Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kaputt: The Reindeer

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)
Frederick turned his face to me, his skin was yellow and wrinkled, his eyes were shining, humble and despairing. Suddenly I recognized his look.

I recognized his look and began to tremble. He had the look of a beast; I thought with horror that he had the mysterious look of a beast. He had the eyes of a reindeer—the humble, despairing eyes of a reindeer. I wanted to say to him, “No, Friki, not you,” but he looked at me in silence, like a reindeer, with humble and despairing eyes.

The other officers, Frederick’s companions, were young too, perhaps twenty, twenty-five or thirty, and they all bore the same marks of age, decomposition and death on their yellow, wrinkled faces. All of them had the humble and despairing eyes of reindeer. In every face, in every eye was the beautiful, wonderful tameness, the sadness of wild beasts; each had that absorbed and melancholy madness of beasts, their mysterious innocence, their terrible sorrow—that fearful Christian pity that beasts have. It occurred to me that beasts were Christ, and my lips trembled and my hands shook. I looked at Frederick. I looked at his companions, and every one of them had the same withered, wrinkled face, the same bare brow, the same toothless smile, the same look of a reindeer. Even cruelty, even German cruelty had gone out of those faces. They had the look of Christ, the look of a beast. Suddenly I was reminded of what I had been told when I had first reached Lapland, of what everyone talked about in low voices, as if it were a mysterious thing, in fact it was mysterious, a forbidden subject; I was reminded of what I had been told since I had arrived in Lapland about those young German soldiers, those Alpenjägers of General Dietl’s, who had hung themselves from trees in the depths of the forests, or who sat for days on the shores of a lake gazing at the skyline and then shot themselves through their heads, or else were driven by a wonderful madness, almost an amorous fantasy—roaming through the woods like wild beasts and threw themselves into the still waters of the lakes, or who stretched themselves on beds of lichen under the firs that roared in the wind and waited for death—letting themselves die slowly in the abstract, frozen loneliness of the forest.

Malaparte gets carried away in his symbolism at times—the reindeer as Christ refer to a separate description of the reindeer which meekly head to their autumnal “Calvary,” or slaughter by the Lapps. This section, though, reads more like Hunter S. Thompson, with a drunken revelry at the Lapland Governor’s palace, Malaparte running into a naked Himmler in the sauna, and a German general fighting with a salmon. Even far from the front, the surreal insanity of the war punctuates life for the Lapps, the ambassadors, and German soldiers.

This section leaves me baffled—despite having several memorable scenes it feels like the weakest section so far. Malaparte’s hypnotic writing, complete with overwrought imagery and constant repetition, provides the intended laughter but at times it feels as strained as the world he describes. I feel like the German general in the alpine stream, carried a mile downstream as he fights to land what is believed to be the last salmon in the river, only to have a subordinate plug the fish with two bullets. Wait…maybe I feel like the fish. The absurdity, however, memorably lingers.

In a section (and book) full of absurdity, the drunken party at the Lapland Governor’s palace is both over-the-top and convincing, with national identity easily insulted and irony completely misunderstood. In the meantime, knives flash and German soldiers enter the room on all fours, howling like beasts. All that was missing was Malaparte starting this story with “We were somewhere around Rovaniemi on the edge of the Arctic Circle when the alcohol began to take hold.” Even with overdramatic language at times and surreal scenarios (or maybe because of them), Malaparte manages to portray not just reindeers or soldiers but a large part of the world intent on suicide.

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