Lewis arrived in war-torn Naples as an intelligence officer in 1944. The starving population had devoured all the tropical fish in the aquarium, respectable women had been driven to prostitution and the black market was king.
Lewis found little to admire in his fellow soldiers, but gained sustenance from the extraordinary vivacity of the Italians. There is the gynaecologist who ‘specialises in the restoration of lost virginity’ and the widowed housewife who times her British lover against the clock. ‘Were I given the chance to be born again,’ wrote Lewis, ‘Italy would be the country of my choice’.
‘... one of the greatest of twentieth-century British writers and Naples ’44 is his masterpiece. A lyrical, ironic and detached account.’ - Will Self
‘One goes on reading page after page as if eating cherries.’ - Luigi Barzini, New York Review of Books
Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth
Format: 192pp demi pb
Norman Lewis's early childhood, as recalled in Jackdaw Cake (1985), was spent partly with his Welsh spiritualist parents in Enfield, North London, and partly with his eccentric aunts in Wales. Forgoing a place at university for lack of funds, he used the income from wedding photography and various petty trading to finance travels to Spain, Italy and the Balkans, before being approached by the Colonial Office to spy for them with his camera in Yemen. He moved to Cuba in 1939, but was recalled for duty in the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War. It was from this that Norman Lewis's masterpiece, Naples '44, emerged, a resurrection of his wartime diary only finally published in 1978. Before that came a number of novels and travel books, notably A Dragon Apparent (1951) and Golden Earth (1952), both of which were best sellers in their day. His novel The Volcanoes Above Us, based on personal experiences in Central America, sold six million copies in paperback in Russia and The Honoured Society (1964), a non-fiction study of the Sicilian Mafia, was serialised in six instalments by the New Yorker.
Norman Lewis wrote thirteen novels and thirteen works of non-fiction, mostly travel books, but he regarded his life's major achievement to be the reaction to an article written by him entitled Genocide in Brazil, published in The Sunday Times in 1968. This led to a change in the Brazilian law relating to the treatment of Indians, and to the formation of Survival International, the influential international organisation which campaigns for the rights of tribal peoples. He later published a very successful book called The Missionaries (1988) which is set amongst the Indians of Central and Latin America.
Extract from Preface
Volunteers from the armed forces in World War II found to possess linguistic qualifications, but who had attended either a redbrick university, or no university at all, were frequently directed into the Intelligence Corps. There followed four months of basic infantry training, plus another two at the Corps Depot at Winchester, the latter period largely devoted to ceremonial marching and learning to ride a motor cycle. Only in a final two weeks at Matlock was any Intelligence instruction imparted. At the end of this fortnight, trainees considered to have shown promise were interviewed by the Selection Officer, who went through a pretence of discussing with them their future. What the trainee did not realize was that however encouraging the report on the major’s desk, or promising the dialogue that ensued, his fate had been instantly settled from the moment of the officer’s first quick scrutiny of his face. The Selection Officer believed that blue was the colour of Truth. To the blue-eyed trainees, therefore, went the responsible and sometimes glamorous jobs, while the rest were tipped into the dustbin of what was then called the Field Security Police. In this they were confronted with the drudgery of delivering army-style, pay-attention-you-fuckers lectures, of snooping, detested by all, in the vicinity of military installations in the hope of pouncing on unwatchful guards, or discovering significant scraps of paper not properly disposed of by burning, and of making up alarming rumours with which to fill in the emptiness of the weekly report.
The escape from this predicament was a posting to an overseas section. Most of these, composed at first of an officer and eleven NCOs, were located in the principal cities or ports of countries wherever there happened to be British troops. Others, known as Divisional Sections, accompanied the forces in the field.
Vague as their overseas duties first were, FS men tended more and more to be employed primarily as linguists, to bridge the gap between the military and the civilian population. Often the liaison was fumbling and imperfect. Corps selectors were straightforward men of war without patience for linguistic hairsplitting. Rather, for example, than waste Spanish speakers they were sent to Italy, it being agreed that Spanish and Italian looked in print and sounded much the same. It was typical, too, that a Rumanian-speaking friend should find himself incoherent and gesticulating among the Yugoslav partisans (both were Balkan languages), and that the FSO of 91 FS Section with which I went to Algeria should be an authority on Old Norse, but have no French.
The Field Security Service (as it had hastily renamed itself), brand new in its innocence, confronted emergencies that were undreamed of in England and there were no rules to go by. To have received an inkling of the political situation of the country in which we found ourselves would have been useful, but none was given, and we trod the hard road of trial and error. No. 91’s first action in Philippeville – after the FSO had assembled the town’s notables and lectured them in Latin – was to release from gaol a certain Giuseppe Moreno, who had convinced us that he was a fervent Gaullist victimised for his pro-Allied stand by the Vichy regime. In reality he was the leader of Algeria’s emigrant branch of the Sicilian Mafia, and under sentence of death for the murder of a rival. The mistake must have been fairly typical.
Readers of this diary of a year in Naples may be surprised at the evidence of lack of supervision of the activities of FS personnel. The degree of semi-independence we in fact enjoyed varied from section to section, reflecting in part the military situation and in part the temperament of the commanding officer, who might have a taste for adventure or be by nature timorous. The FS life was on the whole a free one, sometimes gloriously so. But it was a freedom that could go to the head. Protected by the general confusion both as to their duties and powers, sergeants sent ‘on detachment’ into areas too remote for effective control by their headquarters sometimes became a law unto themselves, engaged in spectacular commercial transactions, involved themselves in tribal intrigue, or even, in one case, married the daughter of a Berber chieftain. Such things were possible in the inaccessible mountains of North Africa, but not in Naples, where there were plenty of adventures, but of a different kind.
My own slight knowledge of Adenese bazaar Arabic kept me occupied with the Arabs of North Africa. First there were visits to the dissident Caïds of Petite Kabylie who were planning the insurrection to come, against their French overlords, and who at that stage would have been happy for Algeria to become a British colony. After that, in Tunisia it was roughly a repeat of the situation, with the involvement this time of the Tunisian royal family. It was while I was engaged in secret conversations with one of its members that the moment came for sections to be reformed for the invasion of Italy. On 1 September 1943 I was posted to 312 FSS who had moved up from Constantine to Oran, and had been temporarily attached to HQ staff of the American Fifth Army. On 5 September we sailed in the Duchess of Bedford, leaving Mers el Kebir to join the invasion convoy bound for Salerno.
1943 September 8
On board Duchess of Bedford off coast of Italy.
It was announced to us at half past six today that an armistice with Italy has been signed and would take effect from tomorrow, when we are due to land at Salerno. It was clear that no one knew what awaited us, although air-raids on part of the convoy make it seem that the Germans are likely to fight on. We were lectured by an Intelligence officer who told us, surprisingly, that despite all the agents we had assumed to be working for us in Italy absolutely no information had come out regarding the situation. It was not even known whether Mussolini’s OVRA still existed. The lecture in fact was purposeless, and could have been summed up in a single sentence: ‘We know nothing.’
Except for us, all the troops in this ship are Americans. Although we were attached to the Headquarters of the American Fifth Army at their own request, because they possessed no security service of their own, we are cold-shouldered and left to our own devices except by some poker- playing sergeants, probably Mississippi ferry boat gamblers in civilian life, who remove my poker winnings accumulated in the past year in a half-hour’s play.
Landed on ‘Red Beach’, Paestum, at seven o’clock. Boatloads had been going ashore all day after a dawn shelling from the ships and a short battle for the beachhead. Now an extraordinary false serenity lay on the landward view. A great sweep of bay, thinly pencilled with sand, was backed with distant mountains gathering shadows in their innumerable folds. We saw the twinkle of white houses in orchards and groves, and distant villages clustered tightly on hilltops. Here and there, motionless columns of smoke denoted the presence of war, but the general impression was one of a splendid and tranquil evening in the late summer on one of the fabled shores of antiquity.
We hauled the motor cycles off the landing-craft, started them easily, and rode up over the wire-mesh laid across the sand, making for the cover of a wood. The corpses of those killed earlier in the day had been laid out in a row, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, with extreme precision as if about to present arms at an inspection by death. We numbered eleven: ten sergeants and a sergeant-major. Captain Cartwright, the Field Security Officer, badly smashed up in a car crash the day before we embarked, was presumably still in hospital in Oran. We had been given no briefing or orders of any kind, and so far as the Americans were concerned we might as well not have existed. This was the greatest invasion in this war so far – probably the greatest in human history – and the sea was crowded to the horizon with uncountable ships, but we were as lost and ineffective as babes in the wood. No one knew where the enemy was, but the bodies on the beach at least proved he existed. In place of the guns, tanks, armoured cars, barbed wire we had expected to see, all that had been landed in this sector of the beach were pyramids of office equipment for use by Army Headquarters. We had been issued with a Webley pistol and five rounds of ammunition apiece. Most of us had never fired a gun.
As the sun began to sink splendidly into the sea at our back we wandered at random through this wood full of chirping birds and suddenly found ourselves at the wood’s edge. We looked out into an open space on a scene of unearthly enchantment. A few hundred yards away stood in a row the three perfect temples of Paestum, pink and glowing and glorious in the sun’s last rays. It came as an illumination, one of the great experiences of life. But in the field between us and the temple lay two spotted cows, feet in the air. We crept back into the depths of the sheltering wood, burrowed into the undergrowth, and as soon as night fell, slept. At some time during the night I awoke in absolute darkness to the sound of movements through the bushes, then a mutter of voices in which I distinguished German words. The voices died away, and I slept again.