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From Perfumed Arcadia to Dantean Hell – Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis

As a species, we do have a revolting fascination with war. Men – and it is mostly men – have been fighting, and writing about fighting, from the year dot. To the extent that a literary genre focusing so intensely on man’s destruction of his fellows can be called distinguished, war literature has a proud record. At the risk of getting completely carried away by Herodotus, who notched up an impressive list of firsts, from pioneering forays into history, travel writing and anthropology to début stabs at geography and tabloid journalism, one can argue that his masterpiece Histories, written in the fifth century BC, marks the first instance of page-turning war reporting. The trick of a good war book, lest the writer become too excited by all that blood and guts and killing, may be to bear in mind Herodotus’ maxim, ‘No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace – in peace sons bury fathers but in war fathers bury sons.’

From Herodotus and Thucydides’ time to the present day, the war book has been with us, an ever-present literary companion to the massacres on the battlefield. The twentieth century, that cauldron of slaughter, brought us All Quiet on the Western Front, Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Birdsong to mark ‘the war to end all wars’. For Vietnam there was Michael Herr’s visceral, free-styling Dispatches and, more recently, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and Patrick Hennessey’s The Junior Officers’ Reading Club to commemorate the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan respectively.

The Second World War’s outstanding book is surely Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis, whom Graham Greene considered ‘one of our best writers, not of any particular decade but of our century’. I took it to Iraq with me in 2004 and found its humanity, honesty and hilarity instantly compelling. During the darker days, it was strangely comforting to realise that there is little new in conflict. From ‘friendly fire’ and war profiteers to prostitution and petty bureaucracy, it has all been seen before.

Much of war is tragedy and farce, and Lewis has the reporter’s eye to observe it in
telling detail, matched with a writer’s ability to set it out in prose that is by turns laconic, angry and arresting. Naples ’44 finds him appointed an intelligence officer in the Field Security Service, having escaped ‘the drudgery of delivering army-style, pay-attention-you-fuckers lectures’ and joined the invasion convoy bound for Salerno, attached to the headquarters staff of the American Fifth Army. General Clark, ‘the destroying angel of Southern Italy’, has reduced much of the region to scorched despair, though the smaller towns have escaped bombing: ‘The only visible damage to most villages had been the inevitable sack of the post office by the vanguard of the advancing troops, who seem to have been philatelists to a man.’

Bureaucracy is one of the lead villains in these pages. The mystified Lewis marvels at the ever-expanding ‘Black Book’ of suspects, teeming with same-surname families – ‘Espositos and Gennaros turn up by the hundred’ – and ‘poetic idiocies’ galore. Like all good intelligence officers, he gets dirt under his fingernails and forges relationships with an extraordinary cast of characters. These include comic cameos like Professor Placella who has a profitable and unusual line in surgery. ‘He boasts that his replacement hymen is much better than the original, and that – costing only 10,000 lire – it takes the most vigorous husband up to three nights to demolish it.’

Lewis inspires confessions in friends, colleagues and acquaintances. As the confidant of an anxious British officer and his voracious Neapolitan lover he does his best to help with affairs of the heart – and of the bed.

She had made him understand by gestures one could only shudderingly imagine that her late husband – although half-starved, and even when in the early stages of tuberculosis from which he died – never failed to have intercourse with her less than six times a night. She also had a habit, which terrified Frazer, of keeping an eye on the bedside clock while he performed. I recommended him to drink – as the locals did – marsala with the yolks of eggs stirred into it, and to wear a medal of San Rocco, patron of coitus reservatus, which could be had in any religious-supplies shop.

More often than not, sex does not equate to romance in Lewis’s wartime Naples. Extreme poverty and near-starvation have reduced many women to prostitution. War corrupts everyone it touches. Among the many cinematic set-pieces is the ghastly scene in a vast municipal building where working-class housewives have gathered to offer their bodies in return for tins of army food.

The women kept absolutely still, they said nothing, and their faces were as empty of expression as graven images. They might have been selling fish, except that this place lacked the excitement of a fish market. There was no soliciting, no suggestion, no enticement, not even the discreetest and most accidental display of flesh. The boldest of the soldiers had pushed themselves, tins in hand, to the front, but now, faced with these matter-of-fact family-providers driven here by empty larders, they seemed to flag. Once again reality had betrayed the dream and the air fell limp.

Lewis’s Naples is an inferno of suffering. Unthinkable shortages of food and water carry off the weak, the young and the elderly. Families have lost their clothes and possessions in the indiscriminate bombings. Strange apparitions stalk the streets dressed in whatever comes to hand, ‘a man in an old dinner-jacket, knickerbockers and army boots’, women in dresses made from curtains. The Neapolitan aristocracy has been reduced to draughty, high-ceilinged apartments in their once grand palazzos. At best, furniture is a rickety table, a chair and a bed. Food is almost non-existent. Lewis gets to know Vincente Lattarullo, a penniless, unemployed lawyer who becomes a stalwart friend. He can only afford to eat once a day, ‘a little bread dipped in olive oil, into which was rubbed a tomato’. Even to pay for this he must double up as a Zio di Roma, acting as ‘an uncle from Rome’ to add patrician glamour to provincial funerals.

With their lives disintegrating, Neapolitans take refuge in superstition. They queue to implore the help of saints and worry that the blood of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, may not liquefy as it does every year. ‘Naples has reached a state of nervous exhaustion when mass hallucination has become a commonplace, and belief of any kind can be more real than reality.’

War brings out the worst in many of those in Lewis’s forensic field of view. Denunciations are a daily, diary-filling event. Many, perhaps most, are false and entirely malevolent. Official cruelty lurks everywhere. Lewis hears the scarcely credible news that American soldiers of the 45th Division have been ordered ‘not only to take no German prisoners, but to use the butts of their rifles to beat to death those who try to surrender’. Officers mull half-baked plans to send syphilitic prostitutes to infect customers in the German-occupied north. The pettiness, small-mindedness, inhumanity and corruption of the occupation are recurring themes.

Lewis has a gimlet-eyed appreciation of the futility of his work. Appointed as head of security for a number of small towns within the orbit of Naples, he notes that all fall within the territory of the deadly Camorra. ‘The task is a hopeless one, and it would be demoralising to take it too seriously,’ not least because military officers at the very highest level are up to their necks, in partnership with the Camorra, in the black-market racket.

Suffering falls on young and old alike. Empty-stomached boys jumping into the back of supply lorries to raid rations have their fingers hacked off by American bayonets. On 1 November 1943, contemplating a menu offering either disguised dogfish or horsemeat, Lewis watches a group of blind orphan girls enter the restaurant scavenging for food. Each child is sobbing.

The experience changed my outlook. Until now I had clung to the comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow. Now I understood I was wrong, and like Paul I suffered a conversion – but to pessimism. These little girls, any one of whom could be my daughter, came into the restaurant weeping, and they were weeping when they were led away. I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly. They would never recover from their pain and I would never recover from the memory of it.

Yet this nascent pessimism cannot undermine Lewis’s innate humanity. He is forever going the extra mile – sometimes literally – to help the beleaguered civilian population around him, bending rules to prevent the horrifyingly casual imposition of martial law death penalties, smuggling food to friends and always struggling against the miscarriage of justice.

In Naples ’44 we see the horrors of war, together with its dangerous allure and unrepeatable intensity. Perhaps it was this life-changing experience that helped propel Lewis into a lifetime of far-flung reporting from dangerous parts and an admirable career championing the underdog. In 1968, his coruscating Sunday Times article ‘Genocide’ exposed the Brazilian government’s criminal treatment of the country’s indigenous tribes – mass murder, torture, sexual abuse, land theft – and led, a year later, to the foundation of Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples.

The roots of this outrage at man’s inhumanity can surely be traced back to Lewis’s time in Naples, a ‘perfumed Arcadia’ reduced by war to a Dantean hell.

Justin Marozzi is writing a history of Baghdad, where he has spent much of the past seven years. He is still hoping to turn his hand to war satire one of these days.

Norman Lewis, Naples ’44 (1978)
Eland • Pb • 192pp • £10.99 • ISBN 9780907871729