Saturday, February 19, 2011

Kaputt: The Flies

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)

For the first time during the four years of war, for the first time in the course of my cruel journey through slaughter, hunger and devastated towns, I heard the word “blood” spoken with sacred and mysterious reverence. In every part of Europe—in Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Poland, Russia and Finland—that word had spelled hatred, fear, contempt, joy, horror, cruel barbarous complacency and sensuous pleasure; it had always filled me with horror and disgust. To me the word “blood” had become more horrible than blood itself. I was less shocked touching blood, bathing my hands in that poor blood that was shed in every country in Europe, than I was when I heard the word “blood.” But in Naples, in commonplace Naples, in the unhappiest, hungriest, most humbled, forsaken and tortured city in Europe, I heard the word “blood” uttered with religious awe, with sacred respect, with a deep feeling of charity, in that high, pure, gentle, innocent tone in which Neapolitan people say: mother, child, Heaven, Madonna, bread, Jesus—with the same innocence, purity and gentle simplicity. Those toothless mouths, those pale, worn lips, cried ”’O Sangue! ’O sangue!” as if it were an appeal, a prayer, a sacred name. Long centuries of hunger and slavery, of robed, canonized, crowned and anointed barbarism, long centuries of want, cholera, corruption and shame had not succeeded in smothering the sacred reverence for blood in that miserable and noble people. Screaming, weeping, stretching their hands to Heaven, the crowd ran toward the Duomo; they invoked blood with stupendous rage. They wept for wasted blood, the blood shed in vain, the soil bathed in blood, the bloody rags, the precious blood of man mingled with the dust of the roads, the clots of blood on the walls of prisons. A pity, a kind of sacred fear was reflected in the feverish eyes of the crowd and in the hands lifted to Heaven and shaken by a violent tremor. ”’O sangue! 'O sangue! 'O sangue!” For the first time during four years of a ferocious, merciless, cruel war, I heard that word spoken with religious awe, with sacred respect, and I heard it on the lips of a famished multitude—betrayed, forsaken without bread, without homes and without graves. After four long years, once again that word had a divine sound. A sense of hope, rest and peace came over me at the sound of that word, ”’O sangue!”

I asked a man beside me what had happened. A rumor had spread through town that a bomb had hit the Duomo and wrecked the crypt in which the two caskets containing the miraculous blood of San Gennaro are preserved. It was only a rumor, but it had spread like a fire through the town and reached the darkest alleys and the deepest caves. Until that moment during the four years of war, it seemed as if not a single drop of blood had been shed. Despite the millions of dead scattered over all of Europe, it seemed as if not a single drop of blood had moistened the earth. But as soon as the news spread that those two precious caskets had been shattered, that those few drops of clotted blood had been lost, it seemed as if the entire world were soaked in blood, as if the veins of humanity were severed to quench the insatiable earth. Then a priest came out on the steps of the Duomo, raised his arms asking for silence and announced that the precious blood was safe. ’O sangue! 'O sangue! 'O sangue! The kneeling people wept invoking the blood, and everybody was smiling; tears of joy ran down the faces hollowed by hunger; high hope filled everyone’s heart, as if no single drop of blood would ever drop again on the thirsting earth.

In a book full of strange people and surreal events, this section started slowly as Malaparte describes a day at a golf course in Rome with high society. The focus on Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, highlights the tension and ambiguity apparent throughout the book. Malaparte pulls no punches in describing Ciano while at the same time acknowledging the debt he owes him (Ciano interceded for Malaparte’s release from prison). The social scene highlights a disconnect from a war they believe “has gone out of fashion.” Malaparte laments for more than just the social scene when he describes “the agony of a society that was fated to die.”

The second part of this section takes part in Naples as Malaparte has just been released (yet again) from jail. In contrast to the social scene he earlier described in Rome, most of the people left in Naples are disfigured or ailing because of the constant war there for three years. During a bombing raid he enters the caves with “the cripples: the halt, the twisted, the lame, the hunch-backed, the maimed, the legless”. An entire underground economy is literally and figuratively running here. Like the high society set, the Neapolitans are resigned to their fate, but their fate is markedly different from those in Rome. At the same time, though, the people in Naples demonstrate more strength and resiliency.

Flies have been a staple in Kaputt, especially in the second section “The Mice” which focused on Jews. Associated with death throughout the book, the flies represent the inescapable atmosphere of war. Flies invade the Roman golf course every day, providing one of the few physical inconveniences the socialites endure. In Naples, however, the “stench of corpses rose from under the mountains of stones and plaster. Entire families of lazy fat flies with gold wings buzzed over the debris.” Instead of an occasional nuisance, the flies are constant companions for anyone directly involved in the war. In Naples, looking for fresh water, Malaparte finds a few drops in a bar located amid rubble and flies.

”Why don’t you fight the flies in Naples? At home, in northern Italy—in Milan, Turin, Florence, even in Rome—the city governments have organized campaigns against the flies. You never see a fly in our towns.

“There isn’t a single fly left in Milan?”

“No, not a one. We have killed them all. It is a preventive measure to avoid epidemics and diseases.”

“In Naples we also have struggled against the flies. We have actually waged war against flies. We have been fighting the flies for the past three years.”

“Then why are there still so many flies in Naples?”

“Well, you know how it is! The flies have won!”


LMR said...

“Well, you know how it is! The flies have won!”

The best final line of a novel I've ever read. It encapsulates the entire novel.

I can't wait to read The Skin.

Dwight said...

It is a great ending to a disturbing book. Thanks for the reminder...I want to visit The Skin, too.

LMR said...

You know, here's a new English translation coming out in 2013:

But I'm actually thinking of reading it in Italian, even if I read slower.

Dwight said...

Nice to know...thanks!

LMR said...

Also I'm currently reading The Skin in Italian. It's being great!