The other day, I found a first edition hardback of Norman Lewis’ Naples ’44 for £2 in a charity shop. I thought I’d write a wee review just so I’d have an excuse to tell everyone.
I first read this book when I was in Naples earlier in the year and of all the Neapolitan books I read, I think this is the one I enjoyed the most.
Norman Lewis served as an intelligence officer during the war and during this time he kept a diary. Naples ’44 begins as Lewis and his unit land on a beach in Paestum, just south of Salerno. After a pretty hectic game of cat and mouse with the enemy, he eventually reaches his destination and finds a city in extreme poverty. The descriptions evoke images of a war-beaten people shivering in empty rooms as they try to think of something else to sell.
The Neapolitan people were (and still are) a very closed community surviving on their own wiles and placing as little trust in the authorities as possible. Since time immemorial the ownership of Naples has been in constant flux and the ‘ordinary people’ have always been subject to whatever ills the ruling classes could dream up, be they Spaniard, Bourbon or Fascist. It’s for this reason that the common folk always turn inwards in times of crisis.
One can hardly think of a more difficult state of affairs for an intelligence officer to find themselves in. One of his main duties is to uncover information relating to black-market trading – a task made impossible by the simple fact that the citizens rely on these goods to survive. Being Naples, there’s also a tendency to keep quiet for fear of accidentally incriminating the Camorra and inviting certain death.
Lewis doesn’t spend the whole time chasing fruitless leads and we can see several friendships blossoming between himself and some of the locals. It’s a pity that his stay happens to coincide with a war because there is one aspect of Neapolitan culture that is glaringly absent – they have very little food to go around. Of course they make the best of a bad situation and at one point they resort to feasting on the attractions of the local aquarium.
Among the many treasures in this book is the description of an occurrence for which the area is synonymous but that few have witnessed. Norman Lewis becomes one of the privileged few to have seen the last eruption of the Vesuvius and he illustrates the awe and panic brilliantly.
Lewis’ tone is wry and witty throughout and he observes his situation from a typically British angle. The book is now published by Eland who take time and effort to make their books beautiful. At £10.99 it might be more expensive than your average paperback but for the story alone, it’s definitely money well spent.