In the Wolf’s Mouth
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?