Book Reviews

Curzio Malaparte (1898–1957): The Skin (1949)

«In the middle of the street, there in front of me, lay the man who had been crushed by the caterpillars of a tank…. Very slowly they lifted the edges of the pattern with the ends of their spades, as one lifts the edges of a carpet…. It was like a starched suit, a starched human skin. It was an appalling and at the same time a delicate, exquisite, unreal scene…. A flag made of human skin. Our true country is our skin.» (Curzio Malaparte, The Skin, David Moore, trans., Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1997, p. 300)

It is the skin that protects and surrounds us, that holds us together, that is so vulnerable and yet so powerful and capable of regeneration. On the one hand, our skin is something infinitely intimate to us, and on the other, we proudly present it to the public. For Malaparte it becomes the epitome of existence: «It is modern civilization, this godless civilization, that makes men attach such importance to their own skins. 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!» (p. 126)

«The Skin» by Curzio Malaparte[1] is an eloquent, powerful opus not soon to be forgotten. After the Allies had landed in Italy in 1943, Malaparte was appointed liaison officer between the Italian Liberation Corps and the US Headquarters Command. «The Skin» is an autobiographical narration of Malaparte’s subjective impressions of the last two years of war in the city of Naples. His description of neglected, bombed, and run-down Naples, along with all the city’s ancient pagan customs and moral depravity, becomes a great metaphor of war and its all-destroying power.

Curzio Malaparte had previously worked as a war correspondent for Corriere della Sera. He was not only a writer, journalist, essayist, but also a famous socialite, dandy and diplomat, in short, one of the most colorful cultural figures of the first half of the 20th century in Italy. He changed political shores throughout his life, at times being accused for his unrestrained opportunism because of this. However, it was also a sign of his personal freedom and independence, for which he paid with imprisonment and political exile.

To be sure, Malaparte also comes up with truly gruesome apocalyptic depictions, such as when witnessing the «Black Wind» in Naples. The incidence reminds him of a terrible scene in Ukraine in 1941, when he came across Jews who had been crucified by the Nazis:

«The black wind scurried hither and thither over the steppe like a blind horse. It stirred the rags that covered those poor mangled, twisted bodies, it shook the foliage of the trees—and not the faintest murmur passed through the leafy branches. Black crows were perched on the shoulders of the corpses, motionless, staring at me. The light was dead, the smell of the grass, the color of the leaves, of the stones, of the clouds that drifted through the gray sky—everything was dead, everything was plunged in a vast, empty, frozen silence. … And I fled, shouting and weeping, over the steppe, while the black wind, like a blind horse, scurried hither and thither, under a cloudless sky.» (p. 160)

Although relentless and unsparing, Malaparte’s existentialism unites with a profound, tender poetry, with a deeply felt empathy permeated by aesthetic beauty and lush, opulent sensuality. His occasionally apocalyptic narrations are not so much sensationalist—his writing is more appropriately characterised as a journalistic, hyperrealistic, and even surrealistic style that calls the atrocities of war by name. It is not easy to cast the death-dominated atmosphere of war into words that endure, that touch and shake, but are neither cheap nor inappropriate. Malaparte found these words. 

Full of wit and irony, he describes a gala dinner held by the U.S. General Cork in an old aristocratic palace in Naples: «Fried spam[2] and boiled corn! The waiters supported the trays with their two hands; each averted his face as though he were serving up a Gorgon’s head. The reddish violet hue of the spam, which frying had, as always, made rather dark in colour, like meat that has gone bad through exposure to the sun, and the pale yellow of the corn—which was covered with white streaks—corn is softened by the process of cooking, and becomes like the grain with which the crop of a drowned hen is sometimes found to be stuffed—were dimly reflected in the tall, clouded Murano mirrors, which alternated with ancient Sicilian tapestries on the walls of the hall.» (p. 192)

Curzio Malaparte, who throughout his life oscillated between mysticism and merciless existential analysis, never lacked a clear view of the world:

«Capitalist society … is the most feasible expression of Christianity; without the existence of evil there can be no Christ; 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 could not prevail.» (p. 58)

Writer Curzio Malaparte seated in an armchair during the aperitif. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

«I am not afraid of death. I do not hate it, it does not repel me. Fundamentally, it does not concern me.» (p. 175)

[1] The pseudonym Malaparte is a pun on Buonaparte. Born in Prato to a German father and an Italian mother, the author’s real name was Curt Erich Suckert.

[2] Processed canned pork, a US-Army staple, especially during World War II.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *