The Skin

No discussion of “The Skin”, a novel published in 1949, should start without first debating the case of its author, Curzio Malaparte. This because the novel, like so much of Malaparte’s productions, suggests the biographical experience of the writer: it corrupts it, adorns it and highlights whatever is most beneficial to the author’s ego. Malaparte, whose trademark as a writer is exaggeration, was a controversial character; his writings, often bordering on the grotesque or the nauseatingly sweet, or the extremely cynical, transform every incident into a theatrical pièce. Such are this writer’s high places and low, who threaded on unnaturally lightly through his own eventful times. A canvasser of the ego, a charming bourgeois intellectual playing the devil’s advocate with himself.

“The Skin”, written in the first person, traces the boundaries of defeat and sketches the pornographics portrait of the defeated. The writer paints a picture of Italy in ruins, where, at the tail end of WWII, the US forces occupy Naples. In a city that becomes a symbol for all those other cities that were thread-on and injured, Malaparte the officer is its embittered, cynically angry voice; he is also the voice of the horror and pity we should strive to preserve in the face of all ill-fated wars, internal and external.
The novel is full of bad taste, arrogance, excessive images and pornographically exhibited particulars: from a human bone in a shoe, uniforms stained with blood and dwarves in alleyways to a child-virgin, the blond-haired pubic wigs worn by the prostitutes to attract US black soldiers and many, many others. To all this must be added Malaparte’s sentences, beautifully descriptive of the aggressively hot Neapolitan landscapes and of the picturesque urban heap of the city, but also of that extraordinary glimpse into a modern cour de miracles that is the Neapolitan people. This coupling of obscene, almost trash material and masterly exhibition of beauty is what makes Malaparte’s style so memorable. After all what is life, if not both obscene and beautiful at the same time?

Liliana Cavani directed a film based on the novel in 1981, with a cast of stars such as Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale and Burt Lancaster. The film is an exercise in provocation: at its best, it is discreetly powerful in transposing the novel’s most sensational and brazen scenes, and it paints an effective picture of such a humiliation of defeated people as is often ignored by history books. Naples is the perfect setting for such a picture. After all, as Malaparte said and Cavani undoubtedly undeerstood: “Christ was Neapolitan”. A Christ that is martyred, crucified and derided, but that, like the people of Naples and more in general the people of Italy, is always resurrected.

Translation by Allison Steenson (edited by Philip Askew)