EPS Review #177 - Naples '44

Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy, by Norman Lewis, Eland, 1983(1978), 189pp.

This book is perennially on our book-club list, but not quite chosen, so I finally just read it. It is short and in diary form, but not a slave to chronology -- it is more vignettes of Naples as the allies pushed back the Germans.

Lewis was a UK intelligence officer, tagging along with the US forces. The first shock is the cowardice and corruption of those forces, at least for somebody who grew up watching noble WWII movies in black-and-white. For example, The US general orders that all surrendering Germans be beaten to death.

But the biggest shock is the Italians, who are not the Under the Tuscan Sun sort of backdrop for fine-dining vacationers and second-home owners. They are starving, and they are very foreign. Lewis sees many brutal fates. Here he watches some blind orphans:

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 [unfed]. 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.

Just when I thought that all Mr Lewis was going to do in his military career was observe, he decided to try arresting one of the big black-market mafia types. The US army had made a point of sending Italian-Americans to this theater of war, which only served to strengthen the underworld links. Of course the prisoner is released. Lewis later wrote a book on the mafia.

At one point Lewis's welcome wears out in one small town, and to avert the evil eye the local men start surreptitiously touching their testicles whenever they see him.

More medieval behavior:

It was dark by the time we returned to the office. On our way back I noticed zigzagging points of light and occasionally small showers of sparks in the sky and pointed these out to the Marshal. He explained that the boys caught bats, tied rags soaked in petrol to them, set light to the rags and then let them go. He was full of praise for the ingenuity with which they made their own small pleasures, but acknowledged with regret that the petrol had probably been stolen out of someone's tank.

Lewis often remarks that he has gone more native (and loves Italy more) than his colleagues. For example, he was taken off international-marriage-vetting duty after he approved too many. Yet he remarks (18 Aug) on his unwillingness to eat pasta (or was this for hygiene reasons?). He hides his true self behind art, and fair enough.

On looking through my bookcases, I see that I have quite a number of the author's books. I remember reading A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam a long time ago, but not much about it. One book about a more modern Italy that I enjoyed was Tim Parks's Italian Neighbors

Paul wrote: Cheery quote to read on a Monday morning. I'll just go and off myself, then! Sheesh.

So thinking more about your claim that there are no books about offices, this book is actually (1) really rather good [ in a first novel literary kinda way ] and (2) about office life completely. I would recommend it.

Also, and I can't beleive I forgot this, there is the television program "The Office" which is, indeed, about office life.

I'm reading a bit of non fiction now but rather enjoyed Matter. It was a 'rollicking good time' and I thought the ending was about right. Not great, not terrible. I also finished Perdido St Station which was grimmer than I enjoy my books generally.