I don’t often read a book twice, but I have just finished reading for the third time one of the most vivid, amusing and touching books to emerge from the Second World War --- Norman Lewis’s diary of his year spent in Naples as a British Intelligence Officer, attached to the Allied Military Government, with the assignment to look out for the interest of the British troops. The book is called Naples ’44, and is widely considered to be his masterpiece from among the 35 books he wrote between 1935 and the year of his death at the age of 95 in 2003 (with yet another book, his last, ready for publication).
His book on his Naples experience was not published until 1978, 34 years after the events, and his last book is about a journey he made through Spain and Portugal 69 years before.
What a remarkable career for a writer whose books had in common that they were an expression of his delight in the human condition, expressed with a modesty so entrenched that he once wrote that he could walk into a room full of people, stay there for some time, and leave before anybody had noticed his presence. In other words, a born observer.
It is remarkable how his prose, while maybe dealing with the events of seven decades before, can still portend to our present times. As a Guardian obituary published right after his death, said, he had been among the first “to witness the idiocy of American policy as it drove countries to embrace communism”, he had foreseen by 15 years the superb efficiency of the aeroplane for bombing communities into oblivion, and he had in another book predicted the brutal dictatorship that was already shaping up in Burma. All of this foresight had not been thrust upon the reader, but had sort of made itself apparent in the detailed descriptions in which he delighted to reveal the basic characteristics of the countries he was visiting, and the peoples he had rubbed up against. Yet for all the acclaim with which his books were greeted, he himself considered that the most important thing he ever wrote was an article in The Sunday Times of London in 1968 about genocide being carried out against Amazonian tribes by the Brazilian government, an article that had resulted in formation of the influential NGO Survival International, which is still working away on the same issues 47 years later.
I found the same revelation, reading again his description of the landing of the American forces at Salerno a day after the signing of an armistice with Italy. The behaviour he describes of American soldiers, falling out of their tanks after retreating from a German counter-offensive, terrified at the possibility that a Panzer division might strike down to cut the landing force in half, their panic leading to them to shoot down three Spitfires and shoot wildly around them at friend and foe alike, with accompanying rumours that the American General Mark Clark was “proposing to abandon the beachhead and had asked the Navy for the Fifth Army to be re-embarked”, made one realize how years later it came about that the Americans, for all the might of their armies, have failed in Vietnam, and have managed to ruin Iraq and Afghanistan years after declaring that their mission was “accomplished.” They are trigger-happy.
What Lewis found when he did reach Naples, and was assigned to look after a ring of small nearby towns, was that the Allied Military Government was being run, in effect, by Vito Genovese, The head man in the American mafia, who had been deported back to his home village somewhere around Naples, and had been eagerly grabbed by the invading army for his knowledge of the language and the local culture. He had used this authority to impose on the whole city and on all surrounding towns, members of the so-called Camorra, a local rival to the more famous Sicilian underworld criminal organization the Mafia. This was all done with the support of the AMG, who turned a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of the Mayors appointed by the underworld in all the small towns where Lewis was active. He describes this behaviour as that of communities whose people were starving, with unemployment of 100 per cent, and in which even the best-paid functionaries were paid a fraction of what an ordinary private in the American Army was paid. He described many examples of well-dressed, respectable-seeming women who would arrive with their teenage (and even younger) daughters, offering them to the responsible soldiery for mere trifles, a can of meat, as bottle of wine, a jacket or blanket. Most of these women would rather have had paying jobs, Lewis observes, and he could not find it in his heart to condemn them, even when they were quite clearly engaged in criminal activities. He describes how the markets were full of goods that had been quite clearly stolen from the Americans, but says that these thefts were on such a scale --- one ship I every four that docked at Naples was skinned clean, he says --- as to be unmanageable by the authorities. Time after time, he describes meetings which, as a law-abiding citizen of a stable industrial country, he would deplore, but he realizes how counter-productive would have been anything he tried to do about it. One of his major jobs was to carry out the vetting of Italian women whom some soldier was hoping to marry. In most cases their determination to marry was caused by their burning desire to escape the poverty in which they were irrevocably trapped.
At the end of his time in Naples, he had this to say: “A year among the Italians had converted me to such an admiration for their humanity and culture that I realize that were I given the chance to be born again and to choose the place of my birth, Italy would be the country of my choice.”
When, just over a year after arriving there, he learned that he was being transferred out, he descibes it thus: “The thunderbolt has fallen. Today I was ordered to prepare to leave immediately for Taranto, to embark on the Reina del Pacifica for Port Said….So I am left with only hours to spare and no time to say goodbye to any of the friends scattered through so many towns. There will be no time for a last glass of marsala with any of the scheming sindacos or the Machiavellian chiefs of police, who have always, for all their innumerable shortcomings, shown hospitality to me as a stranger. There will be no time for a last coffee substitute in the Gran Caffe in the Galleria to say goodbye and good luck to several girls who are virtually fixtures of the place, and bear me no ill-will because I was unable to help them to marry Allied personnel. I realize I have had my last meal at Zi’Teresa’s and will never again shake the gnarled paw of the old aunt herself…”
Such an elegiac farewell, after a year mixing with prostitutes and their pimps, criminals and their underlings, crooked black-marketeers, and the AMG which he had finally to describe as “completely corrupt.”
Wise enough to know he could do nothing to change things, Lewis settled for describing it all in a way that few people engaged in the business of war have ever done. A book that instructs us, without ever seeming to, about the meaning of humanity.