Tuesday, 14 October 2014
Malala v malignity, Malaparte the dualist
Of course there are always going to be troll-toads lurking to aim their spit at the dove of progress*, but it came as a shock on the day that Malala Yousafzai had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Indian anti-child slavery campaigner Kailash Satyarthi to find an attack from an official quarter. I won't dignify the Editor of the Pakistan Observer with a name, but it was astonishing to find a supposedly educated man, interviewed on the BBC World Service's Newshour, describing the whole incident of Malala's shooting as a western set-up, asserting that she wasn't even shot and that her father is a sinister manipulator. And Malala herself? 'Just a normal, useless girl'. Well, that says it all. And why give such a creature airtime? Because his views are shared by - or should one say stoked in - thousands around Pakistan.
It's the same old story worldwide: one laughs at the absurdity of such goons, but when they are in positions of power, it's a different matter. Putin, after all, has idiots in place around Russia, as we know from Stephen Fry's interview with the ludicrous St Petersburg homophobe. When ideologies you could knock down with a feather of logical argument become enshrined, lives are at risk. And yes, we have it lurking close to home in the deceptive personage of Nigel Farage.
Frankly I share the view of my old ma who, until our brush with a local Ukip councillor doubling as the taxi driver who ferried us to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for her birthday treat, might have voted for Farage. She keeps telling me how every time Nige appears on the telly she has the urge to 'smash his awful smug face in' (this is figurative, you understand, not a threat of real physical violence). And yet people will still vote for him, even after every week some new fool in the grassroots of his party says something absurd, and even now that he's come out, as it were, with the proposal of banning HIV positive foreigners from entering our sceptred isle (this, it seems, might even have been a jealous hit at the not very prepossessing-looking but presumably slightly brighter Tory MP Douglas Carswell who defected to Ukip and won their first seat in Clacton-on-Sea; Carswell's father was a pioneer in HIV research, and he condemned Farage's cheap trick unreservedly. One can only hope he's a plant to implode Ukip policies).
No coincidence, then, that Clacton Council removed from a town wall the above Aesopian or La Fontaine fable by the great Banksy (as it comes from banksy.org, I assume the reproduction is freely available), one of his best commentaries yet. It's said that people didn't get the real point, but I imagine they got it all too well.
Enough ranting. But it did sadden me, too, to read of the humble Satyarthi's injuries in 34 years of attempting, sometimes successfully, to rescue enslaved children: a broken shoulder, a broken leg and a broken back. Plus the losses of two of his colleagues - 'one was shot dead and one was beaten to death. Most of my junior colleagues have been beaten up many times. So it is not an easy game'.
Two inspiring comments from Satyarthi to wrap up this part of the argument: 'This is a moral examination that one has to pass...to stand up against social evils' and 'India has hundreds of problems and millions of solutions'. The spirit of Gandhi is alive and healthy. By the way, if you haven't done so already, please sign the #upforschool petition.
The connection with a masterpiece of a novel by Italo-German writer Curzio Malaparte, born Kurt Eric Suckert in Prato, may be tenuous. But I get a queasy sense of good and evil, beauty and horror, mixed up in The Skin (La pelle), published in 1949 as an extraordinary literary transfiguration of his experiences as a liaison officer in Naples following the Allied liberation in 1943. I've just read it in a New York Review Books edition which reinstates passages omitted from previous English-language editions (in Italy La pelle was banned by the church for some time). My cover has Luciano Fontana's Concetto Spaziale of 1966, but I like the one above, where the transcendent coincides with the all too mortal just as it does in the book.
At first it seems as if Malaparte is being perverse, almost playing with the paradox of a liberation which is worse for the Neapolitans than the war itself. What does he really think of the rosy, fresh-faced Americans? How disingenuous is he being and what is he making up? Clarification soon comes in the second chapter:
I do not like to see how low man can stoop in order to live. I preferred the war to the 'plague' which, after the liberation, had defiled, corrupted and humiliated us all - men, women and children. Before the liberation we had fought and suffered in order not to die. Now we were fighting and suffering in order to live...It is a humiliating, horrible thing, a shameful necessity, a fight for life. Only for life. Only to save one's skin. It is no longer a fight against oppression, a fight for freedom, for human dignity, for honour. It is a fight for a crust of bread, for a little fuel, for a rag with which to cover the nakedness of one's own children, for a handful of straw on which to lie.
Malaparte cranks up the superb rhetoric and concludes:
The plague had been able to achieve more in a few days than tyranny had done in twenty years of universal humiliation, or war in three years of hunger, grief and atrocious suffering. Those people who bartered themselves, their honour, their bodies and the flesh of their own children in the streets - could they possibly be the same people who a few days before, in those same streets, had given such conspicuous and horrible proof of their courage and fire in face of German opposition?
Malaparte's philosophical games on the edge of politics are perhaps embodied in his biography: an early supporter of Mussolini who soon turned against the dictator in powerful prose, was exiled to the island of Lipari - an era which coincides with a tragic narrative in The Skin about his dog Febo, pictured there with him below
and woven in with the main gist about a dying soldier - and ended up after the war a committed communist. But he is, first and foremost, a deadly serious artist, and his chameleonic tone is what puts The Skin as a work of literature above the mere, if excellent, sometimes selective reportage of Norman Lewis in Naples '44. There is, besides, a metaphysical dimension, a use of Homeric similes and a conscious, often parodistic parallel between the post-war situation and Greek or Roman mythology which, like music, Malaparte knows and describes so well.
There are too many vivid embodiments of his savage irony to cite here, but I'll just touch on the linking of two dazzlingly described gatherings.. The first, in my favourite chapter 'General Cork's Banquet', makes absurd contrasts between the fine, Capodimonte-laden table beneath a fresco by Luca Giordano in the Duke of Toledo's palace and the food served up, including fried Spam and boiled corn which sends Malaparte off on one of his grotesquely enjoyable riffs. 'The ancient and glorious house of Toledo had never witnessed so tragic a humiliation, ' he summarises. He makes fun of the guest of honour, Mrs Flat - a seeming 'monster of purity and virginity' in command of the WACs, and the piece de resistance is the fish course.'The famous Siren from the Aquarium' has been sacrificed, like other prize specimens, 'to General Cork's mental cruelty'. Unfortunately it resembles a dead girl; Malaparte tortures both us and Mrs Flat with the possibility of cannibalism. I can't see it myself in images of the eel-like siren fish, but this superstitious concoction brings us closer to the semi-fantasy:
If that's priceless and relentlessly horrible, almost more so is the way Malaparte takes his revenge on his fellow diners at a camp outside Rome, discussing what's fact and what fiction in his previous novel, Kaputt (about his time on the eastern front, partly resurrected in The Skin. Thankfully Kaputt is also in the NYRB series, and I've ordered it up from Daunt Books). A General Guillaume opines that 'in Kaputt [Malaparte] is pulling his readers' legs'. Malaparte, previously silent, goes into a long and eloquent disquisition about how in his couscous he had discovered the hand of a Moroccan soldier which had just been blown off by a landmine. And ate it. We almost begin to believe him. Then in an aside to his best mate Jack he asks him if he saw 'how skillfully I arranged those little ram's bones on my plate? They looked just like the bones of a hand'.
But it's not all so gruesomely joky. I came to respect and marvel at Malaparte's role as a truth-telling jester of paradox, of the gulf between seeming and being. In the last chapter he transcends his own descent into hell by telling a less brilliant American than Jack: 'it isn't true that Christ saved the world once and for all'.
'Christ died to teach us that every one of us can become Christ, that every man can save the world by his own sacrifice. Christ too would have died in vain if it were not possible for every man to become Christ and to save the world.'
'A man is only a man,' said Jimmy.
'Oh, Jimmy, won't you understand that it isn't necessary for a man to be the Son of God, to rise again from the dead on the third day, and to sit on the right hand of the Father, in order to be Christ? It is those thousands and thousands of dead men who have saved the world, Jimmy.'
Kurt Vonnegut, my recent obsession, who loved the simple message of the Sermon on the Mount, would like that, I think, even if Malaparte has stopped playing the Vonneguttian holy fool. So, I hope, would Malala.
*French proverb which I like, 'La bave du crapaud n'atteint pas la blanche colombe'. The nearest English equivalent, 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me', isn't quite so poetic.