From Fourth International, Vol.9 No.3, May 1948, pp.93-95.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
by Curzio Malaparte
W.P. Dutton and Company, 1946, 407 pp., $3.75.
Kaputt is a vivid picture of the ruination of Europe by the war and the Nazi occupation, of the appalling decline in the cultural level, and of the hideous bestiality and decadence of the fascist regimes, drawn by a fascist journalist who was well placed to observe all of these phenomena. The author, Curzio Malaparte, a supreme opportunist, wrote the book to ingratiate himself with the bourgeois-democratic victors. He has only succeeded, however, in demonstrating that fascism is the gangrenous encrustment on the mortally infected body of capitalism and that he himself is among the most nauseating of the excrescences of fascism.
Malaparte prefixes to Kaputt an account of “the secret history of the manuscript,” which, he says, “is the most appropriate preface to the book.” In this preface and throughout the book he carefully remains quiet about his position in Mussolini’s state and depicts himself as a contributor to “the cause of liberty.” The most appropriate preface to a review of his book, therefore, is a sketch of Malaparte’s career, for that career gives the lie to his pretensions and helps us better to understand a work which is evidently a compound of fact and fiction.
A participant in Mussolini’s “march on Rome” and the only talented intellectual in the fascist movement, Malaparte was acclaimed as its “strongest pen” by a regime which felt the need to clothe its naked brutality with a little cultural adornment. His Coup d’État: The Technique of Revolution, which purported to analyze the methods of seizing political power, made him its leading theoretician, if we can speak of fascism as having theoreticians. In this book Malaparte revealed the heights to which his imagination could soar by representing Trotsky as arguing against Lenin that no special conditions are necessary for revolution, only correct tactics which may be applied at any time and place. Trotsky was right, concluded Malaparte, and his tactics are a menace to the peace of Europe. Although a prize exhibit of fascism, Malaparte was also a minor torment, as he delighted in acting the enfant terrible and occasionally kicked over the traces. He was imprisoned for a time, but returned to the good graces of the regime, as evidenced by his intimacy with Ciano and his position as a specially favored war correspondent, hobnobbing with Frank, the Governor-General of Poland, and other Nazi luminaries.
It was during the time he was a war correspondent that he wrote Kaputt. Malaparte does not explain, however, one curious fact. According to his own account, in 1942 he was in neutral Sweden, the guest of his friend, Prince Eugene, the brother of the king, with most of his book written. Since he was so much opposed to the Axis, why did he not remain in Sweden, under the protection of his powerful friend, and publish his book at that time? Instead, he resumed his post as war correspondent, rushing to Italy after Mussolini, fell, to await the arrival of the American forces at his sumptuous Capri villa which he had purchased and furnished with the money he had received for his services to fascism. He apparently succeeded in selling these services to United States imperialism, for, according to Richard A. Watts, Jr., former correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune, it was reported in Italy that for two years Malaparte was a liaison officer attached to the American high command.
This is the man who portrays himself unwittingly in his book. He represents himself as witty, culturally sophisticated, at ease with world figures, but withal inwardly tormented by the horrors he has seen and ready to risk his life to do a kind deed for one of the victims of fascism. Talented, Malaparte undoubtedly is, although ostentatious in his display of hls talents, but one immediately senses a considerable amount of sham in his posturing – the same kind of sham that characterized his master.
He pretends to have indulged in daring double entendres in his conversations with Frank, but the irony is often too transparent to have escaped the most stupidly complacent Nazi overlord. Above all, it is clear that, while Malaparte may have been repelled by the horrors he saw, he was also undoubtedly fascinated by them. As he lingeringly describes horror after horror in his lush, over-ripe prose, one gets the inescapable impression of a man delicately licking his lips. The feeling Malaparte evidently derived from. his contemplation of death and decay is best described in one of his own sentences, which is at the same time a good example of his prose. He is speaking, in one of his occasional mystical flights from sense to nonsense, of “that indefinite tinge of sensuous passion and hidden repugnance that always goes with the Northerner’s love for Mediterranean lands,” and he goes on to characterize this “hidden repugnance” as “the same sensuous repugnance that is portrayed in the faces of the onlookers in the old Triumphs of Death, where the sight of the green corpses, exhumed and. lying in the sun like dead lizards and fleshy, strongly scented flowers, has aroused in them a reverent horror and a sensuous enjoyment that at the same time attracts and repulses them.” It is this “reverent horror and sensuous enjoyment” which pervades Malaparte’s book.
Occasionally he gives himself away, as when he describes the Nazi brothel of captured Jewish girls, who, at the end of twenty dzys, thoroughly exhausted and fit for nothing, would be shot and replacecl by a new batch of inmates. Malaparte knew what their fate would be, and he knew that they must know or at least suspect their fate. Yet he visited the brothel. When he talked to one of the girls, he writes, “I no longer remembered why I had gone to that house, although I was aware that without letting Schenck know, I had gone not out of curiosjty or from a vague feeling of pity, but for something that my conscience now refused to accept.” We cannot be sure of Malaparte’s conscience, but what must have sent him there in the first place could have been the same obscene curiosity which prompted him to explore the streets of the “forbidden city,” the Warsaw ghetto, accompanied by a Nazi Black Guard ancl observing “the bluish shadow of death” in the faces of the inhabitants, “just like the dead Jews in a Chagall canvas.”
Although one can never be sure about the truth of the details of Kaputt, especially those which are used to place the author in a favorable light, the cumulative effect of the book is that of overwhelming truth. This is it – the decaying society whose grave-digger has not yet performed his historic task, a thousand times more loathsome than ever could have been imagined.
Malaparte’s method is to describe himself in various oases of upper-class isolation from the war, telling their inhabitants his war experiences. The horror of the stories is enhanced by their contrast with the setting in which they are told.
The book is divided into six sections. In the first section Malaparte is talking with the sadly nostalgic esthete, Prince Eugene, in the latter’s villa, furnished in the decadent fin de siècle Parisian manner; in another section, with Frank in the old Polish royal palace in Cracow, where Frank loved to fancy himself as an Italian Renaissance duke, presiding over a polished court which is an island of civilization in a sea of barbarism; in the last section, with the members of the Roman smart set that clustered around Ciano and dreamed of coming to terms with the Allies. Malaparte tells his stories as flashbacks and flashbacks within the flashbacks till they become a nightmare phantasmagoria. The stories in each section are grouped together by their relation to some underlying animal motif which furnishes the title for the section: The Horses, The Mice, The Dogs, The Birds, The Reindeer, The Flies. This contributes to the inlpression of human life reduced to the animal level.
The book is notable, however, not only for its pictures of the brutalization of life – the cannibalism of the starving Russian prisoners; the packing of the Jews into sealed freight-cars so that when the doors are opened at their destination they stream out as an avalanche of corpses; the forty pounds of human eyes sent as a gift to the fascist Croat chieftain Pavelic by his followers. It is notable for its revealing pictures of the fascist leaders: Frank rhapsodizing over Chopin and seizing a guard’s rifle to take a potshot at a Jewish child burrowing its way under the ghetto wall to hunt for food and clothing; a Nazi general trying for three hours to land a salmon and then, angered by its prolonged opposition and fearing that his dignity had been lowered before the Lapp spectators, curtly ordering his aide to shoot it; Ciano, his vanity touched, feeling himself when Malaparte jestingly remarks that they are both lucky to be provided with fat buttocks to take Mussolini’s kicks and earnestly asking,: “Do you really think my behind is fat?” These portraits are painted with genuine artistry. Malaparte spares no one.
His description of de Foxa, the Spanish mimster to Finland, whom he acclaims in his preface as his friend to whom he is deeply indebted, reveals the innermost essence of the clerical fascism of Franco Spain. On one occasion de Foxa is asked by a Nazi officer if he would like to have a couple of shells fired at two Russian soldiers sauntering behind the lines, De Foxa refuses to accept this offer made in his honor because it is Good Friday. When the officer orders the shells fired, anyway, and. they miss, de Foxa sighs with relief but adds regretfully, “Pity that it is Good Friday! I would have gladly seen those two fellows blown to pieces.”
Malaparte uses his “anti-fascism” as a mask for anti~German chauvinism and as an attack on his own people which serves as an excuse for himself: he has been “a whore,” he admits, but so has been the entire Italian nation. He would have it that fascism is a national characteristic. Throughout his book, however, we see the tendency of the upper classes of all countries toward fascism. Frank boasts of the active support of the Polish clergy, the supineness of the aristocracy and the impotence of that section of the middle class which did not cscape abroad. The Rumanian military authorities cold-bloodedly plan a pogrom which is countenanced by the nobility to distract the people from their sufferings. Mosley tells Malaparte that the English “Upper Ten Thousand” is ripe for fascism.
The members of “high society” are contemptuous of the fascist gangster upstarts, but they make use of them against the proletarian revolution, Princess Colonna, “the first lady of Rome,” who is said to have had the Nazi General Kesselring to dinner the evening. the Germans departed, and the American General Mark Clark to dinner the evening the United States forces arrived, typifies their attitude. She regarded the fascists as being an illegitimate part of “high society” which had to be tolerated, the representativcs of a “tamed revolution” which was “more advantageous for the object of social preservation than a raging, or merely a stupid and inept reaction.”
Only through “the victory of the principles of illegitimacy,” that is, fascism, comments Malaparte rightly, can be attained “the supreme and passionate aspirations of the conservative classes during days of serious social upheaval to save what can be saved,” The growing crisis of world capitalism is already stimulating new fascist movements in the countries of Europe and will on the morrow stimulate even more the fascist movement in the United States, the citadel of world capitalism. If the maturing crisis impels the capitalists, however, to find new political leaders, it also impels the workers; schooled by their experiences of the last three decades, to search for a genuinely revolutionary leadership which will teach them how to storm all citadels and to save humanity from new, greater doses of the horrors which Malaparte describes.
Last updated on 25.2.2009