Alberto Moravia: Even in uniform and with a chest covered with medals, always a thief and a murderer
From Two Women (1958)
Translated by Angus Davidson
As long as he had been playing the accordion, he had been the man who in time of peace had been a blacksmith; when he took the shirt he had been the soldier who does not know the law of meum et tuum and who has no respect for anyone or anything. In short, as I have already said, war means not only killing but stealing as well; and a man who, in peacetime, would not kill or steal for all the gold in the world, in wartime rediscovers, at the bottom of his heart, the instinct to steal and kill which exists in all men; and he rediscovers it just because he is encouraged to rediscover it; in fact he is told all the time that this instinct is the right instinct and that he must trust to it, otherwise he is not a real soldier. So he says to himself: “I’m at war now. I shall go back to being what I really am, when peace comes. For the moment I can let myself go.” Unfortunately, however, no one who has stolen or killed, even in war, can ever hope to go back, afterward, to what he was before – in my opinion, anyhow. It would be – if I may make a comparison – as though a woman who was still a virgin allowed her virginity to be broken under the illusion that she could go back to being a virgin again later, by some extraordinary kind of miracle that has never been known to happen. Once a thief and a murderer, always a thief and a murderer, even in uniform and with a chest covered with medals, always a thief and a murderer.
The sky seemed like a drumhead with the guns resounding dully and somberly upon it. It was very moving to hear so gloomy and menacing a sound on those days of brilliant weather; it suggested the thought that the war now formed part of nature, that the sound was in some way connected with the sunlight and confused with it, and that the spring, too, was sick from the war, just as men were sick from it. The rumble of gunfire, in fact, had entered into our life, just as rags and famine and danger had entered it, and, since it never ceased, it became – like rags and famine and danger – a normal thing to which we had become so accustomed that, if it had ceased – and indeed one fine day it did cease – we should have felt almost surprised. What I mean to say is that you can get accustomed to anything and that war too is a matter of habit, and what changes us it not the extraordinary things that happen for a time but this very fact of becoming accustomed to a thing, which shows, in fact, that we accept what happens to us and cease to rebel against it.
Ah, beauty can be appreciated on a full stomach; but when your stomach is empty. all your thoughts turn in the same direction and beauty seems a deception or, even worse, a mockery…One afternoon I went down, as often, to Fondi, in the hope of buying some bread, and, as we came down into the valley, we were flabbergasted to see three horses belonging to the German army quietly gazing in a field of corn. A soldier without any sign of rank, possibly a Russian renegade like the one we had met on that other occasion, was in charge of the horses, and was sitting idly on the fence with a blade of grass between his teeth. To tell the truth, never had I realized, as I did at that moment, what war means, and how, in time of war, the feeling heart no longer feels, and a man’s neighbor no longer exists, and everything is possible. It was one of those brilliant days, full of sunshine and flowers, and we three – Michele, Rosetta and I – stood near the fence and gazed open-mouthed at those three well-fed horses which, poor things, unaware of what their masters were causing them to do, innocently cropped the tender corn with which, when it ripens, bread is made for human beings. When I was a child my parents used to tell me that bread is sacred and that it is a sacrilege to throw it away or waste it and that you are committing a sin even if you place the loaf upside down; and now I saw that this bread was being given to beasts, when so many people in the valley and up in the mountains were suffering from hunger. Michele at last expressed all our feelings by saying: “If I were religious, I should say that the Apocalypse had come, when horses shall be seen grazing upon corn. Since I am not religious, I say merely that the Nazis have come, which, perhaps, is the same thing.”
…I also felt that people ought not to think that everyone loves peace. There are plenty of people who feel very much at their ease during a war, if only because it enables them to give vent to their own violent and blood thirsty instincts. That was how I argued, until I saw real war.