A review of Naples ‘44 by Norman Lewis

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Naples ‘44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth
by Norman Lewis
Eland, July 2002

Norman Lewis kept a diary for just over a year, from September 1943 to October 1944, during the time when he was an intelligence officer in Italy, attached to the Allied forces. Naples ’44 is that diary and it is an extraordinary document, replete with compelling observations and rich with human incident. And Lewis’s prose is so fine it is difficult to believe this diary has not been written for publication.

Here, as a sterling example of said observations and prose, are a few portions of Lewis’s entry for November 1 1943. He writes that he was eating in a restaurant when:

Suddenly five or six little girls between the ages of nine and twelve appeared in the doorway. They wore hideous straight black uniforms buttoned under their chins, and black boots and stockings, and their hair had been shorn short, prison-style. They were all weeping, and as they clung to each other and groped their way towards us, bumping into chairs and tables, I realized they were all blind. Tragedy and despair had been thrust upon us, and would not be shut out.

But it is, to an extent: the other diners are indifferent to the girls’ fate. His companion explains to Lewis that the girls were from an orphanage “where he had heard – and he made a face – conditions were very bad” and Lewis’s “comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow” is radically changed by the experience:

These little girls, any one of whom could be my daughter, came into the restaurant weeping, and they were weeping when they were led away. I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly.

Lewis is a compassionate, clear-headed witness to heartrending tragedy, but there are many moments of irony and humour here as well. There is plenty of poverty, horror and suffering in these pages; yet there is resilience too. People survive. We see Lewis going about his job: grooming and liaising with informants, vetting applications by British soldiers to marry Italian women, speaking with local politicians and dealing with the bureaucrats in his own camp. Often Lewis will find himself powerless to intervene in desperate situations and can only futilely look on. There are a lot of sad, exasperating tales of this order, alas. On one occasion (April 7 1944) he interviews British prisoners of war who had managed to escape and goes on to ask how the Italian civilians treated them. Well, was the short answer: “The old people in Italian villages treated them as sons, and the young ones as brothers.” Yet he goes on to note that when the Italians, for whom “humanity is above partisanship”, are good to Germans too, they are punished by the Allies.

The book is not only an unremitting catalogue of the cruel ironies of war. One day (July 12 1944) Lewis journeys out to Cumae, to the cliff cavern where the Sybil’s oracles were said to be heard:

Standing there at the mouth of this tremendous chambered corridor cut deep into the rock, it was entirely possible to believe this. Down through the openings in the cliffs, their faces pitted with innumerable caves and sanctuaries, lay the ruins of the most ancient of the Greek colonies in Italy. Here the spell remained, and here the sense of the grandeur of the past was overwhelming.

Vivid passages such as this remind us that Norman Lewis went on to became a great travel writer. Naples ’44 is an immensely enthralling book, and in its portrayal of the impact of war on a society (the breakdown of order, the poverty and corruption) it deserves to be placed alongside the work of Isaac Babel. Reading it whilst watching (and reading) the reports from Iraq it became even more resonant with meaning. Though thankfully Naples in 1944 was not quite as dystopian a city as Baghdad is now.

About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com