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

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue