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Authors: Curzio Malaparte

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The Skin

BOOK: The Skin
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THE SKIN

 

 

CURZIO MALAPARTE

 

 

Translated from the Italian
La Pelle

by

David Moore

 

 

Bound edition first published in England in 1952 by Alvin Redman Limited, London, W.l

First printing October 1952

Sixth printing June 1956

© 1952 Alvin Redman Ltd. All rights reserved

First Ace Books edition 1959

CHAPTER I - THE PLAGUE

CHAPTER II - THE VIRGIN OF NAPLES

CHAPTER III - THE WIGS

CHAPTER IV - THE GREEN CARNATION

CHAPTER V - THE BLACK WIND

CHAPTER VI - GENERAL CORK'S BANQUET

CHAPTER VII - THE TRIUMPH OF CLORINDA

CHAPTER VIII - THE HOLOCAUST

CHAPTER IX - THE FLAG

CHAPTER X - THE TRIAL

CHAPTER XI - THE DEAD GOD

 

 

In affectionate memory of Colonel Henry E. Cumming, of the University of Virginia, and all the good, brave and honourable American soldiers who were my comrades-in-arms from 1943-1945, and who died in vain in the cause of European freedom.

 

 

CHAPTER I - THE PLAGUE

N
APLES
was in the throes of the "plague." Every afternoon at five o'clock, after half an hour with the punch-ball and a hot shower in the gymnasium of the P.B.S.—Peninsular Base Section—Colonel Jack Hamilton and I would walk down in the direction of San Ferdinando, elbowing our way through the unruly mob which thronged Via Toledo from dawn until curfew-time.

We were clean, tidy and well fed, Jack and I, as we made our way through the midst of the dreadful Neapolitan mob—squalid, dirty, starving, ragged, jostled and insulted in all the languages and dialects of the world by troops of soldiers belonging to the Armies of Liberation, which were drawn from all the races of the earth. The distinction of being the first among all the peoples of Europe to be liberated had fallen to the people of Naples; and in celebration of the winning of so well-deserved a prize my poor beloved Neapolitans, after three years of hunger, epidemics and savage air attacks, had accepted gracefully and patriotically the longed-for and coveted honour of playing the part of a conquered people, of singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been the emblems of their foes, and throwing flowers from their windows on to the heads of the conquerors.

But in spite of the universal and genuine enthusiasm there was not a single man or woman in the whole of Naples who was conscious of having been defeated. I cannot say how this strange feeling had arisen in the people's breasts. It was an undoubted fact that Italy, and hence also Naples, had lost the war. It is certainly much harder to lose a war than to win it. While everyone is good at winning a war, not all are capable of losing one. But the loss of a war does not in itself entitle a people to regard itself as conquered. In their ancient wisdom, enriched by the doleful experience of many hundreds of years, and in their sincere modesty, my poor beloved Neapolitans did not presume to regard themselves as a conquered people. In this they undoubtedly revealed a grave lack of tact. But could the Allies claim to liberate peoples and at the same time compel them to regard themselves as conquered? They must be either free or conquered. It would be unjust to blame the people of Naples if they regarded themselves as neither free nor conquered.

As I walked beside Colonel Hamilton I felt incredibly ridiculous in my British uniform. The uniforms of the Italian Corps of Liberation were old British khaki uniforms, handed over by the British Command to Marshal Badoglio and—perhaps in an attempt to hide the bloodstains and bullet-holes—dyed dark green, the colour of a lizard. They were, as a matter of fact, uniforms taken from the British soldiers who had fallen at El Alamein and Tobruk. In my tunic three holes made by machine-gun bullets were visible. My vest, shirt and pants were stained with blood. Even my shoes had been taken from the body of a British soldier. The first time I had put them on I had felt something pricking the sole of my foot. I had thought at first that a tiny bone belonging to the dead man had remained stuck in the shoe. It was a nail. It would have been better, perhaps, if it really had been a bone from the dead man: it would have been much easier for me to remove it. It took me half an hour to find a pair of pliers and remove the nail. There was no gainsaying it: that stupid war had certainly ended well for us. It certainly could not have ended better. Our
amour propre
as defeated soldiers was undamaged. Now we were fighting at the side of the Allies, trying to help them win their war after we had lost our own. Hence it was natural that we should be wearing the uniforms of the Allied soldiers whom we had killed.

When I at last succeeded in removing the nail and putting on my shoe I found that the company of which I was to assume command had been assembled for some time past on the barrack-square. The barracks consisted of an ancient monastery, which had been reduced by time and the air bombardments to a state of ruin. It was situated in the vicinity of La Torretta, behind Mergellina. The "square" was a cloistered courtyard, bounded on three sides by a portico, which rested on slender columns of grey tufa, and on the fourth by a high yellow wall, dotted with specks of green mould and great slabs of marble, on which were carved long lists of names, surmounted by great black crosses. During some cholera epidemic of centuries before the monastery had been used as a hospital, and the names referred to those who had died of the disease. On the wall was written in large black letters:
Requiescant in pace.

Colonel Palese had been anxious to introduce me to my soldiers himself in one of those simple ceremonies of which old military men are so fond. He was a tall, thin man, with completely white hair. He clasped my hand in silence and smiled, sighing dolefully as he did so. The soldiers were nearly all very young. They had fought well against the Allies in Africa and Sicily, and for this reason the Allies had chosen them to form the first cadre of the Italian Corps of Liberation. Lined up before us in the middle of the courtyard, they eyed me with a fixed stare. They too were wearing uniforms taken from British soldiers who had fallen at El Alamein and Tobruk, and their shoes were dead men's shoes. Their faces were pale and emaciated; their eyes, which were white and steady, consisted of a moist, opaque substance. They seemed to gaze at me without blinking.

Colonel Palese nodded his head, and the sergeant shouted: "Company—'shun." The soldiers riveted their gaze upon me; it was sorrowful and intense, like the gaze of a dead cat. Their limbs became rigid and they sprang to attention. The hands that grasped their rifles were white and bloodless. The flabby skin hung from the tips of their fingers like a glove that is too big.

Colonel Palese began to speak, "Here is your new commanding officer," he said, and while he spoke I looked at those Italian soldiers with their uniforms that had been taken from British corpses, their bloodless hands, their pale lips and white eyes. Here and there on their chests, stomachs and legs were black spots of blood. Suddenly I realized to my horror that these soldiers were dead. They gave out a faint odour of musty cloth, rotten leather, and flesh that had been dried up by the sun. I looked at Colonel Palese, and he was dead too. The voice that proceeded from his lips was watery, cold, glutinous, like the horrible gurgling that issues from a dead man's mouth if you rest your hand on his stomach.

"Tell them to stand at ease," said Colonel Palese to the sergeant when he had ended his brief address. "Company stand at—ease!" cried the sergeant. The soldiers flopped down on to their left heels in limp and weary attitudes and stared at me fixedly, with a softer, more distant look. "And now," said Colonel Palese, "your new commanding officer will say a few words to you." I opened my mouth and a horrible gurgling sound came out; my words were muffled, thick, flaccid, I said: "We are the volunteers of Freedom, the soldiers of the new Italy. It is our duty to fight the Germans, to drive them out of our homeland, to throw them back beyond our frontiers. The eyes of all Italians are fixed upon us. It is our duty once more to hoist the flag that has fallen in the mire, to set an example to all in the midst of so much shame, to show ourselves worthy of the present hour, of the task that our country entrusts to us." When I had finished speaking Colonel Palese said to the soldiers: "Now one of you will repeat what your commanding officer has said. I want to be sure you understand. You!" he said, pointing to a soldier. "Repeat what your commanding officer said."

The soldier looked at me; he was pale, he had the thin, bloodless lips of a dead man. Slowly, in a dreadful gurgling voice, he said: "It is our duty to show ourselves worthy of the shame of Italy."

Colonel Palese came up close to me. "They understand," he said in a low voice, and moved silently away. Under his left armpit was a black spot of blood which gradually spread over the material of his uniform. I watched that black spot of blood as it gradually spread, my eyes followed the old Italian colonel, with his uniform that had belonged to an Englishman now dead, I watched him slowly move away and heard the squeaking of his shoes, the shoes of a dead British soldier, and the name of Italy stank in my nostrils like a piece of rotten meat.

"This bastard people!" said Colonel Hamilton between his teeth forcing his way through the crowd.

"Why do you say that, Jack?"

Having reached the top of the Augusteo we used to turn off each day into Via Santa Brigida, where the crowd was thinner, and pause a moment to regain our breath.

"This bastard people," said Jack, straightening his uniform, which had been rumpled by the terrible pressure of the crowd.

"Don't say that, Jack."

"Why not. This bastard, dirty people."

"Oh, Jack! I am a bastard and a dirty Italian too. But I am proud of being a dirty Italian. It isn't our fault if we weren't born in America. I am sure we should be a bastard, dirty people even if we had been born in America. Don't you think so, Jack?"

"Don't worry, Malaparte," said Jack. "Don't take it to heart. Life is wonderful."

"Yes, life is a splendid thing, Jack, I know. But don't say that."

"Sorry," said Jack, patting me on the shoulder. "I didn't mean to offend you. It's a figure of speech. I like Italians. I like this bastard, dirty, wonderful people."

"I know, Jack—I know you like this poor, unhappy, wonderful people. No people on earth has ever endured as much as the people of Naples. They have endured hunger and slavery for two thousand years, and they don't complain. They revile no one, they hate no one—not even their own misery. Christ was a Neapolitan."

"Don't talk nonsense," said Jack.

"It isn't nonsense. Christ was a Neapolitan."

"What's the matter with you today, Malaparte?" said Jack, looking at me with his fine eyes.

"Nothing. What do you suppose is the matter with me?"

"You're in a black mood," said Jack.

"Why should I be in a bad mood?"

"I know you, Malaparte. You're in a black mood today."

"I am sad about Cassino, Jack."

"To hell with Cassino."

"I am sad, truly sad, about what is happening at Cassino."

"To hell with you," said Jack.

"It really is a shame that you're bringing such misery to Cassino."

"Shut up, Malaparte."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you, Jack. I like Americans. I like the pure, the clean, the wonderful American people."

"I know, Malaparte. I know you like Americans. But take it easy, Malaparte. Life is wonderful."

"To hell with Cassino, Jack."

"Oh, yes. To hell with Naples, Malaparte."

There was a strange smell in the air. It was not the smell that comes down at eventide from the alleys of Toledo and from the Piazza delle Carrette and Santa Teresella degli Spagnoli. It was not the smell from the fried-fish shops, taverns and urinals nestling in the dark and fetid alleys of the
Quartieri
that stretch from Via Toledo up towards San Martino. It was not that nauseating, stuffy, glutinous smell, composed of a thousand effuvia, a thousand noisome exhalations—
mille délicates puanteurs,
as
Jack put it—which at certain times of day pervades the city and emanates from the withered flowers that lie in heaps at the feet of the Madonnas in the chapels at the corners of the alleys. It was not the smell of the sirocco, which smacks of bad fish and of the cheese that is made from sheep's milk. It was not even that smell of cooked meat which towards evening spreads over Naples from the brothels—that smell in which Jean-Paul Sartre, walking one day along Via Toledo,
sombre comme une aisselle, pleine d'une ombre chaude vaguement obscene,
detected the
parenté immonde de
l'
amour et de la nourriture.
No, it was not that smell of cooked meat which broods over Naples towards sunset, when
la chair des femmes a fair bouillie sous la crasse.
It was an extraordinarily pure, delicate smell, dry, light, unsubstantial—the smell of brine, the salt tang of the night air, the smell of an ancient forest from the trees of which paper is made.

BOOK: The Skin
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