Though not especially well known in this country, Adam Foulds has become so covered with British honors and awards — best young this and that, winner of various, shortlisted all over the place — it is a wonder he can concentrate on anything aside from his own greatness. In the Wolf’s Mouth, the young(ish) luminary’s third novel, shows that he can — though this work, too, will surely add to the distracting accolades. The novel, marked throughout by arresting imagery and a poetic limberness of style, is a tragicomedy set chiefly in North Africa and Sicily during the Second World War. It follows the fortunes of a number of characters whose fates eventually intersect in the little Sicilian town of Sant’Attilio.
When we are first introduced to Sant’Attilio it is 1926, and even though a well-meaning landholder, Prince Adriano, is at the top of the region’s social hierarchy, the place is run by the Mafia. But, as the date suggests, change is afoot: the Fascists have established themselves in Sicily — the one tonic effect of their rise being their determination to rid the island of the Mafia. At least one member, Cirò Albanese, the Prince’s corrupt estate manager, vamooses to the United States to enjoy a prosperous career in the New York–New Jersey waterfront branch of the outfit — only to return as an American G.I. with restoration and revenge on his mind. His Sicilian wife has married again — a situation Cirò intends to rectify — and a former shepherd, Angilù, has replaced him as the Prince’s steward and now lives in what had been Cirò’s house: further injuries he means to address. But that is to come. Before those insalubrious matters arise, the novel turns to the lives and wartime experiences of two major characters.
Will Walker is a young Englishman, son of a decorated war hero, a decent, idealistic innocent. His view of life is perfectly expressed in The Wind in the Willows, which, along with Lucretius’ De rerum natura and, eventually, the Invasion Handbook, make up his reading during the long days and nights of his dull, futile war duties. Given his father’s gallant deeds, Will had hoped for a future in Special Operations, but no. Leaving for posting on a day whose “dismal, factual light looked . . . like something issued by the War Office,” he is, in fact, bound for an assignment as a port security officer in Allied-occupied North Africa. Here he becomes a disgusted and impotent witness to systematic bungling and pilferage.
More heartening, in his view, is his tangential (and solo) involvement in Arab plans to throw off French rule; there is even gratifying talk from one quarter of joining the British Empire. His spirits soar: “The reins were in Will’s hand. He was riding the horse of the world. He could steer the course of this part of North Africa.” Alas, the young man’s dreams of valor and glory are swept away by the British decision to pull out, and he is sent to follow the Allied invasion of Sicily to take up duties as a civilian affairs officer in Sant’Attilio for AMGOT (Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories). Here he is instrumental in allocating civil authority to non-Fascists — which amounts, inadvertently, to reestablishing the Mafia.
Longing for combat but, except for brief instances, merely following it, Will glimpses ghoulish emblems of the carnage that has preceded him, “in one place long lines of stretchers leaning against a wall in the sun, the canvas smudged with quiet shapes of drying blood.” Later, he comes across dismembered and burned corpses and all the horror of war’s reality, but again without having been part of the action. That privilege belongs to the second major character, Ray Marfione, one of the expendable infantrymen in both Operations Torch and Husky, the Allied invasions of North Africa and Sicily, respectively.
Born in New York to Italian immigrant parents, Ray, a G.I., finds his greatest joy and longed-for vocation in the movies. He keeps a notebook, recording his ideas for storylines, scenes, and images, and tends to put a cinematic frame around what he sees — even, initially, his experience of combat, of which he seems to get more than his share. Soon enough, however, the confusion and terror of battle overwhelm his sense of order, feeling for composition, and ability to take in what is happening.
It is in the nature of furious battle that it outstrips the ability of words to describe it and, paradoxically perhaps, the most eloquent war writing conveys this phenomenon. At one point, in describing a combined air and artillery attack on Ray’s squad, the novel breaks — or breaks down — into free-form impressions, format blown apart to produce a superb representation of a soldier’s battle-addled, fear-laced consciousness. Elsewhere, Foulds describes the aftermath of a German air raid on a North African town and adjacent American encampment as seen through Ray’s eyes, his stunned part in this nightmare conveyed in his inadequate perception of what has occurred:
That was the last explosion. Aircraft engines droned in the distance. Gunfire thinned. Soldiers shouted at each other and vehicles raced. No one among the tents had been killed but in the town things were different. Someone said “bodies.” The word bodies was repeated. Ray heard it. Bodies on the beach, apparently, and in the water. Smoke rose from one place in the town, thick and black, not like woodsmoke or cigarette smoke or anything but dense, full of matter, poisonous, chugging upwards.
That last sentence, so redolent of war’s malign destructiveness, is typical of Foulds’s gift for rendering a world refracted through his characters’ senses and of putting into fresh words the testimony of an acute eye.
As the novel proceeds, it lands in Sicily, and Ray’s harrowing war makes an assault on his mind, though that, in turn, brings him into unlikely companionship with Prince Adriano’s irrepressible daughter. Meanwhile, Will, in the midst of AMGOT ignorance of and indifference to Sicilian society and culture, retains his sense of decency, refusing to bow to expediency. These, and the novel’s other strands, are engrossing stories, but the book’s true greatness lies in the writing. Almost every page displays an instance of finely tuned perception and shows how un-used-up the English language is. Even a description of such an ordinary occurrence as the effect of a man taking off his glasses is a small revelation: “Kelly lifted a hand and plucked his spectacles from his face. The effect for Will was strangely disconcerting. . . . His nude head, with large pink eyelids and smooth cheeks, was uncanny to look at. Will realised that the spectacles somehow summarised and finished Kelly’s face, fronted for it.”
Again and again as I read this book, I stopped and went back to reread passages, exhilarated by the keen edge of Foulds’s language and his inspired vision of the most ordinary circumstances, the most poignant, and the most grotesque. I shall leave you with one of the most entertaining, not least because it is so brilliantly evocative of Sicily in 1926. It describes the shepherd Angilù’s first experience with an automobile when offered a ride by Prince Adriano:
Angilù sat down on the chair inside. . . . The Prince shut the door, walked briskly round the front of the car and fired its motor with a violent twist of a metal handle. Angilù was surprised to see a prince bend down and use inelegant physical force. The Prince then got up and sat in the driving position beside him. He moved some levers and then, without any effort of man or animal, not even the visible pistoning of the train, they moved along the road, bouncing over its rough surface on soft leather chairs.