Probably this gets the award of the most cynical novel I’ve ever read. Malaparte is a difficult chap to warm to. He’s racist, homophobic and was a fascist in the early days of Mussolini’s rise to power. Hitler blamed communism on the Jews; Malaparte blames it on homosexuals. What saves him, as an author, is his tremendous wit, his hugely impressive erudition and his ability to write so damn well.
The first interesting aspect of this book is that it perhaps shows how fascism in Italy was of a different hue to fascism in Germany. In Germany you feel fascism was largely the extorting opportunism of the disenfranchised lower middle class and intellect was something it always sought to purge; in Italy fascism began its life as an aesthetic and thus had more backing from the intelligentsia. Malaparte is like the personification of the deep embittering disillusionment that arrived when fascism showed itself to be little more than opportunistic thuggery. He’s a man who has been humiliated by his own beliefs. Which is why he is able to write so well about the humiliation of the Italian people when they know the ambivalence of being simultaneously defeated and liberated by the Allies. There are shades of Iraq here – a populace bewildered by the conundrum of liberated or defeated and humiliated.
The book begins in Naples in 1944. The city has just been liberated but resembles some kind of dystopian nightmare in its moral depravity and surreal breakdown of order. You’re never quite sure with Malaparte to what extent he’s exaggerating. He certainly isn’t a reliable reporter. He narrates one scene where American soldiers are paying money to see a Neapolitan virgin. She is a twelve year old girl lying spreadeagled on a mattress in a hovel. Narrates another where an American commander always serves his guests the ubiquitous spam accompanied by an exotic fish from the Naples aquarium because, due to German mines, fishing is banned in the bay of Naples. At the banquet Malaparte attends the served fish in question looks exactly like a girl child. Another scene where a man’s hand is blown off by a mine but no one can find the hand. Afterwards when everyone is eating stew at a field camp Malaparte looks distressed but remains silent. When asked what is wrong he informs everyone the man’s hand was in his stew and he ate it because he didn’t want to put a downer on the convivial mood at the dinner table. And this is what Malaparte does so well – highlights the horrors of war through a filter of macabre psychedelia. His journey through the aftermath of the war is like a relentless acid trip.
Should also be said that there are as many laugh out loud moments in this book as any I’ve read this year. Shades of Nabokov in his black humour. I especially enjoyed the banter between the sardonic and cynical Malaparte and the wet-behind-the-ears idealism and gullibility of his American colleagues. There’s also an absolutely brilliant description of Vesuvius erupting. Not an easy read but decidedly brilliant and original none the less.