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The Horrors of War

Kaputt

by Curzio Malaparte, translated from the Italian by Cesare Foligno, with an afterword by Dan Hofstadter
New York Review Books,437 pp., $16.95 (paper)

1.

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.

And again:

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 road there is another soldier, and then again another. Malaparte is concerned that the men will die of cold, but the German lieutenant happily explains that they are already dead. They were shot and planted in the snow, their frozen arms outstretched to serve as road markers: “…and he added, still laughing: ‘Russian prisoners must be put to some use.’” “Stop, please,” Prince Eugene begs Malaparte. He can’t bear to hear of such atrocities. Seeing the older man’s unhappiness, Malaparte feels “a horror and shame at my own words.”

Kaputt is a long, rich, complex, uneven book, but behind all its extravagant descriptions and macabre banter, the tactic of having the horrors of war recounted at length in a variety of highly particularized social settings shapes and drives the overall narrative. Malaparte will be spending time with sympathetic, invariably aristocratic friends or, more often, with members of the German or Fascist elite; he is at an embassy reception perhaps, a celebratory dinner, a drinking party, usually in the most elegant surroundings, in Poland, Romania, Finland. Into this sophisticated world, apparently from a sense of compulsion, he introduces tales that are a disgrace to mankind: Jewish girls used as whores for a few weeks and then shot; Russian prisoners separated into those who can read and those who can’t, so that the educated can be massacred; dogs trained to carry explosives under armored cars and blow themselves up.

After each story we have the reaction of the sophisticated world: the quiet despair of Prince Eugene, the elaborate self-justification and even amusement of the Nazi or Fascist officers. Meanwhile, Malaparte himself, both as the writer and as a character in the book, conveys his excitement in telling the stories he has collected, his perverse pleasure in turning other people’s sufferings into elaborate and stylish narrative, and simultaneously his shame in that pleasure, his desire to escape from this compulsion, his fear that there is now no position available to him, either as an artist, an Italian, or indeed as a human being, that would be honorable, let alone pure. The whole of European culture and with it each individual mind is “kaputt,” a single German word to mean “ruined, destroyed, broken in pieces.”

All of which brings us to the point of controversy. Does it matter whether the stories told in Kaputt are true or not? Does it matter that in conversation with the German governor of Poland Malaparte describes himself as visiting the Warsaw ghetto when we know that he did not visit the Warsaw ghetto? And more generally, is it a problem if our knowledge of Malaparte’s life leads us to doubt the sincerity of the feelings he describes, if we begin to suspect that he is exploiting the awfulness of war as part of a mania for self-promotion? “Readers have a right to feel puzzled,” remarks Dan Hofstadter in the afterword to this new edition, “and to wonder what merit a book may have that values the truth so lightly.” The author’s habit of “placing himself at center stage [in the Warsaw ghetto and the Iasi pogrom] as a moral witness and even a protagonist” is “offensive,” Hofstadter observes.

2.

Born in Tuscany in 1898, son of a Protestant German father and an Italian mother, the author of Kaputt was baptized Kurt Erich Suckert. He would later change his name to Curzio Malaparte to hide his German origins and have a provocative nom de plume that at once evokes and refers ironically to the incomparable Bonaparte.

Sent to a working-class family to be breastfed, Malaparte spent much of his childhood with them, much preferring them to his natural, middle-class parents. As a result he learned young to be different things to different people, at once inside and outside every group. Educated at a prestigious school, he ran away in 1914 to join a brigade of Italian volunteers fighting the Germans in France. He was sixteen. In 1915 he volunteered for the Italian army and fought on the grueling Alpine front until 1918. His adolescence was thus an initiation into the ordinariness of mass slaughter. He was decorated for bravery, but his health was permanently impaired when he was caught in an attack of mustard gas.

Like many Italian “veterans,” in the early 1920s Malaparte joined the Fascist Party. He shared the belief that those tempered by the experience of war had the right to impose a social revolution on Italy, and the Fascists seemed the party most likely to deliver. Working as a journalist and soon recognized as the most brilliant writer in the Fascist camp, he became co-founder in 1926 of the influential literary quarterly ‘900, and then editor, while still in his twenties, of La Stampa in Turin. During the same period his frenetic pursuit of a diplomatic or political career led to all kinds of bizarre personal initiatives and shady compromises with the authorities, worst of all his suspect testimony as a defense witness in the trial of the murderers of socialist parliamentarian Giacomo Matteotti.

Vain by nature, elitist and anti-democratic by vocation, once described by Alberto Moravia, from whom he commissioned many articles, as having a “phenomenal” ability to get along with the rich and powerful, Malaparte nevertheless saw members of the ruling elite as legitimized or not by the world they created for the masses. Disillusioned with fascism’s achievements in this regard, he frequently accused Mussolini of having failed to use his power to replace the pre-war bourgeois status quo and of having imposed a police state rather than a revolution. Fired from the editorship of La Stampa, he went to Paris and published Coup d’État: The Technique of Revolution, a book that compared the Trotskyist and Fascist seizures of power and presented both as merely technical achievements devoid of ideology. Returning to Italy in 1933, Malaparte was arrested, mainly as a result of an ongoing argument with the minister for aviation, Italo Balbo, though no doubt his book, which had been banned in Italy, made him more vulnerable. He was stripped of party membership, imprisoned for two months, then sent in internal exile to the small island of Lipari off the northern coast of Sicily.

But this was not the end of Malaparte’s dealings with the Fascist establishment. Indeed the bewildering aspect of his career is the way he repeatedly found the courage to criticize and satirize the authorities while at the same time frantically currying favor with them, the result being that he was never trusted by either the Fascists or their enemies. Just a year into his five-year exile, he managed, through his friendship with Galeazzo Ciano, son-in-law of the Duce and at the time undersecretary of state for press and propaganda, to get himself transferred first to Ischia, then to Forte dei Marmi on the Tuscan coast, one of the most fashionable seaside resorts in Italy. Here he was able to fraternize with vacationing members of the establishment while officially remaining persona non grata. It was a position that was congenial to him, satisfying his craving for high society and women (he was now having an affair with a member of the Agnelli family), but sparing him any responsibility for what fascism was becoming.

The tension between wanting to shine before a fashionable audience (“he loved to talk about himself,” recalls Moravia, “and he never let others get a word in”) while at the same time remaining out on a limb is suggested by the house Malaparte built for himself as soon as his period of “exile” was cut short in 1935. Again he went to a fashionable resort, the island of Capri, off the Bay of Naples, but he chose a site at the isolated tip of a narrow rocky promontory, with the result that three of the house’s four walls were almost flush with sheer, cliffside drops. Stuccoed crimson and with a low, modern, compact shape, the house is a complete break with the local architecture and landscape, yet curiously, through a play of contrasts perhaps, it harmonizes with the dramatic surroundings to the point that the building is often considered one of the finest architectural achievements of the period. Characteristically, Malaparte called it Casa come me (House like me). Though various women were to live with him there, it was always clear that his permanent love was the house.

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