“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he refers to is elusive. “It was a kind of moral plague, against which it seemed that there was no defense.”

The Skin is Malaparte’s description of this moral plague. He writes about a character of the same name who accompanies a band of Pollyannaish American soldiers as they go about Naples acting as both conquerors and liberators. He bears witness to the variety of horrors that come at the end of a long war: starvation, slavery, casual murder, careless disposal of the dead, and the caustic nature with which the rich feed upon the poor (both literally and metaphorically), to name a few.

But these atrocities are merely a symptom of, or coexist with, the moral plague. Malaparte bemoans the easy way Neapolitans bend to the wishes of their American conquerors. “It was enough that a child should put into its mouth a candy offered to it by an American soldier, and its innocent soul would be corrupted.” The Neapolitans are too willing to trade national identity, pride, and dignity, just to get along with the new powers that be.

The Americans, for their part, approach this horrid landscape as if they weren’t at least partially responsible, and so they become the target of Malaparte’s most acidic sarcasm. The Americans of The Skin remain ignorant of Neapolitan culture. One American repeatedly speaks French to Malaparte and others, suggesting that, to him, all cultures other than his own are more or less the same. The Americans take what they can from the country they’ve razed with bombs and tanks, all the while holding themselves blameless. It rings true.

References to skin abound. Malaparte writes:

Once upon a time men endured hunger, torture, the most terrible sufferings, they killed and were killed, they suffered and made others suffer, to save their souls, to save their souls and the souls of others . . . Today they suffer and make others suffer, they kill and are killed, they do wonderful things and dreadful things, not to save their souls, but to save their skins.

This works as a thesis statement. In each chapter, we’re served yet another example of how, in post-war Naples, the soul does not matter—what matters, really, is to stay alive, no matter the cost.

The book contains some of the most gruesome imagery in literature: the surgery hall in a veterinary clinic, where dogs are kept in cradles with their innards exposed; the boiled child/fish served on a platter; the vaguely man-shaped carpet of skin, bone, and hair that’s peeled from the street after a man is crushed by a tank. All of these images are meant to serve that overall thesis—that people nowadays would rather save their skin than their souls—and blunt force of their delivery guarantees we won’t ever unsee them.

By turns sarcastic and sincere, caustic and tender, shockingly real and hazily abstract, The Skin is a vivid and horrific tale of war, survival, and dignity. Malaparte reserves the last word for himself: “It is a shameful thing to win a war.” Shameful, it seems, because the winners of war must commit acts of cruelty and, in doing so, injure their souls. But the damage to their souls, it seems to Malaparte, is not so severe that they are deserving of pity.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

The Skin
By Curzio Malaparte
Translated by David Moore
Reviewed by Peter Biello
368 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9781590176221
$16.95
The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .

Read More >

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .

Read More >

Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .

Read More >

Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .

Read More >

The Little Horse
The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .

Read More >

Guys Like Me
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre
Reviewed by Peter Biello

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .

Read More >

Birth of a Bridge
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .

Read More >