For a book surrounded by controversy, Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt opens in a most serene manner:
Prince Eugene of Sweden stopped in the middle of the room. “Listen,” he said.
It is 1943. Europe is at war, but Sweden is neutral. Malaparte, or his alter ego, an Italian officer with the anomalous task of writing war dispatches for Corriere della Sera, is in the Stockholm residence of the aging Prince Eugene, brother of the King of Sweden and an artist. Aroused by a “sad yearning wail…a feminine voice, doleful and distracted,” the two men go to a window filmed with mist and watch a little girl driving three circus horses down to the seashore:
In the rosy and sky-blue light of sunset those three white horses, followed by a girl dressed in yellow, were sad and very beautiful. Knee deep in the surf, spreading their manes on their long arched necks, they shook their heads and neighed.
Prince Eugene, we are told, has spent many years of his life in Paris, his clothes “bespeak that free and careless Montmartre manner of fifty years ago,” and his house is haunted by “a languid and discordant echo of Parisian estheticism.” In a dozen dreamy pages memory after memory of high European art—paintings, plays, music, precious porcelains—is conjured up alongside this view of the child and her neighing horses, a scene the prince might once have painted, all in order to evoke “the sweetness of a serene life that had once been the grace of Europe.”
But however beautiful, there is indeed something “discordant” about this Proustian atmosphere. Stockholm is not Paris and we are not in the 1920s. Published in 1944, Kaputt is a book in which the chronology is immensely confused, yet one essential distinction prevails: time is divided into before 1939 and after. A nostalgia for the pre-war past heightens the horror of the present conflict, which in turn intensifies a yearning for the past. Lying outside this before–after division, neutral Sweden seems to have fallen outside of time. Very soon this dislocation of a pre-war Parisian atmosphere in the dreamy Scandinavian twilight begins to feel perverse and unreal. Suddenly, Malaparte destroys the spell:
By degrees, something bitter was arising in me, something like a sad anger; bitter words came to my lips, and my effort to choke them back was useless. Thus I began almost unwittingly, to talk about Russian prisoners in the Smolensk camp who fed on the corpses of their mates under the impassive gaze of German officers and soldiers.
I became suddenly aware that I was telling him [Prince Eugene] about a day when I had gone to the Leningrad front….
Malaparte describes driving with a German officer who spoke excitedly about the poet Hölderlin, until, at a turn of the wintry forest road, there appeared a Russian soldier up to his waist in snow, arm outstretched to point the way through the trees; at the next turn of the …