Young blood: an English sergeant rests at a memorial to the Italian soldiers of World War I, Sicily, 1943
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Lambs to the slaughter: In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds

An ambitious and wide-ranging novel about allied soldiers in Sicily during the Second World War.

In the Wolf's Mouth
Adam Foulds
Jonathan Cape, 323pp, £16.99

Adam Foulds’s last novel was the Booker-shortlisted The Quickening Maze (2009), a beautifully imagined story based on a real episode in the 1830s, when John Clare and Alfred Tennyson were both resident in the same asylum in Epping Forest. But it’s The Broken Word (2008), his Costa-winning narrative poem about a boy caught up in the brutal British response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, that sets the tone for this new novel. The two books share a fascination with chaos and order, violence and its consequences. They show how easily young men lose their innocence, like snakes slipping from their old skins.

In the Wolf’s Mouth is ambitious and diffuse, its three narratives threading together in short chapters before meeting in Sicily in 1943. The American thread follows Ray Marfione, a young, gentle, film-obsessed Italian-American soldier fighting his way along the North African coast and over to Sicily. The English thread follows the same geographical route with an Oxford graduate named Will Walker, grudgingly assigned to the Field Security Service (“If I may, sir, I was hoping for the Special Operations Executive . . .”) and sent to restore civil authority in the war’s wake.

The Sicilian story is denser and the historical backdrop less familiar. It begins in 1926 in a rural town where the local Mafioso Cirò Albanense is being squeezed by the Fascist government’s crackdown on organised crime. Albanense escapes to New York, where he progresses from racketeering to importing morphine. Twenty years on, he seizes his chance to return to Sicily, joining the US army under the pretence of helping the troops bring order to the island.

Sicily, with its singing shepherds, has the feel of a classical rural idyll. But the silver-leaved olive trees and warm earth are misleading: the trees get torched and the earth stained with blood. Albanense, returning on the American invasion fleet, has the air of Satan surveying his new kingdom: “He would be part of the new order on the island. Dense smoke, full of the pollution of random burning, rolled back elegantly over the surface of the cold sea. Cirò inhaled.”

Walker, an Arabic scholar in the mould of T E Lawrence, also wants to be part a new order, believing that he can “make elegant and decisive shapes out of the shapelessness” of war. Foulds neatly captures the young Englishman’s mixture of moral seriousness and awful smugness. In North Africa, Will meets Arab royalty and believes he has “won England a part of the world”, writing up his report in what he imagines to be “the best Whitehall style”. In licentious, chaotic Sicily he believes he can sort the Fascists from the non-Fascists and re-establish the rule of law. He is, of course, doomed to fail (bringing to mind other, more recent post-invasion projects). Like Tom, the protagonist of The Broken Word, Will becomes part of the “animal” behaviour he despises, losing his virginity to a prostitute in a rubble-strewn courtyard.

The war is full of boys – virgins, reading The Wind in the Willows, alien comics or movie magazines – thrust into a world “of possible annihilation from three hundred and sixty degrees at any split second in time”. Foulds is excellent at defamiliarising death. A sniper blows off a jawbone and it lands on another man’s arm, “warm and light as a teacup”. Ray sees a fellow soldier crumple, eyes shut: “Both hands were closed around the barrel of his rifle the way a mouse holds on to the stem of grass with its little white hands in the picture on the cereal packet.” Even the shooting of a partridge is unexpectedly shocking, recalling a landowner butchered at his dining table in The Broken Word: “The bird was thrust sideways. It sat heavy, startled, like somebody suddenly shoved out of a chair.”

There is perhaps too much material funnelled into this novel: the shifting relationship between peasants, Mafia, fascists and aristocracy in Sicily would make a book in itself. Juggling three different narratives is not easy and the transitions don’t always work. But Foulds is a master of concision and clarity, and his prose is “poetic” in the best sense: never florid or rambling, each short sentence weighed and parcelled out.

The response to the Italian good-luck wish “In bocca al lupo” – “In the wolf’s mouth” – is “Crepi!”, meaning: “May the wolf die!” But this wolf’s mouth is capacious and it does not tire: “The battle was stubborn and grinding. It had two jaws. It was eating men.”

That forceful image is a rare big-picture moment in a book that generally resists the epic. In the Wolf’s Mouth is not so much about the horrific waste of war: Foulds is more interested in how, as individuals, we deal with violence. Do we flee? Do we fight? Or do we see an opportunity?

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

AKG-IMAGES
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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster