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.


David Damant said...

Whereas ( in so far as I can judge) the Swedish awards in the various fields of science etc seem appropriate, the Nobel Prize for Peace awarded by Norway has often seemed inappropriate ( often showing rather superficial judgement). Not however the one to Malala. Well done.

Mr Carswell now of UKIP said that people
generally felt that all politicians are the same, and they do not deliver. It is true that the different politicians are constrained by the same realities when in power, whatever their basic philosophies. But what he should have added is that the problems arising from those realities are not susceptible of clear solutions. The economy, immigration, the NHS, the benefits budget etc - each is a complex skein of constraints. To take no action looks incompetent and any action is likely to be controversial, leading to excited and often stupid coverage in the media. I fear that one element in the attraction of UKIP is that they believe that clear decisions can be made with success, if we can only get away from the Westminster waffle. It is a delusion but regretfully very attractive. "At last a party that can act like ordinary and sensible men and women" In a sense this is a separate attraction from any actual policies adopted by UKIP, though of course the two are entwined

David said...

Malala AND Kailash equally, let's be clear: it sends out the right message that children around the world cannot be oppressed in a situation that seems to be gettng worse (and slavery is a boom industry, shame on us humans).

Of course it's the failure of Westminster to be seen to care, and the woeful lack of charisma among its politicians, which have given Ukip the protest vote. Frankly I don't see how anyone can be fooled by Farage's so-called charisma either, but obviously thousands feel differently.

Susan Scheid said...

It was heartening to see Malala and Kailash receive the prize, a perfect pairing on so many levels, and to shine a bright light on their hope-filled work so important. (I've signed the petition, of course, and thanks for noting it.)

The French proverb (new to me) is a perfect lead-in for what follows, and yes, why did that despicable troll-toad receive air time? Of course, it happens all the time over here, and there are troll-toads aplenty lining up ready to spit.

I can't speak to UKIP directly, but certainly recognize its characteristics in the Tea Party in the US, and David D's comment, "I fear that one element in the attraction of UKIP is that they believe that clear decisions can be made with success" rings true for me.

As for the Malaparte, I'm very glad to have your prĂ©cis of this book, which I bought not long ago, started in on and set aside—some external distraction, I suspect. I do remember being baffled by the book's point of view (ironic, of course, but toward what end I couldn't quite grasp). I must try again.

David said...

What enrages me about the continuing rise of Ukip is how the public continually ignores horror after horror in their hopes that a magic wand might be waved. I hope the British common sense may eventually prevail, but maybe places like Clacton and other seaside breeding-grounds for xenophobia are too far gone, and distrust (justified) of Westminster too strong. Russell Brand, the far-left equivalent, is almost as bad with his 'don't vote'. Put him in Russia or Belarus for a year so that he can see how democracy, however flawed, should be properly fought for.

Malaparte provokes such extreme reactions. I was almost reconciled to the idea that he's a philosopher-Mensch who uses paradox and horror to provoke thought when I read Dan Hoftadter's afterword to Kaputt, which I picked up this afternoon from Daunt Books in the City (a fatal browsing-then-buying zone after my weekly Barbican appointments). He thinks Malaparte was a narcissistic opportunist who makes up some events so that he can be placed at the centre. Certain historical facts about his behaviour in 1941, when he thought Hitler would win the war, go against him too. Well, Kaputt may be different from The Skin, let's see, but I still feel that by the time of the later 'faction' a blistering morality had emerged. Whatever the case, it's great, challenging, ambiguous literature.

David Damant said...

As regards the reputation of politicians, what do we know of them apart from how they are handled by the media ? Very little ! They are pressurised and they have to be careful with every word. That dreadful men Humphrys on the Today programme says that his job is to get politicians to say something they do not mean to say. He is accusing them of deceitfulness whereas it is he that is corrupt in that assumption. The girl on Today this morning accused the former Environment Secretary of saying what he did say as a result of sour grapes having been fired. Why not look at what he said? The further trouble is that the media people think that they are doing a good job. And if they adopted an approach of careful analysis rather than aggression we should get more out of the politicians and be able to judge their moral qualities properly.

David said...

Equally, it's sad that many journalists, including those in the left-leaning press, think Farage is a good bloke because he buys them drinks at the pub. He gets way too much column and picture space in the Grauniad, for instance.

Despise Humphrys' technique - Paxman was almost as bad. The ridiculous bulldogish cutting across the middle of the interviewee's reply is intolerable. No wonder politicians are always saying 'let me finish'. Stephen Sackur's brief on Hard Talk is frankly ridiculous: ie this is Hard Talk so I have to play the role of Hard Man

David Damant said...

David - your remark about " a magic wand ".....in a way people (generally) have a subconscious feeling that if only ......and as I have said there is no clear solution to most political problems.....no magic wand.

The trouble with charisma is that anyone having it and gaining power as a result may do all the wrong things.

David said...

Indeed - and once in a while charisma and political/diplomatic genius do combine. Pace our e-conversation, they seem to have done so in Pope Francis, whatever the synod may do to hold him back. And bearing in mind, of course, that there are certain tenets that may seem crazy to us agnostics that the Catholic Church will never shift.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Interesting about Malaparte. I think I picked up a whiff of that somewhere, too, now you mention it, and it put me off a bit. I felt queasy following along. But you're right, no matter his own intention, the resulting may well be better than the man.

We could do with a magic wand of another sort here in New York about now. I am so distressed about the fracas around Klinghoffer, I can't tell you--and now Guiliani, an exemplar of a misuser of power (if not charisma . . . hard for me to think of him that way) has announced he'll be heading the demonstrations at the Met (opening night is tomorrow). I can't bear it. There is absolutely no chance for rational discussion here. I see it as akin to the Tea Party/UKIP mentality. The Death of Common Sense.

David said...

Giuliani? You're kidding me. There's only one question for him: 'have you actually seen or heard it?' For as Gelb points out, no-one among the protesters seems to have bothered. This puts them, in one way at least, on the level of those who proclaimed the fatwah against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses.

And as Gelb points out, if he as a Jew finds nothing but intelligent, compassionate thought in a masterpiece, why should others have a problem? The other point, which is so obvious, is that if you put hatespeech into the mouth of the haters, it doesn't mean you share it, very far from it.

The world in a time of trouble has gone completely nuts.

And was there any trouble here when it was staged a couple of years ago? Not a bit. Though I am ashamed of Maureen Lipman and co attacking the Tricycle for its wish to stay clear of partisanship and not accept Israeli state money for sponsorship of its Jewish Film Festival. That meant her joining the odious Melanie Phillips ('if you can't think of something nice to say about someone, it's probably Melanie Phillips'). You're lucky not to know about that one. Anyway, what can one do but cry shame and ignorance on such people.

wanderer said...

As usual, the protest has backfired I think and more than would otherwise be expected now know about the opera, about John Adams, and that the work is a serious look into the machinations of terror, the mentality of those resorting to it, and its consequences.

It was Robert McNamara who said if you want to win a war first understand your opponent. Blind hysteria achieves nothing while betraying all the weaknesses opponents will exploit.

The conductor is the American David Robertson, who is close to Mr Adams, and, by the way, the music director and chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

David said...

Robertson also played a key role at the BBC Symphony Orchestra; I shared a Discovering Music with him on Prokofiev Five, of which he gave an excellent interpretation, I thought. He has an incredible mind for digesting new scores quickly.

All this fuss, unfortunately, seems to be AROUND DoK, but if it leads people to go see/buy the recordings of it, so much the better.

wanderer said...

Well they wont be seeing the HD of this; it's been pulled.

David said...

Yes, we had heard; that was the beginning of the slippery slope for Gelb. The hounds will always want more blood. But there's a good DVD directed by Penny Woolcock, who gave us - chalk and cheese - a surprisingly successful production of The Pearl Fishers at ENO.

Susan Scheid said...

"Slippery slope" is right. I have to say that I see Gelb, beholden to some big donors applying pressure, I assume, as part of the problem, for pulling the HD (which also means, I believe, that there will be no DVD of the Met performance). Woolcock's film is excellent, and thank goodness it exists. Wanderer's quote is apt, "It was Robert McNamara who said if you want to win a war first understand your opponent," though I'm not so sure the protest has backfired. About that, we shall soon see. Robertson is wonderful; how I would have loved to hear you, David, and he discussing Prokofiev's 5.

David said...

La Cieca's Parterre can be snarky, parochial and sometimes plain dull - what's with the irrelevant stream of not-even-special-anniversary birthdays put up by 'windycityman'? - but the long, clear expostions of what happened inside the Met at the Klinghoffer premiere are all extremely eloquent: read the latest page of comments

And that Discovering Music, Sue, is one of those rare BBC Radio 3 survivals - link here. Robertson's complete performance is also on that page.

Susan Scheid said...

Thank you for both links. Tommasini has given a wonderful review of the premiere in the New York Times, too. It's certainly high time we got to discussing the opera, instead of the circus around it. Not able to play the BBC Discovering Music segment, but I'm hoping it's just a glitch, and I'll try again anon.

David said...

'Tommasini' and 'wonderful' should not usually appear in the same sentence, but if he found merit in it, I'm glad. La Cieca has now put up a fuller report - excellent - by John Yohalem which is good enough for me.

Maybe certain Radio 3 things can't be accessed in the States, however long they've been there.

wanderer said...

Yohalem's is very good isn't it, and I also found this approach especially rewarding.

David said...

Excellent indeed, wanderer; so many thanks for linking to that. Rabbi Epstein's report is, I think, the best of all - though again her comment about the vicious circle of not seeing it and not allowing it to be seen overlooks the fact that any of these people could have got hold of the CDs or the DVD if they wanted to know what they were talking about. I also feel with the commenter who opines that these doctrinaire bullies have not so much brought America to its knees as scotched any chance of a realistic solution re Palestine - nothing can change there without America's collective will.

Now, anyone got anything more to say about Malaparte? I'm some way into Kaputt now and it feels rather more self-conscious to me, as if CM were finding his way to making his chimerical style seem effortless (which for me it mostly is in The Skin).

Susan Scheid said...

With apologies, I haven't got further in Malaparte, so can't comment further on that. (Sorry to go off point again here, but I'll be brief: Tommasini has grown in my esteem, and his DoK review is one, but not the only, reason why. I'm looking forward to spending more time with The Guardian piece, and Mark Swed and George Grella have both written fiercely intelligent reviews. It's good to see. J & I go 11/1, and have just picked up a ticket for 11/11, too.)

On matters closer to your home, on TAD, I've just finished reading and left a comment on your Nott Q&A. Very interesting and wide-ranging discussion, with, as usual, perceptive questions guiding the discussion throughout. Also, may I let the trumpets sound that your piece on BBC Radio 3 about Prokofiev's Fifth is simply sensational? So grateful you alerted me to that. Finally, the quartet-lab concert about which you wrote on TAD sounds to have been quite interesting, flaws and all. Yes, it would have been fun to be there live, and heartening to know of the younger audience taking it all in and having such a good time.

David said...

Thanks as always, Sue, and thanks too for commenting on the Nott interview over on TAD. Your responses always have validity in that you pick up on details which strike you - and I would agree with you re the comment about Lachenmann and form.

You've already done your bit re Malaparte. I've just been reeling from a stupendous chapter on horses frozen in lake Ladoga - one of those Malapartian visions the veracity of which one questions. There must be photos of the horses' heads above the ice, if it happened. Shall go and check now.

When you say 'the first Klinghoffer', was that Sellars' staging reaching New York? I suppose I could check up the details, but quicker to ask you (don't feel obliged to respond). Having been ill during the ENO run, I've only experienced it live once, in concert at the Barbican, and remember being hugely impressed by the opening and underwhelmed by the Marilyn Klinghoffer conclusion (performed though it was by a favourite singer, Catherin Wyn Rogers). Martens seems to have nailed it.

Susan Scheid said...

Yes, when it first came to NYC to BAM. I have only dim memories of the production at this point. It does sound, from all accounts, as if Martens nails it, and that's essential, isn't it? I'll let you know.

Susan Scheid said...

Couple things: thanks for your kind words on the TAD comment, though I wish I would remember to close quotes! A bad habit of mine, with parentheticals, too. Also, off on DoK again, but is Eli Valley the rabbi, writing in the Guardian? Anyway, his comments are tremendous. Lastly, just discovered that Martens is a Hudson Valley girl. Needless to say, I'll be routing for her . . .

David said...

Thanks for the gentle correction, Sue. I was referring to Kayla Epstein, who doesn't seem to be a rabbi, but stands for the Orthodox Jewish community of New York. Whether Eli Valley - whose comments are also interesting - is a rabbi I've also no idea. His story of the little old ladies near the front is rather shocking.

If I'd have been there I'd like to have asked each and every protester 'have you seen or heard The Death of Klinghoffer?' I think we know that the majority, if not all, would have said no.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the Malaparte yet, but I really don't think you can refer to Norman Lewis's 'Naples '44' as 'mere....reportage'. I'd say it was way beyond that. Do you remember the vivid and tragic picture of the little blind girls?

David said...

Actually I don't. But maybe 'mere' was wrong; I'd just say that it is reporting of the highest order without literary pretensions beyond the level of clarity (no mean literary feat in itself). Malaparte pretends, sometimes, but he hits extraordinary heights and almost visionary juxtapositions which are hyper-sophisticated (just occasionally too sophisticated for their own good). If you'd read both, you might understand more what I mean.