Friend and Foe by Tom Parker Bowles
We know nothing,” writes Norman Lewis in Naples ’44, his “
1978 masterpiece of reportage, the account of a British intelligence officer posted into that great and tempestuous Italian city at the fag-end of World War II. The Germans have been driven out, although the city is still battered with air raids which result in “apocalyptic scenes, as people clawed about in the ruins, some of them howling like dogs”. Carnage is everywhere, bodies decimated into “a lake of spilled stew” while delayed-action bombs, left by the retreating enemy, leave “bodies scattered all over the street”.
Chaos is the common currency, corruption as endemic as disease. As the population starves, driven to grubbing for roots, cats and bitter leaves, thievery blooms, “everything from telegraph poles to phials of penicillin”. Ships are lifted from the sea and spirited away, even statues stolen from public squares. It is a place “literally tumbling about our ears”, where tragedy and farce hustle for space in its maze of backstreets, and sex is on sale for a tin of corned beef.
In the countryside around “this anthill of humanity”, marauding bands of FrenchAlgerian deserters force mass rape upon the female population. Child prostitution is rife, along with vendettas, blood feuds and one-lira betrayal. Lewis and his fellow Field Security Service (FSS) officers are supposed to be tracking down fascist traitors, but the system is a joke. “Justice was never seen to be done,” he sighs, “and if there were ever a place where it was on sale, it was Naples.”
Corruption taints both sides alike. The Allies loot and steal with insouciant aplomb. In one trial, a defendant tells the judge, “With respect, your honour, Americans or Germans, it’s all the same. We’ve been screwed by both of them.” There are no goodies and baddies, no pat distinction between invader and saviours.
At the start of the book, landed blind at Salerno in 1943, they march towards Naples, alongside American troops. Lewis despairs of the “ineptitude and cowardice spreading down from the [Allied] command”, the Spitfires shot down by friendly fire, the “bloodchilling screams” from men hit by the bullets of their own side. He sees the beauty of the southern Italian landscape, “apple orchards full of glowing fruit, and olive groves haunted by multitudes of brilliant blue grasshoppers”. And beauty, even, in the heavy shelling, “a massive explosion opened up like a pink sea anemone with wavering feelers of fire”. When a German tank crew is reduced to “a puddle of fat”… “it’s quilted with brilliant flies of all descriptions and colours”.
Lewis’s cool, detached prose is the very opposite of this baroque and labyrinthine place. Yet he is miles removed from the supercilious creature of empire, blinded by the puff of patriotism, or misplaced moral superiority. “The Germans only murder the poor in these indiscriminate [air] raids, just as we did,” he notes. He is a humane, empathetic, eloquent guide, never ceasing to applaud the fundamental kindness and generosity of the Italians, willing to help escaped soldiers, both friend and foe. He has a keen sense of irony. And a sly sense of humour, too. The horrors of war do little to stem the Neapolitan passion. He delights in describing the horizontal exertions of an endlessly priapic population. “Neapolitans take their sex lives very seriously indeed.” They sure do.
The lascivious Lola takes an English lover, the cadaverous Captain Frazer, a few years her junior, along with daily injections to “keep her sexual powers at their peak”. She boasts that her late husband “never failed to have intercourse with her less than six times a night”, and has
a habit, “which terrified Frazer, of keeping an eye on the bedroom clock while he performed”. Or the Old Marchesa, between 50 and 60, “laden with jewellery, yellowed with fever” and smoking a pipe. She bribes teenage urchins to go on a ride with her. Where they are seduced and paid 50 lire for their work.
There’s Professor Placella, “whose speciality is the restoration of virginity. He boasts that his replacement hymen is much better than the original.” Not forgetting Professore Dottore Salerno, the midget gynaecologist “said to employ a tiny stepladder” to go about his work. These characters are affectionally drawn, the sort you’d find celebrated later in the films of Fellini and Pasolini. “The sexual attitudes of Neapolitans never fail to produce new surprises.”
Food is the only thing that rivals sex. Because this, “for the Neapolitans, comes even before love, and its pursuit is equally insatiable and ingenious”. They eat everything, through desperation, from baby storks and chicken heads to limpets prised off the harbour’s rocks. Plus the entire tropical fish collection of the famed city aquarium. Even the manatee, “boiled and served with a garlic sauce” to welcome an American general. “Nothing, absolutely nothing that can be tackled by the human digestive system is wasted in Naples.” There’s a gleeful ingenuity, a vital soul, a lust for life unbowed by the chaos and corruption.
Naples is also the most superstitious of cities, in thrall to its patron, Saint Gennaro. “Everywhere there is a craving for miracles and cures.” And every year, they wait for his blood to turn from solid to liquid. “A good miracle is one in which the blood liquefies quickly.” If it fails, the city falls into despair and gloom.
In contrast, Lewis rarely lets sentiment colour his prose. But sometimes, the stoic facade cracks. On seeing a bunch of young blind girls begging in a restaurant, he expects the diners to cease eating and come to their aid. They don’t. “Until now I had clung on 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… I would never recover from the memory of it.”
Yet this is a book of hope, not horror, a paean to the city’s eternal resilience. “It is astonishing to witness the struggles of a city so shattered, so deprived of all those things that justify a city’s condition… everyone adapts and improvises.” He revels in the joys of spring, when “everyone shouts, gesticulates and sings snatches of mournful love songs such as ‘Ammore Busciardo’.” There are trips to the autumnal woods to gather mushrooms, and shoot songbirds, and picnic on mozzarella and salami. Passion and pleasure flows through this city like lava from Vesuvius.
Sure, as an Englishman, an outsider, he’ll never truly understand its customs. And he regrets, at the end, his moral inflexibility, seeing bribes as immoral, rather than a “routine gesture of courtesy”. But the book is both harrowing reportage and a lyrical love letter to this most magnificent of cities. “For ten centuries, the invading armies have come and gone. Foreign kings have ruled in Naples, and enslaved its people. Revolutions have been drowned in blood. But nothing of this has made the slightest impression on the imagination or memory of the common man…” Life carries on regardless, a triumph of the city’s spirit. “Naples is extraordinary in every way,” he says at one point. As, indeed, is Naples ’44.