Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Croatia: Myth and Reality (16) - C. Michael McAdams - Myth: "The Basket of Human Eyeballs"
C. Michael McAdams
MYTH: "THE BASKET OF HUMAN EYEBALLS"
Myth: The Croatian wartime Chief-of-State Ante Pavelic routinely maintained a basket containing twenty kilos of human eyeballs at his desk side.
Reality: This statement is literally a work of fiction taken from the novel Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte (Kurt Suckert, also known as Gianni Strozzi). The book was written as fiction, sold as fiction, and is cataloged in every library in the world as fiction. To cite Kaputt as a source about World War II is analogous to citing Gone With the Wind as an authoritative history of the American Civil War.
That this tired tale is still being retold is the second most amazing part of this myth. More amazing is that anybody, no matter how blinding their hatred of Croatians, could believe it. And yet this myth was quoted as fact as recently as 1995 in official publications printed in Belgrade by the Ministry of Information of the Republic of Serbia and repeated by naive journalists around the world. The myth survived and was given renewed life by the Serbian government, journalists and politicians because it came with quotation marks. The legend had a footnote, a citation, an author and all the trappings of fact. The author was often cited as "the most famous Italian writer," "the Italian journalist" and even the "famed Italian historian", Curzio Malaparte. His famous quote from the 1946 English translation of the novel Kaputt reads:
While he spoke, I gazed at a wicker basket on the Poglavnik's desk. The lid was raised and the basket seemed to be filled with mussels, or shelled oysters --as they are occasionally displayed in the windows ''of Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly in London.
Castertano looked at me and winked, "Would you like a nice oyster stew?"
"Are they Dalmatian oysters?" I asked the Poglavnik.
Ante Pavelic removed the lid from the basket and revealed the mussels, that slimy and jelly-like mass, and he said smiling, with that tired good-natured smile of his, "It is a present from my loyal usatshis. Forty pounds of human eyes."
Kaputt and its author both had fascinating stories to tell. In the original press release for the book, Malaparte ed that the manuscript was started in the Ukraine in 1941 and smuggled throughout Europe in coat linings and in the soles of his shoes. Finally, the manuscript was divided into three parts and given to three diplomats, to be reunited in 1943 on Capri where it was finished. The book chronicled Malaparte's movements around Europe in 1941 and 1942, when he claimed to have visited every front and knew every head of state, usually on a; first name basis. Malaparte apparently spoke every language and shared the charms of every beautiful princess.
According to his own preface to Kaputt, his personal friendships with Mussolini, Hitler and others did not save him from being thrown into jail in July 1943 as antiGerman. Miraculously, he was soon freed and was working for the Allies by September of that year. It was while working as a propagandist for the Allies that Malaparte conipleted Kaputt, which he described as "...horribly gay and gruesome."
The critics agreed. Malaparte's two major books, Kaputt and Skin were 5 labeled "Best selling Nausea" by Time magazine. His writings contained pages of sordid tales about the evil world of Fascist Europe. Malaparte's basket of human eyeballs must be taken in context, as Time magazine wrote in 1952:
"He shows mothers who sell their children into prostitution; but then, says Malaparte with a smirk, there are also the children who would gladly sell their mothers. He dwells for part of a chapter on a street peopled with twisted female dwarfs, who fed, he asserts gleefully, on the unnatural lust in the American ranks. Another chapter is concerned with a visit to a shop that sells blonde pubic wigs. U.S. soldiers, Malaparte explains, like blondes."
These offensive themes only scratch the surface of Malaparte's sick writings. That the Allies won the War through the devices of a "homosexual maquis", flags of human skin, and an Allied general who served his guests a boiled child are all included in Malaparte's fare.
"Malaparte" himself was an enigma. He was born Kurt Ench Suckert in 1898 in Prato, Italy, of Austrian, Russian and Italian descent. He attended the Collegio Cicognini and the University of Rome. He joined the Fascists at an early age and soon became the darling of the Fascist Propaganda Ministry where he wrote glowing volumes and even a work of poetry in praise of Mussolini. He served as a journalist for Corriere della Sera and travelled to Ethiopia in 1939. What happened after that depends upon which "Malaparte" is read. The world-travelling statesman fictionalized in his novels spent the war years in almost constant meetings with the likes of Mussolini, Count Ciano, Ante Pavelic, and the rich and powerful of Europe. Interestingly, Pavelic's name was misspelled Pavelic in all of his writings.
Later, Malaparte claimed to have been one of "three Italian officers who organized the Italian Army of Liberation which fought for the Allies." After the fall of Mussolini he began writing under the name Gianni Strozzi for the communist daily L'Unita. That year he applied for, but was refused, Communist Party membership. Still later, he went to work for the Allied Fifth Army Headquarters as a minor liaison officer.
Just as he had served the Fascists and the communists, Malaparte sought to ingratiate himself with his new masters. "The American Army is the kindest army in the world....I like Americans...and I proved it a hundred times during the war...their souls are pure, much purer than ours," Malaparte gushed.
In November of 1952 a far different Malaparte wrote that, in fact, he had fallen out with Mussolini in 1934. Not only did he never meet most of the great leaders he wrote about, he admitted: "In 1938 I still remained under police control and was put in prison as a preventative measure every time a Nazi chief visited Rome...and from 1933 until the liberation, I was deprived of a passport..." Once called "Fascism's Strongest Pen," Malaparte angered Hitler with a book written in 1931 about the techniques of the coup d' etat. He was jailed by Mussolini from 1933 to 1938 and kept on a very short leash for the remainder of the Fascist era. The Italian Defense Ministry did confirm that he once served as a liaison officer to the Allies, but flatly denied that he had anything to do with organizing Italy's Army of Liberation.
A prolific author of short stories and fictionalized accounts of Fascist victories, Suckert-Malaparte- Strozzi did interview Ante Pavelic during the War. The interview recounted in Kaputt, in Pavelic's office, was recorded on film. There is no basket to be seen or any conversation regarding a basket. After the War, Malaparte continued to write, as well as direct and produce movies, and was active in the Communist Party. In the Spring of 1957, the Party sent him on a comradely visit to China. Shortly after his return, he died on July 19, 1957.
An enigma to the end, the viciously anti-Catholic Malaparte renounced communism and converted to Catholicism on his death bed. Later, Malaparte's friend and fellow journalist Victor Alexandrov let it be known that Malaparte had admitted the story of the basket of human eyeballs was fiction. Thus Curzio Malaparte and his unpleasant fiction were relegated to the dust bin of literary story in all of the world except Belgrade.