Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin

The most disturbing book I read in 2020 was Curzio Malaparte’s semi-fictional account of the liberation of Naples between 1943 and 1945. I say “semi-fictional” despite the fact that Malaparte (real name Curt Erich Suckert) was really there, both as a witness and participant to the Allied rousting of the Nazis. Between November of 1943 and March of 1946, he served as an “Italian Liaison Officer” to the American High Command, which gave him insight into the experiences of liberator and liberated alike. The ousting of the Germans did not immediately put an end to the troubles of the Italians. In fact, because of the subsequent naval blockade they established, it multiplied them. Food and other basic provisions became scarce, and the people of Naples were reduced to an animal-like desperation, foraging for nuts and berries, roasting neighborhood pets, and selling their most cherished possessions for the merest morsel.

The Skin is more episodic than a conventional novel, less concerned with historical accuracy than a memoir. It is a novelist’s truth Malaparte is after, and it’s a novelist truth he conveys: that the “liberation” of Naples was not experienced as a liberation by the Neapolitans, but as yet another indignity in a long line of indignities, and that the experience of being conquered and occupied cannot be salved by the expulsion of the occupiers. The discomfiting thing, for Malaparte’s readers, is that he forces us to see the shame of the conquered – and to share in it. The first chapter of The Skin is entitled “The Plague,” but it has nothing to do with the kind of pernicious microbes presently menacing the world. “The extraordinary thing about this most modern of diseases was that it corrupted not the body but the soul. The limbs remained seemingly intact, but within the integument of the healthy flesh the soul festered and rotted.” Traditional morality is upended by this plague, and “the human conscience” is transformed “into a horrible, noisome ulcer.” The first and most obvious example of this collapse is in the sudden rise of prostitution. With the economy flattened and food scarce, the women (and children!) of Naples take to selling themselves en masse to the liberating soldiers of the Allied powers. Malaparte reports the price of a human being with the casual air of an accountant monitoring the stock market:

During the last few days the prices of girls and boys had dropped, and they were still falling. Whereas the price of sugar, oil, flour, meat and bread had risen and were still on the increase, the price of human flesh was slumping from day to day. A girl between twenty and twenty-five years of age, who a week before was worth up to ten dollars, was now worth barely four dollars, bones included.

But this is the voice of Malaparte the memoirist. In his conversations with his American interlocutors, we catch the sardonic humor that has made him famous:

“Tell me frankly – would you like a little girl at three dollars?” I said to Jack.
“Shut up, Malaparte.”
“After all, it’s not much, three dollars, for a little girl. Two pounds of lamb cost far more. I’m sure a little girl costs more in London or New York than here – isn’t that so, Jack?”
“Tu me dégoûtes,” said Jack.
“Three dollars is barely three hundred lire. How much can a little girl of eight or ten weigh? Fifty pounds? Remember that on the black market two pounds of lamb cost five hundred and fifty lire, in other words five dollars and fifty cents.”
“Shut up!” cried Jack.

Who wouldn’t want him to shut up? But he’s merely speaking the truth about the situation, and Jack – his like all the American occupiers, who know only the glory of conquerors – does not wish to confront this fact. “I like the Americans,” Malaparte later writes,

because they are good and sincere Christians; because they believe that Christ is always on the side of those who are in the right; because they believe that it is a sin to be in the wrong, that it is immoral to be in the wrong; because they believe that they alone are honorable men, and that all the nations of Europe are more or less dishonest; because they believe that a conquered nation is a nation of criminals, that defeat is a moral stigma, an expression of divine justice.

Malaparte is angry with the Italians for their abject, fallen state, their total loss of dignity, but he is no less angry with the Americans, who expect nothing less than this obsequiousness for their due.

It is now axiomatic with me that beneath every vocal cynic is a repressed idealist, and Malaparte – though he delights in his role as bête noire in offending the delicate sensibilities of the Americans (“Malaparte,” after all, means wrong side in Italian) – is no exception. Asked by a Frenchman, a General Guillaume, what, exactly, has reduced the Italians to this state of spiritual degradation, Malaparte brushes aside the answers of his dinner guests: it isn’t the bombs, nor the air raids, nor the concentration camps. “We’ve known these things for centuries in Europe. We’re used to them by now.” What, then, accounts for this nauseating spectacle of debauchery and debasement?

“Skin,” I replied in a low voice. “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?” (And as I spoke I grasped the skin on the back of my hand between two fingers, and kept pulling it about.) “Once upon a time men endured hunger, torture, the most terrible sufferings, they killed and were killed, they suffered and made others suffer, to save their souls, to save their own souls and the souls of others. They would rise to every form of greatness and stoop to every form of infamy to save their souls – not only their own souls, but the souls of others too. Today they suffer and make others suffer, they kill and are killed, they do wonderful things and dreadful things, not to save their souls, but to save their skins. They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone. Nothing else counts. Men are heroes for the sake of a very paltry thing today!

Malaparte’s first book, recounting his experiences as a journalist embedded with the German forces on the Eastern Front, was tellingly called Kaput, for that was his estimation of Europe. The long and great story had come to an ignominious end in the massacres of the war. The above-quoted paragraph – or perhaps all of The Skin – might as well be a coda to Kaput, describing what was lost. Nothing but the skin now counts.