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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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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