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In September 1943 Norman Lewis, an officer with the Field Security Service, a division of the Intelligence Corps of the British Army, sailed with the American 5th Army to Salerno as part of the force which was to invade Italy. With the 5th Army HQ he landed at dawn at Paestum, and hauled his motorbike into scenery of great antiquity and beauty and a region filled with all the chaos, panic and irrationality of war.
Although they landed with the Americans and were ostensibly there as a kind of intelligence back up unit for the 5th Army, Lewis and his fellow officers in the FSS were treated as hangers on and left to their own devices. They found an abandoned farmhouse in which they made themselves comfortable for a while and they dreamed away a few days contemplating the nearby Greek temples while they waited for the invasion forces to push on to Naples. All the while, Italian soldiers were limping home along the roads and railway lines to the south, Americans were setting up makeshift offices and hospital tents along the coast and German bombers were worrying the invading forces and their massive convoy of ships.
This book, ‘Naples ‘44’ is Norman Lewis’s diary of his time in and around Naples from September 1943 to October 1944. He was part of a kind of police-force come liaison group and his job was counter intelligence. He found himself trying to put a stop to black marketeering and generally ducking, diving and negotiating with everyone around him in order to further the allied cause and impose stability on the region. As if Naples were not already exotic enough, the madness that accompanies war, and especially the period in which one regime is falling and another one gradually being established, meant that sorting out who was who and what was what in Naples in 1944 was often a surreal process.
Lewis found himself coming up against members of the Mafia who were being fast-tracked back into the country from exile by American authorities who took them too much at face value as victims of Mussolini’s regime and all round sound anti-Fascists. He interviewed a teenage German Hitlerite bent upon martyrdom. He witnessed the arrest of a criminal whose mistress had betrayed him to the authorities, and was horrified to learn of her probable fate. But most of all he came into contact with the starving: starving fathers who were willing to prostitute their daughters for food; families who walked for miles into the countryside in order to dig up any edible plant they could find; a starving gentleman who never admitted that he was hungry but who wobbled as he walked and had to rest every few paces and who made an occasional few lire by posing as an aristocratic Roman uncle at funerals.
Every anecdote in this book gives us another taste of this fabulous city and region. Naples is filled with Baroque architecture, and this book is filled with the Baroque grotesque-ness of the aftermath of war. Families live out their lives at tables in the narrow streets, or over flickering fires on the shores of the sparkling bay, buildings crumble, a crack troop of Germans might be hiding in the catacombs ready to spring out and attack, a respectable woman asks for help disposing of a German corpse she has buried in her back garden.
Norman Lewis writes of all of this with such simple and resonant prose that I know I will never forget many of his anecdotes. Some of the characters that he met or encountered, even the ones who are not named, are still people that I worry or wonder about. Lewis has a huge gift for delineating, often in only a single sentence, a situation or an event. A lot of what he mentions in this book is horrific, some of it is hilarious, all of it is sharply and economically described. He is one of those writers whose sentences you sometimes have to read over and over again just to make sure that you have caught every nuance, and yet his writing is always clear and never convoluted. I found Norman Lewis a likeable, if slightly distant, figure in all of this. He was compassionate towards everyone he saw suffering, he loathed a great deal of what he saw, but he managed not to let his feelings dominate him. I think this is a great advantage in this diary. It means that we get a very clear-sighted account of what this amazing city was like during this terrible year.
A note about Eland Publishing Limited. If you are interested in really high quality travel writing, have a look at sicklemoon.co.uk. which lists all the Eland titles. You can get Naples ’44 there, or on Amazon, for £9.99 or sometimes less.
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