The Rogue Genius

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)

The Skin

by Curzio Malaparte, translated from the Italian by David Moore
Northwestern University Press, 344 pp. (1997)
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Curzio Malaparte with an Ethiopian soldier, Ethiopia, 1939

Nearly everything about Curzio Malaparte—who wrote Kaputt and The Skin, two of the most memorable books about World War II—was bogus, starting with his name. He was born in the town of Prato in Tuscany in 1898, the son of an irascible German (and Protestant) father, Erwin Suckert, and a Tuscan mother. Originally the future writer was dubbed Kurt Erich but quickly that difficult Teutonic name was Italianized into Curzio. When he was in his twenties and already the author of a few published works, he decided to change his last name from Suckert to Malaparte because that sounded more Italian (in that way he was like Ettore Schmitz, who became Italo Svevo). Malaparte was also obviously an allusion to Bonaparte, the dark side of the good.

Although after World War II Malaparte was adroit in claiming that he had been a victim of the Fascists, in fact he had joined the party as early as 1922, shortly before the March on Rome, and had been an eager journalistic supporter and cultural mainstay of the regime until Mussolini put him under house arrest and sent him to the island of Lipari off the coast of Sicily in 1933. Later Malaparte would claim that he’d been arrested because he had opposed Mussolini, but in fact he never publicly criticized the dictator. He’d been arrested because he’d slandered a high government minister, the ace pilot Italo Balbo, saying that Balbo had become so physically and morally plump that he would have been a suitable minister under the nineteenth-century bourgeois French king, Louis-Philippe. As soon as these words, scribbled on the back of a postcard, were inevitably brought to Balbo’s attention by state censors, Malaparte was arrested and sentenced to five years on the island (eventually the sentence was reduced to several months). Mussolini loved to play cat-and-mouse with his followers, punishing them before restoring them to favor.

Malaparte’s active complicity with Mussolini was fairly constant and had started much earlier, in 1924–1925, when the dictatorship had first been declared. Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist deputy who was vocal in his denunciations of fascism, had been kidnapped and murdered. Mussolini (either correctly or incorrectly) had been blamed for the assassination—and many Fascists abandoned the party, outraged by the illegal, high-handed violence. Despite this forceful attack on his regime by members of his own party, Mussolini, supported by the king of Italy, now usurped parliamentary power and declared himself the sole ruler of the country. Malaparte, in a cool act of opportunism, testified in court on behalf of Mussolini at this crucial junction. The writer probably expected “Muss” (as he called him) to be grateful, but if so he failed to understand how short the dictator’s memory could be.

After the war Malaparte rewrote his role in this historical crisis, the most important one in Mussolini’s career, so that he appeared as an innocent opponent of …

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