Anatomy of a fellow traveller – Frank Beyer
In 1956 the Italian novelist, Curzio Malaparte, received an invitation to travel to Beijing for a commemoration of the death of writer Lu Xun. Malaparte is most famous for his quasi-surrealist WWII novels, Kaputt and La Pelle (The Skin). In Kaputt, as a journalist and officer in the Italian army, he narrates what happened behind the Eastern Front. Episodes from Ukraine, Finland, Romania and Poland get us up close and personal with, amongst others, members of the Nazi elite. Malaparte seems to revel in the horrific subject matter, showing the abuses and hypocrisies of the Axis forces like no other. In The Skin he is a liaison officer attached to the American army, taking us on a Dantesque tour of the hell that is Naples after Allied liberation. He exposes the naivety of the Americans and the damage done to the already miserable local population.
Malaparte was a keen observer, who did not shy away from making criticisms. Why then, on his trip to China, was he so charmed by everything? Did he leave his critical faculties back in Europe? If so, he is hardly alone – many a fierce social critic from the West has found utopia far away from home. Were these utopias real, or mere projections of spiritual and humanistic urges? Malaparte’s trip is recorded in his book Io, in Russia e in Cina (Me, In Russia and In China). The book was published posthumously and it was not the author who came up with the solipsistic title. While the book includes interesting anecdotes from Stockholm, Moscow, Siberia and Ulan Bator, the bulk of it is made up of articles and notes about China.
Chairman Mao was happy to receive Malaparte; in 1956, friends from the West were rare. Malaparte – apart from commenting on the chairman’s obsidian black teeth – was nothing but complementary about Mao, his vision for China, and role in achieving it. He falls for the cult of personality, just like he did with Mussolini in his pro-fascist youth. He writes of Mao (in Me, In Russia and In China, as with all subsequent quotations unless marked) that:
“Above all, his gaze fascinated me; serene, sweet, deeply kind.”1
Malaparte says his meeting was in private and lasted nearly an hour – both claims are unlikely, but certainly the interview took place. Mao asks after the state of things in Italy, and they compare prices and salaries between their two countries. Mao welcomes any criticism the visitor might have of China. It is interesting that Mao “welcomed” a critique here, because the Hundred Flowers Movement had already begun, in which Mao encouraged criticism of his regime in order to expose his political enemies. But Malaparte’s only issue was that he wanted those imprisoned for their Christian faith released. Other than that, he had only praise.
In 1915, at the age of sixteen, Malaparte ran away from home in Tuscany to fight in France against the Germans during WWI. In 1918, his lungs were damaged by gas; nearly forty years later, he fell ill in China due to his condition. He was a fan of Mussolini when Il Duce first rose to power, but later grew critical of him (and of Hitler) and was jailed for it. Malaparte claims he served five years but in truth his influential friend, Mussolini’s son in law, got him out earlier. His gift was art, not the truth, or moral consistency, or politics. As with many brilliant intellectuals, he didn’t feel that he got the kind of attention he deserved. After WWII he was often maligned for his fascist past. When a stint in Paris in the late 1940s came to an end, he was not as popular in literary circles as he’d once been. He returned to Italy, and turned to the Italian Communist Party.
By 1956, the Soviet Union had faded as a utopia for alienated Western intellectuals, while China still showed hope of being a socialist heaven. Khrushchev had denounced the wrongs of Stalin, but in China the Great Leap Forward, the invasion of Tibet and the Cultural Revolution were yet to come. In February 1956, Hungary had rebelled against its Soviet masters and been cruelly crushed. Much of the discontent in Hungary had been caused by policies that Mao was about to implement, for example unrealistic production targets which lead to the falsification of industrial output figures, a scarcity of goods and inflation. Hungary also had the extra burden of paying war reparations to the Soviet Union. Among those who fled Hungary in the aftermath of 1956 was Paul Hollander, whose book Political Pilgrims, published in 1981, tackled the problem of Western intellectuals enamoured of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.
Hollander’s book theorizes why Western intellectuals became disillusioned with their own societies and looked towards authoritarian socialist states for meaning. First, the very freedom of Western news media and its sensational critiques of society encouraged a negative viewpoint. In addition, since the late 19th century public intellectuals – formerly religious thinkers in the main – no longer had a clear role in secular society. With no paradise in the next world to look forward to, they found it in this life. Foreign dictators were attractive to intellectuals as philosopher kings, a perfect combination of the man of action and the intellectual. Malaparte tells us of Mao:
“If his prodigious life as a man of action and as a revolutionary is the mirror of his courage, of his spirit of sacrifice, of his iron will, his face is the reflection of his good, generous soul. When you think about what the Chinese revolution might have been if at the front of it there had been a fanatic, a bloodthirsty, a lucid, abstract, ruthless theorist, one shudders.”
With hindsight, the irony makes us shudder. Socialism was Mao’s obvious appeal – the participation of all citizens in the building of a fair and equal society. Yet noble aims do not excuse the wrongs done in the Soviet Union, the Soviet bloc, China and Cuba. (Just as the stated aim of protecting freedom does not excuse the crimes of the United States in Vietnam or Iraq.) In a final article reviewing his time in China, Malaparte disagrees:
“I also suffered when reading the Budapest news in the press [of the revolts in Hungary in 1956 and their violent suppression], but this suffering never raised doubts. The great and positive Chinese experience absolves any error, since it demonstrates undeniably that the sum of the positive factors in the balance of progress is always superior to that of errors.”
Many intellectuals visiting socialist states missed or ignored things we now know about, such as show trials and famines. Part of this was because they didn’t want to give up their dream of socialist utopia; another factor is what Hollander calls the techniques of hospitality. These people were welcomed and guided – made to feel important by having access to leaders and academics. They were given good food and accommodation, and most importantly saw only what the government wanted them to. The Belgian sinologist Simon Leys, in the 1970s, noted with disdain that Western visitors kept on running into each other in China because their hosts reduced China’s near infinity to just a dozen villages to visit, and around sixty vetted individuals to meet.
Flattery was also part of the techniques of hospitality. Writers and other artists were “accidentally-on-purpose” put together with locals who knew and loved their work. China still uses this kind of tactic given the opportunity. When Donald Trump (not, strictly speaking, an intellectual) visited Beijing in 2017, they treated him like an emperor, including a dinner party for him in the Forbidden City. It worked: Trump thinks President Xi is a swell guy. I wonder if Xi told him he enjoyed The Art of the Deal? Malaparte also fell victim to such flattery, writing of how touched he was by crowds of “spontaneous” well-wishers when he fell ill in China.
But Malaparte wasn’t as controlled by his hosts as Hollander might have suspected. In one episode, he walks around the city of Datong, in Shanxi province, unaccompanied by his French-speaking translator, Hong Sing. Malaparte was smart enough to know Hong Sing was there to make sure he didn’t get the “wrong” idea about anything. This comes to light when they visit a theatre show in Xi’an and Hong translates satirical dialogue in reference to the regime’s labour policy. Realizing his mistake, Hong quickly restranslates:
“We hear a few words of dialogue, like this: “We must work day and night to increase production” … and a young assistant replies: “But we do not work for production!” To this, the audience laughs. … Hong Sing, kindly concerned to avoid misunderstandings, and things being judged wrongly or unfavourably, insists on saying that the two lines translate as follows: “It’s necessary to work day and night” … and “but no, we do not work against production”.”
So, Malaparte gets a whiff of undercurrents in Mao’s China but doesn’t pursue. Likely well aware of some of the problems, he towed the line as he was sending reports back to the Italian Communist magazine Vie Nuove. (He was also sending articles back to the more right wing Tempo.) The then editor of Vie Nuove, Maria Antonietta Marocchi, was later heavily criticised on French TV by Simon Leys for her overly positive book about Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Dalla Cina: Dopo la Rivoluzione Culturale (From China: After the Cultural Revolution). In 1977 she was expelled from the Italian Communist Party for supporting Maoist agitators in Bologna. In Political Pilgrims, Hollander includes quotes from her singing the praises of the Chinese for being well-washed with soap and water and completely without makeup.
Hollander and Simon Leys had their sights firmly fixed on those, like Marocchi, who allowed themselves to be duped by Potemkin villages: show villages (or hospitals or prisons) that gave a positive impression of the USSR or China. In the late 18th century, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great went on a tour of the Crimea – the “New Russia” taken off the Ottomans – to see her new subjects. Her advisor, Potemkin, arranged for his men to travel ahead of Catherine, erecting temporary villages to impress her. The technique has since been used many times, with variations: with model work camps in the Soviet Union, and in China with show fields bursting with rice during the Great Leap Forward. One might argue the entire city of modern Pyongyang is a Potemkin village.
Malaparte’s tour of China was quite extensive, and I find it hard to believe he only saw Potemkin setups. In any case, the CCP did not become expert in providing these until later. After seeing a utopia of plentiful crops, industrial development and happy workers in Beijing, Lanzhou (of all places), Taiyuan, Urumqi and Xi’an, Chongqing throws a spanner in the works for Malaparte, with the sight of coolie labourers:
“The image, however, that man offers of himself, even in this verdant peace, in this serenity of nature, in this wealth of works, is the habitual image of man humiliated by misery, who struggles and suffers for his redemption. Thousands of men with sticks on their backs, bent under the weight of two baskets laden with stones, travel miles and miles, trotting, to carry stones to the lime kilns, which abound in the region of Chongqing. Here man is not degraded to the condition of draft horse, but that of beast of burden.”
Equality is visibly yet to be established in the People’s Republic of China, but Malaparte still sees the hope of a great socialist future in these workers’ eyes. He even suggests that conditions in the city may be a hangover from the Kuomintang era. Maybe, had he lived longer, he could have written a novel about wartime Chongqing as brilliant as The Skin was about wartime Naples. As his biographer Maurizio Serra points out, perhaps had he lived beyond 1957 he would have woken up to the enormous defects of Mao’s China.
It is Malaparte’s very capabilities as a writer that leave me so unsatisfied with his shallow work on China. When I read his novel Kaputt, I felt like I had never come across a writer so compelled to explain the dark side of the human spirit to us. Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz Se Questo è un Uomo (If This Is a Man) is a masterpiece, but he was a victim: he could dismiss the Germans as merely evil. In Kaputt, Malaparte, although a lifelong anti-German, is compromised by being an officer in the Italian army and a former enthusiast of fascism. He knows what it’s like to be on the wrong side of history. He visits the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw, Krakow and other Polish cities – wishing to go alone, but always trailed by a Gestapo officer. He sees ragged and starving bodies lying on the streets, waiting to be loaded onto carts and be taken away. But there are not enough carts. He dines with the German Governor General of Poland, Hans Frank, the very man who is in charge of these ghettos. Malaparte wants to see inside Frank’s soul – to explain the evil to us:
I knew enough of him to detest him, but I felt honor bound not to stop there. … I hoped to catch a gesture, a word, an involuntary action that might reveal to me Frank’s real face, his inner face, that would suddenly break away from the dark, deep region of his mind where, I instinctively felt, the roots of his cruel intelligence and fine musical sensitiveness were anchored in a morbid and, in a certain sense, criminal subsoil of character.2
In a chapter in The Skin entitled ‘The Black Wind,’ Malaparte, this time in the Ukraine, is asked for help from men crucified at the side of the road. The help they want is to be shot. In the same chapter, he comes across a wounded American soldier in Naples and clams he cannot bear to see men suffering – that he would rather kill a man than see him suffer. Other horrors in Naples include mothers selling their children as prostitutes to Moroccan soldiers, and a man turned flat as a pancake when he falls under the tracks of a moving tank.
I am not trying to compare China in the 1950s with Poland under the Germans or Naples under the Americans. Yet in Malaparte’s analysis of Frank, we see a great critic of the powerful, and he wrote similar criticisms of Mussolini and Lenin. So why not Mao? Malaparte saw hell in his life, but his empathy for suffering never left him. How did he fail to see the suffering in China?
At the end of Me, In Russia and In China, Malaparte falls ill with pleurisy and one of his lungs collapses. He is confined to hospital in Wuhan for a period of three months before he is able to make the arduous journey back to Italy in a Soviet plane. He never recovered, and in 1957 Malaparte died of lung cancer in Rome. He praises the doctors who attend him in China and the conditions in the hospital, claiming that he received no special treatment – that all patients in China receive such care. This seems doubtful, given his importance to the regime as a potential propaganda agent. Malaparte tells us that Hong Sing is very keen for him not to die in China. I can’t help thinking that the translator’s fate would not have been a good one if any misfortune had befallen his charge.
Malaparte’s account of his time in China has some redeeming features. Being well read, he can relate the landscapes he sees to poems by Du Fu and Li Bai. He appreciates Chinese sculpture, and makes interesting comparisons to artworks in Venice. Like many a Westerner in China, he has amusing anecdotes about the food, especially about the cruel methods of cooking turtles. I enjoyed his descriptions of fields upon fields of cabbage, something I too recall from bus rides inside China’s interior. Some of his interactions with locals are well written up, such as when a little girl playing in the mud in Xi’an gives him a pebble. Malaparte sees the gift as precious, because the landscape for miles around is clay (the inference is that he is conscious of scarcity in the child’s life). Malaparte’s prose description of the incident was translated into a poem, Xi’an of Eight Rivers, by the American film editor Walter Murch.
Yet ultimately, this is a book about what Malaparte wanted to find in China, rather than what he did find. As for his meeting with Mao, I’m curious to know what the Great Helmsman thought of the Italian intellectual. I suspect he didn’t give him much thought at all, but we will never know. A Catholic priest and the leader of the Italian Communist Party visited Malaparte on his deathbed in Rome. Malaparte was born into a Protestant family, had long been an atheist, and it’s likely he had been a card carrying member of the Communist party for some time. However, both the priest and communist claimed that Malaparte converted to their respective faiths in his final moments. ∎
Header image: Malaparte on the Great Wall, from Wikimedia Commons. Book cover images provided by the author.