The Skin (New York Review Books Classics)

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9781590176221: The Skin (New York Review Books Classics)

This is the first unexpurgated English edition of Curzio Malaparte’s legendary work The Skin. The book begins in 1943, with Allied forces cementing their grip on the devastated city of Naples. The sometime Fascist and ever-resourceful Curzio Malaparte is working with the Americans as a liaison officer. He looks after Colonel Jack Hamilton, “a Christian gentleman . . . an American in the noblest sense of the word,” who speaks French and cites the classics and holds his nose as the two men tour the squalid streets of a city in ruins where liberation is only another word for desperation. Veterans of the disbanded Italian army beg for work. A rare specimen from the city’s famous aquarium is served up at a ceremonial dinner for high Allied officers. Prostitution is rampant. The smell of death is everywhere.

Subtle, cynical, evasive, manipulative, unnerving, always astonishing, Malaparte is a supreme artist of the unreliable, both the product and the prophet of a world gone rotten to the core.

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About the Author:

Curzio Malaparte (pseudonym of Kurt Eric Suckert, 1898–1957) was born in Prato, Italy, and served in World War I. An early supporter of the Italian Fascist movement and a prolific journalist, Malaparte soon established himself as an outspoken public figure. In 1931 he incurred Mussolini’s displeasure by publishing a how-to manual entitled Technique of the Coup-d’Etat, which led to his arrest and a brief term in prison. During World War II Malaparte worked as a correspondent, for much of the time on the eastern front, and this experience provided the basis for his two most famous books, Kaputt (1944; available as an NYRB classic) and The Skin (1949). His political sympathies veered to the left after the war. He continued to write, while also involving himself in the theater and the cinema.

David Moore’s translations include Flora Volpini’s The Women of Florence, Dino Alfieri’s Dictators Face to Face, and Malaparte’s The Volga Rises in Europe.

Rachel Kushner is the author of the novels The Flamethrowers (2013) and Telex from Cuba (2008), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Notable Book. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Believer, Artforum, and Bookforum. She is a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER I
The Plague
Naples was in the throes of the 'plague'. Every afternoon at five
o'clock, after half an hour with the punch-ball and a hot shower in
the gymnasium of the PBS - Peninsular Base Section - Colonel Jack
Hamilton and I would walk down in the direction of San Ferdinando,
elbowing our way through the unruly mob which thronged Via Toledo
from dawn until curfew-time.
 
We were clean, tidy and well fed, Jack and I, as we made our way
through the midst of the dreadful Neapolitan mob - squalid, dirty,
starving, ragged, jostled and insulted in all the languages and dialects
of the world by troops of soldiers belonging to the Armies of Liberation,
which were drawn from all the races of the earth. The distinction
of being the first among all the peoples of Europe to be liberated
had fallen to the people of Naples; and in celebration of the winning
of so well-deserved a prize my poor beloved Neapolitans, after three
years of hunger, epidemics and savage air attacks, had accepted gracefully
and patriotically the longed-for and coveted honour of playing
the part of a conquered people, of singing, clapping, jumping for joy
amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the
day before had been the emblems of their foes, and throwing flowers
from their windows on to the heads of the conquerors.
 
But in spite of the universal and genuine enthusiasm there was not
a single man or woman in the whole of Naples who was conscious of
having been defeated. I cannot say how this strange feeling had arisen
in the people's breasts. It was an undoubted fact that Italy, and hence
also Naples, had lost the war. It is certainly much harder to lose a
war than to win it. While everyone is good at winning a war, not all
are capable of losing one. But the loss of a war does not in itself
entitle a people to regard itself as conquered. In their ancient wisdom,
enriched by the doleful experience of many hundreds of years, and
in their sincere modesty, my poor beloved Neapolitans did not
presume to regard themselves as a conquered people. In this they
undoubtedly revealed a grave lack of tact. But could the Allies claim
to liberate peoples and at the same time compel them to regard
themselves as conquered? They must be either free or conquered. It
would be unjust to blame the people of Naples if they regarded
themselves as neither free nor conquered.
 
As I walked beside Colonel Hamilton I felt incredibly ridiculous in
my British uniform. The uniforms of the Italian Corps of Liberation
were old British khaki uniforms, handed over by the British Command
to Marshal Badoglio and - perhaps in an attempt to hide the bloodstains
and bullet-holes - dyed dark green, the colour of a lizard. They
were, as a matter of fact, uniforms taken from the British soldiers
who had fallen at EI Alamein and Tobruk. In my tunic three holes
made by machine-gun bullets were visible. My vest, shirt and pants
were stained with blood. Even my shoes had been taken from the
body of a British soldier. The first time I had put them on I had felt ·
something pricking the sole of my foot. 1 had thought at first that a
tiny bone belonging to the dead man had remained stuck in the shoe.
It was a nail. It would have been better, perhaps, if it really had been
a bone from the dead man: it would have been much easier for me
to remove it. It took me half an hour to find a pair of pliers and
remove the nail. There was no gainsaying it: that stupid war had
certainly ended well for us. It certainly could not have ended better.
Our amour propre as defeated soldiers was undamaged. Now we were
fighting at the side of the Allies, trying to help them win their war
after we had lost our own. Hence it was natural that we should be
wearing the uniforms of the Allied soldiers whom we had killed.
When I at last succeeded in removing the nail and putting on my
shoe I found that the company of which I was to assume command
had been assembled for some time past on the barrack-square. The
barracks consisted of an ancient monastery, which had been reduced
by time and the air bombardments to a state of ruin. It was situated
in the vicinity of La Torretta, behind Mergellina. The 'square' was a
cloistered courtyard, bounded on three sides by a portico, which rested
on slender columns of grey tufa, and on the fourth by a high yellow
wall, dotted with specks of green mould and great slabs of marble, on
which were carved long lists of names, surmounted by great black
crosses. During some cholera epidemic of centuries before the monastery
had been used as a hospital, and the names referred to those
who had died of the disease. On the wall was written in large black
letters: Requiescant in pace
.
Colonel Palese had been anxious to introduce me to my soldiers
himself, in one of those simple ceremonies of which old military men
are so fond. He was a tall, thin man, with completely white hair. He
clasped my hand in silence and smiled, sighing dolefully as he did so.
The soldiers were nearly all very young. They had fought well against
the Allies in Africa and Sicily, and for this reason the Allies had
chosen them to form the first cadre of the Italian Corps of Liberation.
Lined up before us in the .middle of the courtyard, they eyed me with
a fixed stare. They too were wearing uniforms taken from British
soldiers who had fallen at EI Alamein and Tobruk, and their shoes
were dead men's shoes. Their faces were pale and emaciated; their
eyes, which were white and steady, consisted of a moist, opaque
substance. They seemed to gaze at me without blinking.
 
Colonel Palese nodded his head, and the sergeant shouted:
'Company - 'shun.' The soldiers riveted their gaze upon me; it was
sorrowful and intense, like the gaze of a dead cat. Their limbs became
rigid and they sprang to attention. The hands that grasped their rifles
were white and bloodless. The flabby skin hung from the tips of their
fingers like a glove that is too big.
 
Colonel Palese began to speak. 'Here is your new commanding
officer,' he said, and while he spoke I looked at those Italian soldiers
with their uniforms that had been taken from British corpses, their
bloodless hands, their pale lips and white eyes. Here and there on
their chests, stomachs and legs were black spots of blood. Suddenly
I realized to my horror that these soldiers were dead. They gave out
a faint odour of musty cloth, rotten leather, and flesh that had been
dried up by the sun. I looked at Colonel Palese, and he was dead too.
The voice that proceeded from his lips was watery, cold, glutinous,
like the horrible gurgling that issues from a dead man's mouth if you
rest your hand on his stomach.
 
'Tell them to stand at ease,' said Colonel Palese to the sergeant
when he had ended his brief address. 'Company, stand at - ease!'
cried the sergeant. The soldiers flopped down on to their left heels
in limp and weary attitudes and stared at me fixedly, with a softer,
more distant look. 'And now,' said Colonel Palese, 'your new
commanding officer will say a few words to you.' I opened my mouth
and a horrible gurgling sound came out; my words were muffled,
thick, flaccid. I said: 'We are the volunteers of Freedom, the soldiers
of the new Italy. It is our duty to fight the Germans, to drive them
out of our homeland, to throw them back beyond our frontiers. The
eyes of all Italians are fixed upon us. It is our duty once more to hoist
the flag that has fallen in the mire, to set an example to all in the
midst of so much shame, to show ourselves worthy of the present
hour, of the task that our country entrusts to us.' When I had finished
speaking Colonel Palese said to the soldiers: 'Now one of you will
repeat what your commanding officer has said. I want to be sure you
understand. You!' he said, pointing to a soldier. 'Repeat what your
commanding officer said.'
 
The soldier looked at me; he was pale, he had the thin, bloodless
lips of a dead man. Slowly, in a dreadful gurgling voice, he said: 'It
is our duty to show ourselves worthy of the shame of Italy.'
Colonel Palese came up close to me. 'They understand,' he said in
a low voice, and moved silently away. Under his left armpit was a
black spot of blood which gradually spread over the material of his
uniform. I watched that black spot of blood as it gradually spread, my
eyes followed the old Italian colonel, with his uniform that had
belonged to an Englishman now dead, I watched him slowly move
away and heard the squeaking of his shoes, the shoes of a dead British
soldier, and the name of Italy stank in my nostrils like a piece of
rotten meat.
 
 
'This bastard people!' said Colonel Hamilton between his teeth
forcing his way through the crowd. '
 
'Why do you say that, Jack?'
 
Having reached the top of the Augusteo we used to turn off each
day into Via Santa Brigida, where the crowd was thinner, and pause
a moment to regain our breath.
 
'This bastard people,' said Jack, straightening his uniform, which
had been rumpled by the terrible pressure of the crowd.
 
'Don't say that, Jack.'
 
'Why not? This bastard, dirty people.'
 
'Oh, Jack! I am a bastard and a dirty Italian too. But I am proud
of being a dirty Italian. It isn't our fault if we weren't born in America.
I am sure we should be a bastard, dirty people even if we had been
born in America. Don't you think so, Jack?'
 
'Don't worry, Malaparte,' said Jack. 'Don't take it to heart. Life is
wonderful.'
 
'Yes, life is a splendid thing, Jack, I know. But don't say that.'
 
'Sorry,' said Jack, patting me on the shoulder. 'I didn't mean to
offend you. It's a figure of speech. I like Italians. I like this bastard,
dirty, wonderful people.'
 
'I know, Jack - I know you like this poor, unhappy, wonderful
people. No people on earth has ever endured as much as the people
of Naples. They have endured hunger and slavery for two thousand
years, and they don't complain. They revile no one, they hate no one
- not even their own misery. Christ was a Neapolitan.'
 
'Don't talk nonsense,' said Jack.
 
'It isn't nonsense. Christ was a Neapolitan.'
 
'What's the matter with you today, Malaparte?' said Jack, looking
at me with his fine eyes.
 
‘Nothing. What do you suppose is the matter with me?'
 
'You're in a black mood,' said Jack.
 
'Why should I be in a bad mood?'
 
'I know you, Malaparte. You're in a black mood today.'
 
'I am sad about Cassino, Jack.'
 
'To hell with Cassino.'
 
'I am sad, truly sad, about what is happening at Cassino.'
 
'To hell with you,' said Jack.
 
'It really is a shame that you're bringing such misery to Cassino.'
 
'Shut up, Malaparte.'
 
'Sorry. I didn't mean to offend you, Jack. I like Americans. I like
the pure, the clean, the wonderful American people.'
 
'I know, Malaparte. I know you like Americans. But take it easy,
Malaparte. Life is wonderful.'
 
'To hell with Cassino, Jack.'
 
'Oh, yes. To hell with Naples, Malaparte.'
 
There was a strange smell in the air. It was not the smell that
comes down at eventide from the alleys of Toledo and from the Piazza
delle Carrette and Santa Teresella degli Spagnoli. It was not the smell
from the fried-fish shops, taverns and urinals nestling in the dark and
fetid alleys of the Quarrieri that stretch from Via Toledo up towards
San Martino. It was not that nauseating, stuffy, glutinous smell,
composed of a thousand effluvia, a thousand noisome exhalations -
mille delicates puanteurs, as Jack put it - which at certain times of day
pervades the city and emanates from the withered flowers that lie in
heaps at the feet of the Madonnas in the chapels at the corners of
the alleys. It was not the smell of the sirocco, which smacks of bad
fish and of the cheese that is made from sheep's milk. It was not even
that smell of cooked meat which towards evening spreads over Naples
from the brothels - that smell in which Jean-Paul Sartre, walking one
day along Via Toledo, sombre comme une aisselle, pleine d'une ombre
chaude vaguement obscene, detected the parente immonde de I'amour et de
/a nourriture. No, it was not that smell of cooked meat which broods
over Naples towards sunset, when la chair des femmes a l'air bouillie
sous la crasse. It was an extraordinarily pure, delicate smell, dry, light,
unsubstantial - the smell of brine, the salt tang of the night air, ·the
smell of an ancient forest from the trees of which paper is made.
 
Parties of dishevelled, painted women, followed by crowds of negro
soldiers with pale hands, were parading up and down Via Toledo,
cleaving the air above the thronged street with shrill cries of 'Hi, Joe!
Hi, Joe!' At the entrances to the alleys loitered the public hairdressers,
the capere. They formed long lines, and each stood behind a seat. On
the seat, their eyes closed and their heads lolling against the backs or
sunk upon their breasts, sat athletic negroes with small round skulls
and yellow shoes that shone like the feet of the gilded statues of the
Angels in the church of Santa Chiara. Yelling and calling to one
another with strange guttural cries, singing, or arguing at the top of
their voices with their neighbours, who looked down from the windows
and balconies as though from boxes at the theatre, the capere sank
their combs into the negroes' curly, woolly hair, drew them towards
them with both hands, spat on the teeth to reduce the friction, poured
rivers of brilliantine into the palms of their hands, and rubbed and
smoothed the patients' wild locks like masseuses.
 
Bands of ragged boys knelt before their little wooden boxes, which
were plastered with flakes of mother of pearl, sea-shells and fragments
of mirrors, and beat the lids with the backs of their brushes, crying
'Shoeshine! Shoeshine!' Meanwhile, with bony, eager hands, they
grabbed the negro soldiers by the edge of the trousers as they went
past, swaying their hips. Groups of Moroccan soldiers squatted along
the walls, enveloped in their dark robes, their faces riddled with pockmarks,
their yellow, deep-set eyes shining from dark, wrinkled sockets,
inhaling through quivering nostrils the dry odour that permeated the
dusty air.
 
Faded women, with livid faces and painted lips, their emaciated
cheeks plastered with rouge - a dreadful and piteous sight - loitered
at the comers of the alleys, offering to the passers-by their sorry
merchandise. This consisted of boys and girls of eight or ten, whom
the soldiers - Morocca...

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