I found Curzio Malaparte on my father’s bookshelf, between the volumes on Kosovo and Srebrenica. I was drawn in by the name, Kaputt, and when I turned it over, I was drawn even further in by the cover—the grin of devilish fake teeth floating in darkness on the New York Review of Books edition. This was where I found him, and where I quickly fell in love.
Malaparte was an Italian F. Scott Fitzgerald character on the frontlines. Mussolini’s foreign correspondent on the Eastern Front; the failed propagandist, Italian diplomat and Francophile dandy, whose morbid dispatches behind Nazi lines were gruesomely outclassed by his recounting of the invasion of his own country as the Italian Liaison Officer of American High Command. The repentant fascist, whose twin masterpieces—Kaputt behind Nazis lines, The Skin on the Allied side—make him the impossible literary genius of the Second World War.
Infamous then—Leon Trotsky called him “a pseudo-theorist of fascism”—less than little-known now.
“I would lose at Austerlitz,” Malaparte used to joke, “but win at Waterloo.” But even this writer’s name was a concotion. Malaparte, “the bad side,” is an egotistical pun on what Bonaparte, “the good side,” means in Italian. Bad, because Kurt Erich Suckert, the son of a German immigrant, was a convinced fabulist. His accounts of the German and American campaigns are a kind of surrealist autofiction that steals the power of reporting by fabulising his actual life. “Everybody almost thought I was telling the truth,” is how Malaparte remembered when he first started to lie. “Just like I thought so myself.”
For months I couldn’t stop thinking about Malaparte. But for a while, I wasn’t sure why. He seemed to be everything I thought was despicable: a seedy social climber, an amoralist, a casual anti-Semite, an obscene narcissist. Only watching how the media works in Washington was when it finally dawned on me: What is so urgent about Malaparte is that he is constantly telling you he can’t be objective because of the power wielded—over him.
Mussolini demands his audience because Malaparte insulted his tie (“’Is this one tied correctly, then, Malaparte… in the English style?’”); Nazi commanders keep summoning him for dinner (“‘It seems like a dream, doesn’t it,’ said Governor-General Frank.”); Rommel turns up at his house (“’I suffer from the heat, and in Africa it’s too hot.’”); Himmler invites him up to his hotel room for punch (“Himmler, what did he want with me?”).
Malaparte literally ends up in a surplus British uniform working for the U.S. Army:
They were, as a matter of fact, uniforms taken from the British soldiers who had fallen at El 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. I 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 from the dead man: it would have been much easier to remove it.
He keeps telling us, “I am a whore of power.”
This is the writer to rediscover for the Washington of Fox and Friends.
What you find in Kaputt is what the Sunday Shows don’t show you: the constant abusive phone calls, threatening emails, troll threats, and implicit bargains that those covering Trumpland have to put up with. And this is what the staid voice of The New Yorker (with its identical ledes and studious tone) is missing: just how pea-brained—just how grotesque—this all really is.
“Dictatorship is not only a form of government,” is how Malaparte described Hitler’s reign, “but the most complete form of jealousy.”
I read one Malaparte after another. I hunted those untranslated down in French. Journal d’un étranger à Paris, where, between brushes with Andre Malraux and drinks with Albert Camus, he realizes the cultural icons of postpower want zero to do with him—with Malaparte—that filthy collaborator.
For the whole evening Camus glared like someone so utterly offended […] It became clear to me that Camus wanted to execute me […] And I asked myself what did Camus do, to have the right to execute people?
I was awed. Awed by the draftsmanship, by the composition, and by the portraiture—by the emotion he could conjure. Awed, how he tied together vignettes of dying Americans, tortured dogs and the cavalry of the Italian Expeditionary Corps on the Ukrainian steppe. Awed, that writing about the war, after a year of Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, could still grip, shock, revulse, even terrify.
This is why. Because sometimes you need a fabulist to capture the mania of something. Only a phantasmagoria, where desperate Neapolitans serve Americans conquerors a “siren”—a manatee, or is it a child?—could show what fascism had done to Italy in all its humiliating, maniacal, scale.
“I looked at that poor boiled child, and I trembled inwardly with pity and pride. A wonderful country, Italy! I thought.
What other people in the world can permit itself the luxury of offering Siren mayonnaise with a border of coral to a foreign army that has destroyed and invaded its country? Ah! It was worth losing the war just to see those American officers that proud American woman sitting pale and horror-stricken round the table of an American general, on which, in a silvery tray reposed the body of a Siren, a sea-goddess!
“Disgusting!” exclaimed Mrs. Flat, covering her eyes with her hands.
“Yes… I mean… yes,” stammered General Cork, pale and trembling.
“Take it away! Take this horrible thing away!” cried Mrs. Flat.
“Why?” I said. “It’s an excellent fish.”
Only a writer like Malaparte could truly show what Mussolini had done to the elites—to the men like Malaparte, who had willed him into being.
“I understand you very well. You have taken to playing the harlot in desperation, because of your grief at losing the war. Isn’t that right?”
Sometimes you need a treacherous, unreliable monster to show another one up—just like only a writer as unscrupulous as Michael Wolff has come closest to capturing Trump. The difference is, whereas what is really in Fire And Fury was summed up in just one juicy piece for the New York Times, Kaputt is richer than a renaissance mural. This fabulist is more than Mussolini’s Michael Wolff.
Malaparte is the Hieronymus Bosch of the Second World War. Here Nazis officers on BMW R75s quote Hölderlin in ice killing fields. Telling us again and again, art, culture, the artist himself, belongs to the gun.
I was swallowed by his fresco. Instead of Bosch’s fornicating birdheads, the clanging instruments and the sodomizing beastials, the only way to describe reading Kaputt and The Skin is a series of similarly unspeakable vignettes. Nazi scarecrows of frozen Soviets, fastened to stumps to scare away the partisans; booze soaked dinners with Hitler’s Governor-General of Poland; frozen Russian lakes bursting with the heads of frozen horses; a Neopolitan father selling American servicemen the chance to touch his daughter’s hymen; Himmler, pink and sweating in an SS sauna orgy in Finland. Entering into this sinister spiral is to feel the full collapse of civilised Europe like never before.
The German soldiers were returning from the front line, when I saw the white stain of fear growing in the dull eyes of the officers and soldiers. The Blitzkrieg was over. The winning war was over.
I saw it spreading little by little, gnawing at the pupils, singeing the roots of the eyelashes and making the eyelashes drop one by one, like the long yellow eyelashes of the sunflowers. When Germans become afraid, when that mysterious German fear begins to creep into their bones, they always arouse a special horror and pity. Their appearance is miserable, their cruelty sad, their courage silent and hopeless. That is when the Germans become wicked.
I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed to be a Christian.
Everything he had seen—in Operation Barbarossa, on the Finnish Front, in Naples—everything that had happened, the facts of it hardly mattered to him. Everything, was being pumped into aesthetics. Everything was about creating and sustaining the purest and the most lyrical mania.
On the day on which we entered Milan we ran into a yelling crowd which was rioting in a square. I stood up in the jeep and saw Mussolini hanging by his feet from a hook. He was bloated, white, enormous. I started to be sick on the seat of the jeep: the war was over now, and I could do nothing more for others, nothing more for my country—nothing except be sick.
And I didn’t care whether or not Malaparte had vomited.
And then, abruptly, I fell out of love. For months, I had been so enthralled with Malaparte, I was willing to forgive him for anything. His fascism (in 1922 he marched on Rome). His racism (again and again, we are regaled by the fact that Italian women are servicing black American soldiers, even buying little blonde “pussy wigs” to please them). His disgust towards gays (pederast sex cults preying on the stray little boys of wartime). His ridicule and contempt towards Jews (he buys little sweeties to pop in the mouths of murdered Jewish children he finds outside the Italian consulate after a pogrom). His times, I said, his times, pretending not to see that Malaparte would have stuck a little bonbon in my mouth had he passed my little dead body in Iași.
I told myself, these two books are to the Second World War what the black paintings of Francisco Goya (the horror of Saturn Devouring His Son, the nightmare of The Witches Sabbath) are to the Napoleonic Wars. Grotesque, real, alive; unlike reading Herman Wouk or Albert Camus. That we needed to read Kaputt and The Skin because Dunkirk and Darkest Hour has turned the breakdown of Europe civilization into a cuddly Churchillian fairytale.
I told myself we had to read Malaparte to hear the voice of Europe, the real Europe—not of the resistance myth, but the millions of defeated collaborators. Everything was forgiven. The same way I had forgiven all the others writers that I loved: T.S. Eliot, Gregor Von Rezzori, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. I was in love with Malaparte, with the idea of Malaparte, and the way he could write, with the way he created mania. I was in love and we all know that true love is blind.
Until it isn’t.
I was leaving for Washington again, leaving my parents’ house, and my father asked me what I was reading. The walls lined with books, the framed maps of the Ottoman Empire and the lilac calligraphy of my great-grandmother’s Ketubah.
I was holding his copy of Kaputt.
“His name would come up a lot in the Balkans,” he said.
“Oh really?” I said, feigning a little ignorance. Feigning it just a little because I knew exactly what passage he was referring to. I could remember it almost word for word. The passage in Zagreb where Malaparte meets the tinpot führer of fascist Croatia.
The lid was raised and the basket seemed to be filled with mussels, or shelled oysters, as they are occasionally displayed in the windows of Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly in London. My companion looked at me and winked, “Wouldn’t you like a good oyster stew?”
“Are they Dalmatian oysters?” I asked.
Ante Pavelic removed the lid from the basket and revealed the mussels, that slimy and jelly-like mass, and he said smiling, with that tired good-natured smile of his, “It is a present from my loyal Ustashas. Forty pounds of human eyes.”
My father, I felt, knew exactly the page number in Kaputt, too.
“His name would come up a lot in the Balkans,” he said. There, where he had reported on for almost thirty years.
“Oh, why?” I said, bowing my head.
“Because he fabricated that the Ustashas served up Serbian eyes.”
The books on Srebrenica were glaring down on me.
“Because Serbian propaganda never let the Croats forget it.”
I found myself repeating what Milan Kundera had said. That Malaparte is not reportage but something else. That Malaparte is a writer where the aesthetic intention is so strong, the writing so strange, that sensitive readers knows automatically he is not a historian, a journalist, or a memoirist. But a chimera of all three and a novelist.
To listen to but not to trust.
“Well that didn’t matter in wartime,” he said. “And I bet you could still find people who believe it.”
I was still holding Kaputt.
And I put it away, slightly ashamed.