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 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.
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.
Having given up hope of a political career, in 1937 Malaparte launched his own magazine, Prospettive. Initially oscillating between fawning support of fascism and courageous criticism, he eventually cut out the political side of the paper and concentrated on making it a first-class arts review. Intriguingly, the change came after his 1939 visit to Italian-occupied Ethiopia whence he wrote a number of articles of such uncharacteristic blandness that one can only imagine that while afraid of criticizing the regime at war he was equally loath to praise it.
But Malaparte loved travel, especially when all expenses were paid, and even more so when there was something dramatic to write about. Hence when Italy declared war in 1940 he saw it as a personal opportunity. Conscripted into the army, he nevertheless managed, thanks again to Ciano, to get himself sent to follow the German troops in their eastern campaigns and to write dispatches for Corriere della Sera. Since both Mussolini and Ciano (now foreign secretary) were envious of German military successes and irritated with many aspects of Nazi policy, they were probably not unhappy if Malaparte’s articles, which rapidly gained notoriety, were not entirely favorable to the Nazis. For their part the Germans could hardly mistreat a man who was an officer in the army of a vital ally.
It was the sort of situation on which Malaparte thrived. Always able to seduce the highest levels of officialdom with his conversation and wit, a welcome entertainer at any party, he was nevertheless allowed to offer a fairly neutral description of the catastrophe that was taking place all around him, the result, as he saw it, not just of Nazism but of a profound sickness in European culture. “He knew no obstacles when he was working,” Corriere’s editor Aldo Borelli later remarked. “He’d ask for a car and a couchette, but if necessary he would go on foot, or by bike or on horseback.”
Malaparte’s wartime dispatches were collected and published in The Volga Rises in Europe (1943): their factual content has not been an object of controversy. Kaputt, written during the author’s two years in Eastern Europe and published, despite its obvious autobiographical and historical references, as a “novel,” is a work of quite different ambitions. Responding to his many critics, Malaparte challenged them to leave aside issues of morality and fact, his political record, his personality, and just answer the question “Is the book art or not?” Rather than rise to this bait, we can more usefully describe the book and the kind of experience it invites us to share.
For the reader who has not grasped from its opening pages that Kaputt is a work neither of journalism nor of narrative realism, Malaparte, talking to Prince Eugene, recalls a conversation with the Swedish psychiatrist and writer Axel Munthe in his (Munthe’s) house in Capri. After insisting that he does not want to talk about the war, Munthe asks Malaparte “whether it was true that the Germans were so dreadfully cruel.” Malaparte replies with a theory developed throughout Kaputt that the Germans are cruel out of fear, not of their more powerful enemies, but, perversely, of the sick and the weak:
“Yes, it is true,” I replied. “They kill the defenseless; they hang Jews on the trees in the village squares, burn them alive in their houses, like rats. They shoot peasants and workers in the yards of the kolkoz—the collective farms—and factories. I have seen them laughing, eating and sleeping in the shade of corpses swinging from the branches of trees.”
Then Munthe unexpectedly asks Malaparte “whether it was true that the Germans kill birds.” Malaparte replies that this is not true, that they don’t have time, and then launches into a long celebration of the bird life of the Ukraine:
There are countless families of the most beautiful birds in the Ukraine. They fly about in thousands, twittering among the acacia leaves. They rest on the silvery branches of birches, on the ears of wheat, on the golden petals of sunflowers in order to peck the seeds out of the large black centers. They can be heard singing ceaselessly through the rumble of guns, the rattling of machine guns, through the deep hum of aircraft over the vast Ukrainian plain. They rest on the shoulders of men, on saddles, on the manes of horses, on the gun carriages, on rifle barrels, on the Panzers’ conning towers, on the boots of the dead. They are not afraid of the dead. They are small, alert, merry birds, some gray, others green; still others red and some yellow. Some are only red or blue on their chests, some only on their necks, some on their tails. Some are white with a blue throat; and I have seen some that are very tiny and proud, all white, spotlessly white. At dawn they begin to sing sweetly in the cornfield, and the Germans raise their heads from a gloomy slumber to listen to their happy song. They fly in thousands over the battlefields on the Dniester, the Dnieper, the Don. They twitter away free and merry, and they are not afraid of the war. They are not afraid of Hitler, of the SS, or of the Gestapo. They do not linger on branches to look down on the slaughter, but they float in the blue singing.
On occasion Malaparte can be crudely surreal, but more impressively he has a way of shifting or skewing perspective, of suddenly and enthusiastically dedicating large bodies of text to the most unexpected subjects, in such a way as to make us aware of a larger reality around the events that usually hold our attention, and also to have us wonder whether more is being meant than is explicitly said. Is Malaparte telling us here that he envies these birds their detachment, that he too would like to sing carelessly above the battlefield?
Our disorientation is increased by the way we are deprived throughout Kaputt of any coherent narrative. The war is never a logical unfolding of events; there is no question of an analysis of military campaigns, of remembering a beginning or foreseeing an end, or even making sense of the author’s various peregrinations. Rather, the conflict passes before us in a succession of disconnected incidents, visions, smells, sounds, and conversations, a constant back and forth between dinner table and killing fields. There is any amount of precise detail for each scene, but no direction.
Nature in particular is a major distraction; horses, birds, dogs, sunflowers, trees, the very ground itself, are blissfully outside the war. Malaparte loves to contemplate them, yet sooner or later he is obliged to observe the way they too are caught up in the general conflagration. Thus the frequent references to horses, their beauty and elegance, that dominate the first part of the book, take on a new relevance when we arrive at the description of a thousand cavalry horses that, fleeing enemy fire, flounder into a Finnish lake on the very night that it freezes over for the winter. In the morning, the
…lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds upon hundreds of horses’ heads. They appeared to have been chopped off cleanly with an ax. Only the heads stuck out of the crust of ice.
Later in the book there is the tragi-comic tale of the German general who is determined to capture the last and largest salmon in a river in Lapland and plans his attack on the fish like a military campaign. The folly of confronting nature as if it were a human enemy is hilariously conveyed, together with the intuition that the Nazi approach to their human enemies is perversely like that of hunter and animal prey. “Do they imagine that they can deal with salmon as they deal with Jews?” demands an irate local shopkeeper. “We shall never allow it.” “All the peoples of Europe are salmon,” Malaparte himself tosses into another conversation.
Faced with passages like these, one does not ask: Did Malaparte count the birds over the Dnieper, did the shopkeeper really say something so shocking? The author draws on experience and hearsay to build up a highly personal rendering of the collective experience of war, alternately deploying a Swiftian irony or a Dantesque vision of hell. It is a procedure that thrives on juxtaposition, on oscillation between opposites, and even on superimposition, rather as if Malaparte had foreseen the modern TV viewer’s experience of zapping between animal-life documentary, costume drama, and terrorist attack, or perhaps splitting the screen to keep the friendly characters of a soap in one corner while contemplating the day’s carnage in Baghdad on another channel.
Even more disturbingly, the consequences of violence are often evoked as if they were themselves things of beauty: the faces of drowned corpses are seen through a film of ice; a blonde woman pilot dead in the cockpit of her crashed fighter plane takes on an iconic elegance. Adjectives usually applied to one setting begin to slip over into another. At times it seems that the tradition of European painting itself, the colors of Monet, Degas, and Matisse, now serve only to describe more exactly the chaos of modern warfare. The world has been turned upside down and with it every literary propriety.
This is all very well, but can we defend the pages in which Malaparte not only describes a pogrom that he did not witness but actually introduces himself into it? The story occurs during a long discussion at the dinner table of General Frank, governor of Poland. The subject is the Jews. Frank has been boasting how efficiently the Warsaw ghetto is being run despite his difficulty finding enough trucks to transport and bury the dead:
“I trust you do bury them,” said I.
“Naturally! Do you fancy that we give them to their relatives to eat?” said Frank laughing.
Everyone laughed…. And of course I broke into laughter too. My idea that they might not bury them was really amusing. I laughed so hard that tears came into my eyes.
When Frank then claims that there will be no pogroms in Poland under his command, Malaparte invites the dinner guests to hear his tale of the recent pogrom at Iasi in Moldavia.
As with the other stories Malaparte performs for his audiences in Kaputt, there is no pretense that this is oral storytelling of the kind that might really occur over a meal. What we have is a most elaborate and “written” story, beginning with a series of reminiscences and dream sequences involving Oswald Moseley and Harold Nicolson. Eventually, Malaparte recounts how one evening, while staying in the Romanian town of Iasi, three aging Jews came to warn him that a massacre was imminent and to beg him to stop it. As they talk, he recognizes in the leader of the three Jews the director of the Rome prison in which he was held in 1933, a man of great compassion who once prevented him, Malaparte, from committing suicide. The two other Jews are ex-prison guards. What has appeared to be reportage turns out to be a dream, a potentially wish-fulfilling fantasy where the typically passive modern onlooker imagines himself as instrumental in preventing some terrible evil from prevailing.
But far from assuming a hero’s role, Malaparte protests that he cannot help. Not only does he have no power, but he has no moral fiber either. Like all Italians, he claims, he has “lost the ability to act.” The following day, however, he changes his mind and decides to go to the next town to appeal to the Romanian general in charge. But the expedition involves a long walk and he loses interest on the way: “After all, what concern of mine was this affair? I had done all that was humanly possible to prevent the massacre….” That is, nothing.
As night falls and a Russian bombardment begins, instead of helping the Jews, Malaparte tries to seduce a sixteen-year-old shop assistant to whom he has taken a fancy, though in the end he does no more than walk her home and kiss her. At this point, in the middle of a thunderstorm, the Russians begin a parachute attack:
There were men up there, walking on the roof of the storm. Small, awkward, round-bellied, they walked along the edges of the clouds, holding up with one hand a huge white umbrella that swayed in the gusty wind.
In this surreal atmosphere, the pogrom begins. The Romanian soldiers are hunting down not Russian paratroopers but the Jews. Doing nothing to help or hinder them, Malaparte eventually reaches the Italian consulate where the consul has allowed a handful of Jews to take refuge. The author and the diplomat then spend the night smoking together outside the consulate door and inviting in any Jews passing by along the street. There is nothing heroic in this since, as Italian officials, they are immune from reprisals by the Romanians, who cannot enter the consulate. Malaparte’s remark to the consul, “‘Sartori,’ I said, ‘we are fighting for civilization against barbarism,'” is as hollow and ironic as any remark in literature and soon followed by “I felt abased…. It was ghastly not to be able to do something.”
Rather than place himself in the scene to display his virtue, Malaparte seems to be trying to capture the humiliation but also the resignation, cynicism, and complacency of someone who cannot see how to pass from a state of impotent observation to moral action, in part because, unable to contemplate a dramatic self-sacrifice, no feasible line of action presents itself. It is a theme central to Italian literature of the period (one thinks of Pavese’s The House on the Hill and Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis*). Involved with the fleeing Jews in only the most casual and pathetic way, Malaparte does not even claim to feel very much for the victims. On the contrary, he recognizes his lack of feeling as a form of ugliness.
After the nighttime slaughter and the despoiling of the corpses the next day, the narrative then switches back to General Frank’s sumptuous dinner table where all the guests agree that although seven thousand slaughtered Jews was “a respectable figure,” this “was not a decent way to do it.” The superior Germans would have gone about the task in a more civilized and scientific manner. The consequent conversation about how exactly this might be achieved—“We use surgeons as our models, never butchers”—protracts the horror of the previous episode and deepens Malaparte’s uneasiness with the company he is keeping, though again there is never any question of his having the willpower to get up and leave, something that increases the reader’s anxiety about the company he is keeping. Yet for us too, and whatever we think of the author, it is hard to leave, if only because Malaparte never tries to apologize for the Nazi atrocities or deny them. On the contrary, in 1944 he was among the first to offer an account of this kind. In doing so he condemns himself for having been in the vicinity without reacting, though with the constantly implied and salutary provocation for the reader: What would you have done in my place?
Arrested on his return to Italy after Mussolini’s downfall, Malaparte worked for the last year of the war as a liaison officer for the Americans. After the war he became a Communist, and later still a Maoist, until, on his deathbed in 1957, he was rather incongruously reconciled with the Church. Though he is frequently and rightly described as a turncoat and an intellectual harlequin, it is not hard to understand the antithetical energies that drove Malaparte’s thinking. The last two chapters of Kaputt juxtapose two entirely different worlds, dramatic exaggerations, we might say, of the different families he grew up in. In the first, the author has returned to Rome (still under Mussolini) where, during a visit to a high-society golf club, he has a chance to catch up on the gossip of Ciano’s aristocratic friends and hangers-on. In the last chapter he is in Naples after the fall of Mussolini; the Americans are bombing the city and Malaparte is obliged to take refuge with the poorest of the poor, the crippled, the mentally disabled, the street urchins. Among the elite at the golf club, Malaparte shines and name-drops shamelessly; in the packed bomb shelters of Naples, he seems to seek the complete sublimation of self in a collective suffering “compared with which my own poor and small despair was merely a puny feeling that made me ashamed.”
Perhaps only a man as grotesquely egotistical as Malaparte could have desired, intermittently, such a dispersal and overcoming of his own personality. However slippery and maverick he may seem, we will always be able to map his position, or positions, along a line between these two polarities: exaltation of self, annihilation of self. The only political systems that would fit his vision, his neurosis, were ones where a small and highly individualized clique ran a world (utopian, he hoped) of anonymous proletarian heroes. The genius of Kaputt was to draw on the energy of these personal tensions in a fantastical depiction of both the elite and the people at war.
December 1, 2005