Monday, February 14, 2011

Kaputt: The Dogs

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte, translation by Cesare Foligno
(For a note on this book as a literary work instead of a memoir, see the earlier posts on Kaputt)
Suddenly a few black dots darted out of a forest in the distance, then more and still more; they moved quickly, disappeared in the bushes, turned up nearer and rushed rapidly toward the German Panzers. “Die Hunde! Die Hunde!--The dogs! The dogs!” cried the soldiers around us in terrified voices. A gay and ferocious barking came to us on the wind, the baying of houds on the track of a fox.

Under the sudden onslaught of the dogs the Panzers began to rush about zigzagging and firing wildly. The attacking units back of the armored cars stopped, hesitated and scattered; they fled here and there across the plain as if in the throes of panic. The rattle of the machine guns was clear and light, like the tinkling of glass. The baying of the pack bit into the roar of the motors. Now and again came a faint voice smothered by the wind and in the widespread rustle of grass. ”Die Hunde! Die Hunde!” Suddenly we heard the dull thud of an explosion; then another, and another. We saw two, three, five Panzers blow up, the steel plates flashing within a tall fountain of earth.

“Ah, the dogs!” said General von Schobert passing a hand over his face. They were “anti-armored-car dogs” that had been trained by the Russians to look for food under the armored cars. Kept without food for a day or two, they were brought to the front line whenever an attack was impending. As soon as the German Panzers appeared out of the woods and spread out fanlike on the plain, the Russian soldiers shouted ”Pashol! Pashol!--Off! Off!” and unleashed the famished pack. The dogs carrying cradles on their backs loaded with high explosives and with steel contact rods like the aerials of a radar set-up, ran quickly and hungrily to meet the armored cars, in search of food under the German Panzers. ”Die Hunde! Die Hunde!” shouted the soldiers around us. General von Schobert, deathly pale, a sad smile on his bloodless lips, passed a hand over his face, then looked at me and said in a voice that was already dead, “Why? Why? Even the dogs!”

The German soldiers became daily more ferocious. The hunt for the dogs continued with a merciless rage, while the old Cossacks laughed and slapped their knees. “Ah, bednii sobachki!--Ah, poor dogs!” they said.

The irony, as usual with most of Malaparte’s book, lies in uncertainty. Are the Cossacks addressing and laughing at the German soldiers or the “red dogs” of the Dnieper? The same question applies to a reading test administered to captured Russians—those that could read well were promised clerical jobs while those who failed could look forward to heavy manual labor. Those that passed the test stood off to one side, content with their fate and joking with those who failed, calling them dogs for the amount of work they will have to do. Then the readers are led against a wall and shot. “Russia must be cleared of all this learned rabble. The peasants and workers who can read and write too well are dangerous” said the technical advisor attached to the German unit with which Malaparte traveled. Who exactly are the dogs?

Can such a question be answered during war as everything turns surreal? An injured elk crawling up on the lawn of the Finnish President’s palace no longer seems like an event out of the ordinary. People dressing up for an evening that never darkens appear dead, lifeless. "The strangest thing about these luminous nights of the North ... is that nocturnal gestures, thoughts, sentiments, objects that are born only in the secrecy of darkness, and that the night jealously guards and protects in its dark bosom, can be seen in full daylight." The omnipresent fear his dinner guests discuss affects people differently, but throughout Kaputt Malaparte details a modern consciousness laying itself bare just like the never-ending summer days above the Arctic Circle.

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