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Monday, 21 March 2011

Curzio Malaparte: A Basket of Oysters (A Visit with Ante Pavelić)


File:Ante Pavelić und Joachim von Ribbentrop .jpg

Ante Pavelić and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Salzburg, 6 June 1941: photo by Henkel (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Several months had passed since I had seen Ante Pavelić and when I entered his study, I noticed that he had changed the arrangement of the furniture. The last time I had called on him, a few months before, his desk was at the end of the room, in the corner farthest from the window. Now it stood directly in front of the door, with just enough room between the door and the desk to allow one man to get by. I went in and almost knocked my knees against the desk.

"It's a plan of my own devising," said Ante Pavelić, shaking my hand and laughing. "Anyone coming in here with criminal intentions, bumping into the desk and facing me suddenly, will lose his composure and betray himself. Hitler and Mussolini have a different plan; they interpose the empty space of a very large room between themselves and their visitors."

I watched him while he spoke. He seemed to me greatly changed; tired, marked with fatigue and worry. His eyes were reddened by lack of sleep. But his voice as it had been before -- deep, musical and very sweet -- was the voice of a good-natured, simple and generous man. His huge ears had grown strangely thinner. They had grown transparent. Through the right ear that was turned toward the window, I could see the pink reflection of the roofs, the green light of the trees and the blue sky. The other ear that was turned toward one of the walls, was in the shadow and seemed to be made of a white, soft and fragile substance -- an ear of wax. I studied Ante Pavelić, his thick hairy hands, his low, hard, obstinate brow, his monstrous ears, and I was overcome by a kind of pity toward that good-natured, simple and generous man, endowed with such a delicate sense of humanity. The political situation had become considerably worse during those few months. The rebellion of the partisans raged throughout Croatia from Zemun to Zagreb. The pale, almost ashen face of the Poglavnik was marked with a sorrow that was deep and sincere. How grievously his excellent heart must suffer, I thought.

After a while, Major Makiedo came in to announce the Italian Minister, Raffaele Casertano. "Let him come in," said Ante Pavelić. "The Italian Minister must not be kept waiting."

Casertano came in and we spent a long time discussing simply and cordially the gravity of the situation. The partisan bands had pushed by night into the very suburbs of Zagreb, but the loyal ustashis of Pavelić would soon squash those tiresome guerillas. "The Croatian people," said Ante Pavelić, "wish to be ruled with goodness and justice. And I am here to provide them."

While he spoke, I gazed at a wicker basket on the Poglavnik's desk. The lid was raised and the basket seemed to be filled with mussels, or shelled oysters -- as they are occasionally displayed in the windows of Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly in London. Casertano looked at me and winked, "Would you like a nice oyster stew?"

"Are they Dalmatian oysters?" I asked the Poglavnik.

Ante Pavelić removed the lid from the basket and revealed the mussels, that slimy and jelly-like mass, and he said smiling, with that tired good-natured smile of his, "It is a present from my loyal ustashis. Forty pounds of human eyes."

Datei:Adolf Hitler meets Ante Pavelić.1941.jpg

Adolf Hitler greets Ante Pavelić, leader of the Independent State of Croatia, upon his arrival for a visit at the Berghof, Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, 9 June 1941: photographer unknown (Muzej Revolucije Naroda i Narodnosti Jugoslavije; image by Direktor, 2010)

File:Ante Pavelić.jpg

Ante Pavelić, Poglavnik of the Independent State of Croatia, 10 April 1941-8 May 1945: photographer unknown, n.d. (image by AP1929, 2008)

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Croatian Ustashi leader Ante Pavelić giving Nazi salute (far left) with Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac (far right) and other Catholic Church leaders: photographer unknown, n.d. (image by Direktor, 2010)

Croatian Ustashi militia executing prisoners over a mass grave near the Jazenovac concentration camp: photographer unknown, n.d. (Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade; image by Direktor, 2010)

Ustashi guard standing in a mass grave near the Jazenovac concentration camp: photographer unknown, n.d. (Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade; image by Direktor, 2010)

Curzio Malaparte: A Basket of Oysters (excerpt), from Kaputt, 1943, translated by Cesare Foligno, 1946


Simon M Hunter said...

There is a story, which I don't have time to check now, that the Ustaše were so brutal that even the SS were moved to protest.

TC said...

I can believe it. It seems the Ustaše considered the Nazis a pack of ponces. What else is there to say.

Some literalists have challenged the master ironist Malaparte's veracity on the rather vivid detail about the Poglavnik's hors d'oeuvres.

(It appears to me he is here a journalist deploying to good parabolic effect the techniques of what is commonly called "literature".)