaparte suggests, the struggle of the people of Naples in the ruins of the war is a reflection of humanity's struggle for a sense of self against the meaningless darkness of history.

Accordingly, the novel's narrator details the horrors he and the American soldiers he has befriended at the end of the war witness or have heard about: the nail-studded heads of German soldiers brutally murdered by civilians; the women prostituting themselves for less than the cost of meat; the endless array of corpses not yet cleared out of their deathbeds by returning soldiers. The scenes grow worse and worse, as Malaparte seemingly draws images from a sort of Divine Comedy come to life.

While the book contains a series of these endlessly repugnant and horrible scenes, they serve as a literary form of contemplation; when reading The Skin, one is left wondering how many times these grotesque scenes have been played out in present-day Iraq or Syria, for example, without our knowledge and without record. (In considering the corollaries to Malaparte's descriptions to the present time, the reader should recall the brutal photographs that came out of the Spanish Civil War that were almost identical to Goya's sketches of the Peninsular War over a century before: the language of war may change, but its revelations of the darkness of human beings is eternal in nature.)

Indeed, Malaparte's writing acts on the reader of the present day in much the same way that a vaccine does; in effect, his work introduces an element of immorality in order to ultimately protect the reader against its effects. There is almost a process of healing to Malaparte's description of atrocities; an exchange between the author and another person proceeds as such:

I saw that he was crying as he spoke. He was crying, and it seemed that the tears were not his own, but those of someone else close by. It seemed he did not realize he was crying, that he was sure there was someone else beside him who was crying for him.

[Malaparte:] “... When I see some things I want to be sick. My amusement is being sick.”

“You're luckier than I am,” said the engineer. “Being sick relieves the stomach. Crying doesn't. I wish I could be sick too!”

This exchange reveals something about the way in which Malaparte approaches his subject matter. There is a general sense of purging the horrors of the world from the author's and readers' thoughts, as though merely weeping over the crisis of humanity around us would not be enough to dispel them from our minds so that we might act against them. Like the crying engineer, Malaparte weeps over the myriad dead of Naples, but the author also uses humor to mitigate his grief.

When the book does delve into the emotional life of others, however, it is profound indeed. The Skin is in many ways a cry from the heart and a profound analysis of a world that has lost its bearing. In one particularly moving passage that echoes the title of the wider work, Malaparte writes,

Our skin, this confounded skin. You've no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin. This—this loathsome skin, do you see? […] One's skin is the only thing that counts now. The only certain, tangible, undeniable thing is one's skin. It's the only thing we possess, the only thing that's our own. The most mortal thing in the world! Only the soul is immortal, alas! But what does the soul count for now? One's skin is the only thing that counts. Everything is made of human skin. Even the flags of armies are made of human skin.

The alternation between humor and macabre realism contained within The Skin is at times off-putting, but while its subject matter is bleak and carious in its nature it is redolent of a morality that a cursory reading would perhaps not suggest. A circus of horrors, The Skin might be seen as a celebration of the decrepitude its author witnesses, were one not to catch the overwhelming desire for justice that Malaparte as an author craves. Indeed, it is Malaparte's disbelief and disappointment in his fellow human beings that seems to drive the ideas behind the narrative; the author's aim seems to be to look at human nature without flinching from it, even when it might be easier to close one's eyes to its consequences. A contemporary analogy might be found in the work of the filmmaker Werner Herzog, who also looks into the darkest areas of life and has in fact made the profound connection to philosophy in art: “The poet must not avert his eyes.” In other words, as human beings we must allow our empathy with others to place us in reality so as to understand the world at its worst.

The general sense of violence of the novel is also leavened with Malaparte's wonderfully gentle persona. As a satirist of humanity's darkest impulses in war, Malaparte’s sense of humor makes him a remarkable writer and immensely readable author. As a narrator, he is much like the naïve children he describes in of a bombing of Hamburg, who were “The bravest and the most patient . . . They did not cry or call out, but looked about them with serene eyes, gazing at the fearful spectacle.” Such a quality of resilient innocence is present and striking in Malaparte's writing in much the same way that a winter flower naturally brightens the frozen area around it.

The author, too, seems to take great joy in undercutting the political arguments of others, looking deeper for meaning within human nature, particularly in a scene in which he drives a group of Marxists to profound heights of irritation by suggesting that Shostakovich was a bourgeois composer. (One finds accounts of the author's sense of humor in his real life; Malaparte was once banished to the island of Lipari, for example, for his criticism of Mussolini's neckties. Reading The Skin, one can almost picture the exchange between the upstart author and the dictator.)

Regrettably, the book is indelibly weakened by long tirades against homosexuality that would rightly be treated as unacceptable were Malaparte writing today. The author's deep mistrust of homosexuality is both baffling and deeply wrongheaded and makes the book at times a chore to read. As a journalistic account, Malaparte's two-dimensional portrait of male homosexuals in post-war Naples seems to have more to do with a strange and unsettling prejudice than any attempt at empathetically understanding the viewpoints and feelings of others, and the moral sense with which the narrative is infused elsewhere is remarkably lacking in these long and tedious passages. In describing the lives of homosexual men he meets, his is a great failure to understand the needs and emotions of others who are merely different in their sexual needs than he is and no more.

Here Malaparte seems to link his thoughts back to an earlier passage concerning the nature of fighting not for a cause but for simple and immediate survival. Malaparte might argue that his is a generation emptied of all moral content or anything beyond the basic needs of the self, having been reduced to the act of mere survival. Is there nothing beyond naked animal existence? Malaparte seems to ask us. As a surveyor of the ruins of the world he walks through, there is no deeper meaning to the struggles of the poor, merely competing ideologies determining their fates—Fascism, Communism, National Socialism, Capitalism—which leave little room for common ground. The Second World War is in one sense a war of thoughts, memory, and language, its victors acting much the same in defeat as in victory, their desire merely to assure themselves that theirs is the correct social philosophy. “The Italian authorities,” the narrator notes, “a bunch of thieves and cowards—until the day before they had been throwing poor unfortunate people into jail in the name of Mussolini, and now they were throwing them into jail in the name of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin; until the day before they had lorded it in the name of tyranny, and now they were lording it in the name of liberty.”

On the whole, reading The Skin is a rare experience in the field of literature: as a writer, Malaparte's wonderful use of beautiful prose and a dark sense of humor is entirely his own. The sophistication, ease and moral depth of his prose has a contemporary corollary in great writers such as Javier Marías; like Marías, Malaparte invites the reader into a rarefied world of intelligence and wit that can feel like a deep conversation with a gently humorous but highly moral confidant. Perhaps it was Malaparte's genius to become one of the most interesting persons of his time; undoubtedly it was one of his personal aspirations. Whatever the cause for his brilliant personality, Malaparte presents an unending source of joy in reading for those who will seek out his coruscating and often penetrating insights. New York Review Books' decision to bring more of his work to a wider audience is in many ways one that is as enjoyable as it is noble.

 

Jordan Anderson lives in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in World Literature Today, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, The Quarterly Conversation, and the blog of The Coffin Factory Magazine.

 

 

 

*Malaparte was born Kurt Suckert to a German father and Italian mother (he would later Italianize the name “Kurt” to “Curzio”; “Malaparte,” when compared to the Italian translation of “Bonaparte” as “good side,” meant literally “bad side,” once more securing the Baudelaire-esque role Malaparte would play as author) and raised by a foster family. His work and his life are both marked by a sense of humor and morality (he was awarded the French Cross for bravery as a soldier in World War I) that seems to show the author to have reveled in pushing people to their emotional limits in order to interrogate their sense of ethics. The impression one gets from reading about Malaparte's life is that he treated existence as a grand, tragic joke, of which he considered himself a sort of jester meant to express the truth. Although raised poor, the author ascended to the heights of world culture and earned equal parts enmity and support from the European intelligentsia and aristocracy along the way. He is said to have been banished to the island of Lipari for insulting Mussolini and once published a tract questioning Hitler's manhood. He is notorious within the annals of literature for constantly shifting his political and religious allegiances and is especially known for his dalliances with Fascism, Communism, Maoism and Catholicism—intellectual flirtations that have marred his literary reputation, as well as that of his forebear Gabriele d'Annunzio and that of his friend Alberto Moravia.