A Wary Declaration of Beauty

I thought I’d never find a new take on the Holocaust and/or World War II, at least in terms of its presentation in fiction or literature. Setting aside the need to keep the memory of that catastrophe alive, it didn’t seem as if there were any further, legitimate angles to explore; that in seeking to keep our attention, one more account of the Greatest Generation or of unforgivable instances of inhumanity could go nowhere other than by upping the violence-and-gruesomeness ante.

And then along came Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt. Admittedly, this isn’t a new novel– but the 1944 account of the author’s sometimes-indifferent, probably-sometimes-not-actual, involvement in a variety of theaters of the war was like nothing else of its genre I’ve read. How Malaparte managed to be unsparing in terms of the depiction of his own often unbelievable impassiveness; how he managed to give war-torn cities and landscapes the same quality of beauty as you might expect from Sven Nykvist’s camera work– well, that skill is beyond me.* Malaparte neither tries to present himself as a hero, nor attempts to make justifications for an often disturbing lack of, well, disturbance in the face of heartlessness and a general devolution into a form of purposeful cruelty animals would never even think of engaging in. He brings the reader into a sort of aestheticized discomfort in watching this author despair on an inner level about and take sly, open digs at the German officials hosting him, while often laughing along, although in what way I’m frequently uncertain, with the pink-faced men carving up a piece of game while people are being brutalized all around them. Maybe it’s evidence of being trapped in an unbelievable situation, and having no idea how to proceed– and/or maybe it’s proof of European civilization being kaputt, left without any human traces of what once was, other than recourse to a certain artistic sentiment.

I had planned to treat this one much more thoroughly, but instead I’ll close by saying that even when I had to put the thing down because I was crying for a number of victims, I thoroughly enjoyed this book– and wonder if I should be disturbed by that fact.


* Dan Hofstadter, in his afterword, finds Malaparte’s methods offensive.


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