Travel books, or adventure books chronicling experiences of living abroad, can be highly variable in literary or other qualities. I have my favourites: I loved that PJ O’Rourke classic, “Holidays in Hell”; I enjoyed the travel and memoirs of the great Patrick Leigh-Fermor, and another favourite of mine was Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race (describing his experience of sailing aboard a four-masted clipper-type ship). Being a bit of a yachtie, I also enjoyed the Robin Knox-Johnson account of his single-handed sailing trip around the world. And of course there are military memoirs where adventure and travel are co-mingled with armed expeditions. And a case in point is the writing of Norman Lewis.
I have not read much by Lewis, who died at the grand age of 95 after having spent a rich and varied career in places ranging from Brazil, Indonesia to Western Europe. And perhaps his most celebrated book is “Naples ’44”, describing his year in the southern Italian city in the immediate aftermath of the Allied landings in Italy. It is a superbly written account – Lewis has a wonderful eye for detail – and conveys the sheer bloody awfulness of life for ordinary Italians recovering from both the invasion and the Fascist regime that had been dislodged. For example, his descriptions of how little food the populace had, and what they had to eat, is sobering indeed to anyone reading moral-panic journalism about our supposed obesity crisis.
Of course, any account of southern Italy will include tales of the Mafia, and banditry, and the relentless amounts of corruption. What is particularly striking – and this is where the libertarian in me gets interested – is how the black market for stolen Allied goods, such as penicillin – thrived. Naturally, with so many goods suppressed or in short supply, criminal gangs and bent military personnel sought to make a market. This highlights how when markets are suppressed and where the fabric of civil society has been smashed by war, thugs can often fill the gap. In some cases, theft of supplies from the Allied forces got so bad that Lewis and his colleagues had to do something about it. Ordinary Italians who got caught pilfering supplies often received long jail sentences; well-connected businessmen (ie, Mafia guys), were acquitted when witnesses suddenly failed to show up.
Lewis became something of an expert on the Mafia and this region of Italy. He does not romanticise what he saw – he was too lacking in fake sentimentality for that. I have sometimes heard fellow free marketeers liken government to a sort of Mafia – tax is a kind of legalised thievery – but I am not sure it is an analogy I would push too far. I wonder how many of us would have wanted to live in Mafia-run Sicily or the neighbouring mainland, even with the tasty wine, olives and sunshine.
I intend to read a lot more of Lewis’s output. His writing is wonderful.