Destination: Naples, Italy
Book: Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth by Norman Lewis
Have you discovered the British travel writer Norman Lewis? Between 1938 and 2003, he published 23 travel books and 15 novels that can serve as travel books. I owe my discovery of Lewis to the manager of an inn on St. Lucia. Being British, he was quite astounded that I, a travel writer, did not know Norman Lewis’ work. He was quite right.
As a young soldier, Lewis was dispatched to (actually practically abandoned in) Naples after the Allies had driven out the German forces, but before the German army had left Rome. A fact that complicated communications greatly, and gave a job to Lucky Luciano, who later became a Mafia chief in America.
The high command scarcely knew what to do with this situation. One example of the idiocy that the occupation forces had to deal with. The people were starving. One of their mainstays before the war had been fishing. But the army declared that no small boats could venture into the bay. So the fishermen lashed together doors to make a raft. The land was bare for several miles around the town, as the people walked out each day to harvest every blade of grass and stalk of weed to eat, sometimes having to walk ten miles for a couple of handfuls. Much of the book deals with the lack of food.
Italian culture has enough inexplicable quirks on its own, as was pointed out ably in Italy Out of Hand. Pile on top of that decisions by military brass miles, if not continents away, and the friction between American and British forces and you have a situation both tragic and comic. Sometimes I thought of Naples ’44 as the true forerunner of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 or the TV show M.A.S.H, except that Naples ’44 is not fiction. Lewis lived through this. The people of Naples lived through it, amazingly.
I did not visit Naples when I was in Italy, but this books makes me want to go back, wander the streets and wonder at the resiliency of people. A reader’s comment on Amazon caught my eye. The reader, from Naples, wrote “The way people live then and now has not changed. Minus having sex in the cemetery.” The book, from page to page, is filled with moments that catch your attention like that second sentence.
One paragraph, particularly, made me pause and think about the aftermath of war.…I have arrived at a time when, in their hearts, these people must be thoroughly sick and tired of us. A year ago we liberated them from the Fascist Monster, and they still sit doing their best to smile politely at us, as hungry as ever, more disease-ridden than ever before, in the ruins of their beautiful city where law and order have ceased to exist. And what is the prize that is to be eventually won? The rebirth of democracy. The glorious prospect of being able one day to choose their rulers from a list of Powerful men, most of whose corruptions are generally known and accepted with weary resignation. The days of Benito Mussolini must seem like a lost paradise compared with this.
Photograph by Ginaluca Ruggiero, Rome.