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Feature

Murdered

Curzio Malaparte

Translation and adaptation by Walter Murch

The Academy Award winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch is known for his work on such films as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The English Patient, but over the past decade he has also been at work translating the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte, who served in a voluntary brigade of Italians fighting alongside the French during World War I, and worked as a war correspondent during World War II. In the late 1940s Malaparte returned home to Tuscany to attend to his dying mother. “Murdered” was found among his unpublished papers after his death in 1957.

 

I.

The whole of human history...

 

The whole of human history

seems to be the story of men who kill,

and of men who are killed;

of murderers who light their cigarettes

with trembling hands,

and of poor, unlucky kids staring into the eyes

of those who bring them their deaths.

 

But history is not about murderers, after all.

It is just the story of some poor kids.

The whole history of the world

is just the story of millions of poor kids

overwhelmed by the fear of death, or

by the fear of bringing death to others.

 

My mother had closed her eyes

and was breathing softly.

Every so often, her right hand,

abandoned on the white sheet,

would shift slightly, opening and closing

like the hand of a sleeping baby.

 

The nurse came into the room just then,

as I had begun to tell the story of Jaco.

She opened the door as slowly as possible,

but I felt her presence behind my shoulders,

bending over the bed,

looking at my mother.

 

She is sleeping, said the nurse.

Don’t wake her.

 

I didn’t turn around,

but continued in a low whisper.

When I got to the part about the grenade,

I heard the nurse tiptoeing out,

closing the door behind her

 

silently.

 

The grenade exploded a few feet away, while Jaco was helping to carry two wounded soldiers down the hill to the hospital tent. By the time I got to him, he was stretched out on the grass, breathing heavily. Everyone around him had been killed. He watched as I approached, and when I was close, he smiled.

Jacoboni Nazzareno had just been promoted to lieutenant, even though he had not yet turned nineteen. Six months ago, when we were getting ready to leave Italy, Ercolani had taken me aside and said: Look out for Jaco. He’s like a brother to me. Make sure nothing bad happens to him.

I was irritated: War isn’t a game. It doesn’t play by the rules. If something bad happens to him, tough luck.

But from that day on, I kept my eye on Jaco: he was about the same age as me, but seemed much younger. In any event, he turned out to be a good officer: he did his duty like all the others, like a good kid. He took war seriously, convinced he would go home in one piece, back to the Nazzareno family in Monterotondo, near Rome. And it was perhaps because of this that he smiled as I sat down next to him.

I saw right away that it was hopeless. The grenade had torn open his abdomen and his intestines were cascading down his leg past his knees and coiling onto the ground.

We were surrounded by the dead: hundreds of them in the forest around us. Most were Italian, but there were a few Germans: They had advanced this far before we had finally pushed them back. Their dead lay alongside ours.

 

It began to rain…

 

The rain on the oak leaves

made a soft music, like women whispering.

Every so often, it would intensify

as it darted here and there through the trees,

rising and then fading away.

 

The green reflections of the forest

washed everything the color of water,

gave an extraordinary lightness to things:

to the solid trunks of the trees,

to the bodies lying in the grass.

 

Glimpsed through the branches of the trees,

the sky appeared light and remote:

A sky made of silk,

luminous and pure, serene,

scrubbed of clouds and fog.

 

The rain was coming from who knows where,

or maybe it was not even rain,

just the memory of some rain

falling from the depths of past summers,

falling from some childhood summer long ago.

 

 

II.

The soldiers under Jaco’s command ran over to see what had happened to him, and from my expression they understood there was nothing to be done. Finally, one of them turned and drifted away, followed by the rest. Every so often they glanced back over their shoulders. I felt as if they were looking not at poor Jaco, but at me. When I finally stood up and also started to move away, Jaco asked me to stay: Don’t leave me alone... I sat back down on the grass next to him and called out to the other soldiers: Come back! Don’t leave him alone. They were Jaco’s soldiers, after all, not mine.

They returned and sat down on the grass in a circle around Jaco. There was a long silence. Every so often, coming from somewhere deep in the woods, we would hear a metallic scraping and then the sound of rough voices—that indistinct noise soldiers make when they are preparing to attack.

Jaco’s soldiers began polishing their rifles using the oil from a tin of sardines. We had only one machine gun that worked, a Fiat, but no water for its cooling jacket, so a sergeant held the gun steady and some of the soldiers pissed into it.

We were like wild animals in the woods, wounded animals who hear the hunt closing in: the hurried panting of the dogs and the voices of the hunters, those green voices in the yellow-green air of the woods.

 

It was unbearable.

 

The morning was sweet, fresh, transparent.

The rain lit up the trunks of the trees

as it does in certain French paintings.

Lit up the grass, too, which from a dark green

around the trees slowly lightened

as it edged out into the open,

only to darken again further on

as it neared another grove.

We heard the hidden presence all around us

of terrified hare, pheasant, rabbit,

of deer crouched in some hole among the bushes.

 

The sky above shone pure, serene,

with a trace of blue so delicate it was almost green,

and the even deeper green of the woods all around

was light and transparent,

full of birdsong.

But on the rosy dawn of Jaco’s face

the gray shadow of his evening

was slowly lengthening—

as if the sun, having not yet reached the summit

of its crimson arc, was already setting,

melting, pure and delicate,

into the peaceful blue of the sky,

into a motionless brilliance

flaming the tips of the trees, the grass,

the fragrant fields of wheat.

 

The dazzling incandescence of that day,

of that summer morning rich with the smell of grass,

of leaves, of invisible waters,

rich with the fresh smell of rain,

the light of that morning was a brilliant shadow

veiling the glare of the sun

such that the trees,

reflecting the light from one another,

from trunk to trunk,

from bough to bough,

had reformed themselves in the mirrored water of a pool

into an upside-down perspective

where I saw white clouds floating in the grass,

like water lilies.

 

But little by little Jacoboni’s face was fading away,

that gray shadow was slowly descending

onto his poor child’s face

from a remote imperium

full of delicate and dazzling light.

 

I can’t take it anymore,

he whispered, fixing each of us, one by one,

with his gaze, smiling, and silently moving his lips.

 

Then he began to struggle.

He struggled, grinding his teeth.

He struggled like a wounded animal,

silently, holding us in his gaze.

His eyes, his smile, his childlike expression

were exactly those of a dog in agony,

a dying dog, who looks to his master for relief.

 

We could do nothing to ease his suffering,

and so we all kept silent.

But within each of us something

had begun to move,

to be born.

 

It was just then that one of the girls began to scream.

 

 

III.

There were three of them—three prostitutes: young, light-hearted, courageous—recently arrived on foot from Epernay. To save themselves during the battle they had jumped into a trench some yards away. They had been there for two days now, huddled down, and every so often we would hear them cry out, weeping. A week or so earlier, a delegation from the maréchaussée had warned all the Allied soldiers—French, English, Italian, American, Senegalese, Annamite, Belgian, Portuguese—not to fraternize with any prostitutes who might be making their way to the front.

The three girls were peasants, probably from Burgundy. They said that they had walked all the way from Troyes trying to reach Château-Thierry, where they had heard the Americans were garrisoned. At Epernay they had found the road blocked by the maréchaussée, so they had taken the route that crossed the mountains as it wound its way up from Epernay through Nanteuil-la-Fosse and then down to Reims itself. Frightened by the noise of the heavy artillery that was bombarding the road around Reims, they had veered off from Nanteuil-la-Fosse into the Ardre Valley and eventually wound up here in the Corton Woods a few hours before the beginning of the offensive.

I was told about them during the night.

There are three girls, said Sergeant Rossi, beaming.

Pretty?

Pretty enough.

Where are they?

Over there.

We have to send them back.

Now? How can we?

Post a sentry with them and make sure no one gets close. We’ll consign them over to the maréchaussée when the attack is finished.

Sergeant Rossi moved off in silence, turning to look back at me with a strange expression.

A little later, I went to see where the girls were. I found the sentry at his post, sitting on the grass with his rifle between his legs. But the girls were not there.

Where have they gone?

Sergeant Rossi came and took one of them away. The other two went looking for the kitchens.

I eventually found those two in a trench, disheveled and dirty, surrounded by a group of soldiers staring down in silence, eyes narrowed to slits. The girls looked like beasts huddled in their lair. When I arrived, one of them was crouched down with her skirts raised, her face red from the effort of defecating. I crept up slowly, in silence, and none of the soldiers noticed. But the girl was now looking at me, frightened. The soldiers kept staring at her in their slit-eyed silence. When I got closer, she stood up, lowered her skirts, and then remained standing, looking at me timidly.

Bonjour, monsieur l’officier, she said, trembling.

At this, all of the soldiers turned around and stood up, ashamed. But I knew they were furious, that at that moment they hated me. The other girl, sitting in a corner of the trench, put one hand over a breast while adjusting her dress to cover her knees with the other.

She also greeted me: Bonjour, monsieur.

What are you doing? I said to the soldiers. You’re not even letting her do her business. Take off!

She does it anyway, said one of the soldiers. Every so often she crouches down and does her business.

She has the colic, said another.

No, she’s doing it on purpose, said a third, and in his empty eyes I saw the flickering of an oil lamp.

Go away, I said. It isn’t right for you to be here, looking at them like this. After all, they are women.

They’re just whores, said a soldier. It’s not our fault if that’s the way they are.

We are all a bunch of whores, I said. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be here in these woods, waiting to be wiped out like rats.

It’s true, said the soldiers. The lieutenant is right. We’re all a bunch
of whores.

Someone laughed. But most of them remained silent, looking at me. One of the two girls began to cry, then screamed: Je veux partir, je veux m’en aller; j’ai peur! The scream, more than the tears, woke something in the soldiers that at first seemed to be a kind of gaiety, but was instead hate, anger, and fear all mixed together with disgust.

You’re in it now, they laughed, up to your necks! You wanted to come here? To make love? You’re going to die like the rest of us. You want to go back home? So do we. But it doesn’t matter. We’re all going to die anyway.

Suddenly one of the soldiers began to urinate into the trench, and then another, and then all of them, standing around the trench urinating on the two girls. And they laughed, but with anger and hate, and they shook their penises, spraying the urine in every direction, soaking the two girls.

I shouted Stop! and hit one of them, accidentally knocking him into the trench. The rest screamed with laughter and urinated even more wildly, but it was laughter tinged with hate, colored by the strange accents with which hate stains the voice: You want to go home, too? You don’t want to die? You’re a whore who just wants to go home, like them. You thought you’d come here to fight and make love? You stupid whore, you’re going to die just like the rest of us!

And so they kept pissing into the trench, on their comrade and the two girls, shaking their swollen, hairy penises. I shouted: Stop!

 

But they were too far gone.

 

There were all those dead in the grass around us,

in the woods. All those dead from yesterday,

from the night before, from the morning,

already beginning to stink.

There were all those dead,

our dead comrades, all around us.

And the soldiers knew that, like them,

they too must die, gripped

by that delirium

which descends out of the blue

when men know that they must die.

 

It wasn’t their fault

if generals, ministers, kings, and emperors,

if presidents of republics, heads of steelworks,

bankers, and actresses singing the “Marseillaise”

draped in the flag,

forgot that before soldiers were soldiers

soldiers had been men.

 

It wasn’t their fault

if generals, ministers, grand seigneurs,

all ordered them to Shut up!

It wasn’t their fault

if they were not thought to be men,

but only soldiers; not human beings,

but only beasts condemned to die

for the gruesome scarecrows

of Glory and Fatherland,

and for Liberty—

They who are slaves;

and for The Future of the World—

They who will die tomorrow,

They who have only the future of a day,

A night, an hour, a minute, an instant.

 

At the moment, though, they were men

abandoning themselves to instinct,

to the joys of being men, pissing

on everything that reminded them of their condition,

on their enslavement, on their humiliation;

on everything that makes a human being

miserable and unhappy.

 

It would have been easy for me to snap them to attention by simply commanding Shut up! But for two years now I had also been a soldier, and I knew that a soldier’s deepest wish was to be a man, to return to being a man, to prove to himself—if only for an instant—that he was still capable of being a man. For two years now I also had lived under sentence of death and had been told to Shut up! by everyone: generals, ministers, bankers, captains. And so now I found I could not in turn shout Shut up! at these men. I was not a general, or a banker, or a minister, or even an actress from the Comédie-Française. I was a nineteen-year-old lieutenant unable to bring himself to shout at these men, many of whom were so much older than me—thirty, thirty-five, thirty-eight. Some of them could have been my father.

And then, also, I felt as they did.

I also would have liked to piss on the world, on the generals, the ministers, the bankers, on that soldier, on those two girls; on those false fronts of Glory, of Fatherland, of Liberty, of the Future, of Progress, of Civilization. I also would have liked to piss wildly, penis in hand, on everything around: on France, Italy, England, Germany, Russia, on everyone’s fatherland, mine and everyone else’s, on the whole forsaken race of men, to soak wildly all the cowards and bastards who had ever yelled at us: Shut up!

But just at that moment the sky ripped open with the screech and crash of a grenade. Everyone fell silent. The soldiers pulled up their pants and turned around: A man was running in our direction, screaming. He had a head wound, and passed close by without noticing us, still screaming. He zigzagged into the woods, groping desperately like the blind, until he ran full tilt against a tree and fell backwards on the ground, immobile.

 

 

IV.

So it did not come as a surprise—a relief, almost—when we heard the tac-tac-tac of machine guns and the thud of grenades rising up from the woods below. The Germans were advancing again through the tangle of bomb-shattered branches, clearing a path with ax-blows, foreheads crushed beneath the overhang of great steel helmets, gleaming eyes fixed dead ahead.

The rest of that day was bitter, and many of us fell forever headlong in the grass. But toward evening the voice of battle began to diminish, and then from the depths of the forest we could hear the song of the wounded: the serene, monotonous, sad-hopeful song of the wounded, joining the chorus of birds hidden in the foliage as they welcomed the return of the moon.

It was still daylight, but the moon was rising sweetly from behind the forested mountains of Reims.

 

It was green against a white and tender sky.

 

A moon from the forest of Ardennes,

a moon from the country of Rimbaud, of Verlaine,

a delicate green moon, round and light,

entering the room of the sky from behind a screen of branches

as if stepping delicately out of the earth,

rising up from the grass, causing the tree branches to blush

transparent and sweet.

 

Like startled birds, we had settled again around Jaco:

I can’t stand it anymore, he smiled.

Don’t let me suffer.

But now his smile was tired:

a tired smile

in a face clenched like a fist.

 

Jaco’s suffering gnawed away at us,

sinking into our bones.

There is nothing so terrible, or so sweet,

so touching, as that animal, man,

when he gives over to death.

I felt my shirt sticking to my back. My face

and the faces of the others were beaded with sweat,

like the sweet face of Jacoboni Nazzareno.

And little by little I became aware

that everyone had slowly turned toward me,

pinning me down with their eyes.

 

Along with Jaco’s terrible, unbearable suffering,

something else was sinking into us, little by little,

something that was not ours.

Something strong, strange, insistent,

was slowly being born within us.

Jaco looked at me fixedly,

even he now looked at me fixedly,

expecting something,

and I felt a new idea forming inside me,

and inside the others.

 

I can’t go on, said Jaco.

I looked away to the green moon hanging behind the trees:

It had taken on the round shapeliness

of a fragrant leaf: a laurel leaf,

perhaps, or sage, or mint,

a great green leaf, transparent with evening daylight.

The sun had not yet settled into the forest,

and his last warm rays struck the trunks of the trees

leaving some of them wounded, bleeding.

Others—the oaks, the beeches, poplars and birches—

reflected the light in a strange way,

as if they were made of glass.

That glassy light, which the sun, just before it sets,

draws from the earth’s waters,

drinks from its grass, from its leaves,

from the trunks of its trees,

to slake its thirst.

 

All of them stared at me,

but I was not aware of what I was doing.

I felt my hands moving,

but I did not know what I was doing until

I found myself standing

and saw them looking up at me,

and Jacoboni smiling at me strangely,

and felt something cold and smooth in my hands.

 

And finally I was aware that I was standing

with a rifle in my hands.

I closed my eyes, and fired.

I fired with my eyes closed,

one shot after another.

 

And then, when the echo of the shots

had melted into the woods,

there was a great silence.

 

With my eyes still closed,

rifle still in hand,

I turned and took a few steps.

Suddenly I heard:

Murderer! Murderer!

 

It was the voice of a woman, terrible,

the voice of a sister, desperate,

the voice of a mother, of a lover.

And at that moment nothing could have been more terrible

than that voice of a woman,

that voice of a mother, of a sister,

of a lover, crying:

 

Murderer!

 

I opened my eyes and saw one of the girls running toward me, her hands like claws, as if she intended to tear me apart. She screamed again: Murderer! and then stopped abruptly a few paces away, filthy, disheveled, with a great bewilderment spreading across her face, a wondrous pity. I stood in front of her, rifle in my hands, tears in my eyes.

And they were certainly a marvelous thing, those tears, not only for her but for me as well.

 

My mother...

 

My mother was lying on her back,

her eyes were closed, and she seemed to be asleep;

even her hand, abandoned on the sheets,

had dozed off.

 

I fell silent,

looking at the moon rising inch by inch

over the olive trees of Settignano.

It gave me great solace,

that moon and those trees.

That bright silver moon over green-silver trees,

that moon in the shape of an olive leaf,

clean and transparent,

shining like a vein of silver, pulsing

through green marble

in the incensed darkness of a church.

 

 

About the author

​Curzio Malaparte served in World War I, then became a journalist and founded and edited fascist periodicals. After attacking Mussolini and Hitler in print, he was stripped of his fascist party membership and briefly imprisoned. He worked as a correspondent during World War II; his best-known works, Kaputt (available from NYRB Classics) and La Pelle (The Skin), grew out of this experience.


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