We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Thoughts about a WW2 classic book about southern Italy

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.

16 comments to Thoughts about a WW2 classic book about southern Italy

  • It’s always worth a reminder that within the lifetime of people alive now and not even that old, actual hunger was quite common in most of Europe, and that apart from the starvation deliberately induced by tyrannical regimes.

    Street urchins, too. The term has become cutiefied now but there was nothing cute about the phenomenon then.

  • Jonathan:

    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.

    ‘Mafia-run’ suggests to me that Mafia was there and then yet another form of government, so the analogy still seems apt. Perhaps what could be said instead is that the current western governments are not as brutal as the mafia one was. There, I feel much better already:-/

  • Classic World War II book about southern Italy? I thought this would be about Christ Stopped at Eboli :)

  • guy herbert

    True libertarians are inclined to exagerrate the state of affairs in the western democracies, but in many parts of the world, the distance between government, politics and organised crime is not very great. There are many countries where politicians leave office massively richer than they enter it.

    And sometimes it is very close indeed. Corrupt exploitation of his official position in Germany controlling permits from the occupying power was of course how Robert Maxwell first got rich.

  • Rob

    What happens if you don’t pay your protection money to the mafia?

    Compared to

    What happens if you don’t pay your protection money to the Govt.?

    Hmmm…Quel difference?

  • Patrick McCann

    In the late ’80′s or early 90′s,I had the pleasure of seeing Robin Knox-Johnson in Cleveland. He gave talk/slide show of a trip he took to Greenland ( mountain climbing of all things, but he did sail there in Suhaili his home built ketch). The libertarian in you will really like Joshua Slocum’s ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’ (pub 1900). As you may know, he was the first to sail solo around the world. The real story is:
    He was unemployed, was given a half rotten boat that he rebuilt, was given the majority of his supplies (by private donors, not the Government).
    A good read.

  • mdc

    I’d take the Italian mafia over many governments. I doubt anyone would not prefer it to Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Britain and America may have, by the standards of governments, particularly gentle rule. But taken as a whole, the mafia is a fairly moderate form of government.

  • ” There are many countries where politicians leave office massively richer than they enter it.”

    Try Australia.

  • thefrollickingmole

    For a fun read on WW2 try “Popskis private army”, about a bloke who pretty well ran his own version of the LRDG.

    Set it up as his own band of soldiers with a fair bit of black market stuff to keep supplied as the “proper” army didnt care for him much.

    His book is a great read.’
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popski%27s_Private_Army

  • Now what is that movie with Orson Welles set in Berlin with the black market in anti-biotics?

    As to Natalie’s point. When I was a little kid my Gran (who grew up on a farm without mains water) told me about a slaughter-man she knew back then. He was gored in the foot by a pig. It was infected and he died. I scarcely believed it. How can a foot wound be fatal? This was the late ’30s though.

    We live in fortunate times in many ways. If I ever have grandchildren I hope to be able to tell them such tales about the bad old days when people actually died from cancer and for them to similarly find it difficult believe.

  • Paul Marks

    One thing about organized crime (and it dominates most of Latin America as well as Southern Italy) is that one never knows how high the “tax” is going to be – and what the “regulations” (the orders) are going to be.

    One may have “a deal” – but it is worthless, as the criminals can change “the deal” without notice and at any time.

    All this means that it is impossible for real businessmen (and they do exist – even in these places) to plan investment – to develop economically.

    Culture matters – people must stand against organizations like the Mafia. Not just “no matter what the cost” (anyone can die) – but also by imposing a cost on them.

    “I do not want men who are prepared to die for their country – I want men who are going to make the other son-of-a-bitch die for his country”.

    Zero cultural tolerance for organized crime, it is the only way.

  • Andrew Duffin

    “Christ stopped at Eboli” is indeed a classic, but of a somewhat different type than Lewis’.

    If you’re interested in the Mafia, read “The Honoured Society”.

    And if you’re interested in Southern Italy of a slightly earlier era, the other Norman (Douglas) is hard to beat.

  • Andrew Duffin

    @Nick M:

    Berlin? BERLIN?

    That’s The Third Man you’re talking about and it was set in Vienna.

    I suppose I need to turn up my sarcasm detector sensitivity a bit.

  • Richard Thomas

    NickM, you may enjoy the story of Jack Daniels (of whiskey fame). Frustrated at being unable to open his safe one day, he gave it a good solid kick. In doing so, he injured his toe. The injury became infected and he died of blood poisoning.

  • Richard Thomas

    One thing about organized crime (and it dominates most of Latin America as well as Southern Italy) is that one never knows how high the “tax” is going to be – and what the “regulations” (the orders) are going to be.

    One may have “a deal” – but it is worthless, as the criminals can change “the deal” without notice and at any time.

    All this means that it is impossible for real businessmen (and they do exist – even in these places) to plan investment – to develop economically.

    I’m sorry Paul, what are you saying the difference is? (Or were you being tongue-in-cheek?)

  • Laird

    How can you talk about the black market in southern Italy during WW2 without mentioning Catch-22? Milo Minderbinder was the quintessential black marketeer.