x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Adam Foulds’ novel about two soldiers with very different perspectives on war is both haunting and beautiful,Lucy Scholes writes

Adam Foulds’ novel about two soldiers with very different perspectives on war is both haunting and beautiful, Lucy Scholes writes

US soldiers with Italian civilians shortly after the 1943 invasion of Sicily. Bob Landry / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images
US soldiers with Italian civilians shortly after the 1943 invasion of Sicily. Bob Landry / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

In the Wolf’s Mouth begins in rural Sicily in 1926. Angilù, a shepherd, watches over his flock, guarding them against attacks from thieving bandits. He has to report any losses to Cirò Albanese, the landlord – officially, the protector of the local prince’s land, but also a Mafia heavyweight.

Arriving at the landlord’s house one morning to report the previous night’s bandit attack, Angilù finds that Cirò has fled Mussolini’s fascists (hidden inside a fake-fronted coffin, he’s on his way to America).

In his place is Prince Adriano himself, described as a “rare eccentric: a Sicilian landowner who liked the land” and its shepherds too, remnants of “the true and ancient Sicily, classical Sicily”. The prince takes Angilù under his wing, employing him in Cirò’s place.

When we meet Angilù and Cirò again, nearly 20 years have passed, and much has changed. The novel is split into two parts: the first mostly taking place in North Africa in 1942; the second back in Sicily.

The two pairs of eyes through which we see the action unfold are those of Ray Marfione, a working-class Italian-American soldier who dreams of becoming a movie director, and Will Walker, a young British enlistee keen to live up to his father’s heroic military record.

Ray stumbles through the blood and guts of battle, his fellow men blown to smithereens to his right and left, while Will, due to his language skills, is steered towards a more ambassadorial role, keeping the peace between the local tribespeople and the occupying French.

With the German army driven out, the soldiers give chase, pushing north to Sicily where Will continues his diplomatic endeavours and Ray’s Italian heritage sees him become part of a supposed peacekeeping force. Perception, in this novel, is everything. Ray visualises his experiences as a rough director’s cut, he’s “a movie camera pushing forward into the world, seeing things”. As the bloody, gory reality closes in around him, the resultant mental trauma he suffers manifests itself as clogging mechanisms breaking down: “Instead single images, memories, kept catching as in a malfunctioning projector, the actors slowing down nonsensically and stopping, the images blistering and burning through as his mind gave way to exhaustion.”

Will’s perception, by comparison, is modelled on the literary – his constant companions are copies of The Wind in the Willows and Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. His mind’s eye transforms his slightly squat, short figure (not the “look for the officer class”) into something more poetic: “In his soul he was tall, a traveller, a keen, wind-honed figure.” And while Ray sees his life projected in the third person, Will is the first-person narrator of his: “It was as though he were walking through the first chapter of a future biography, with his kitbag on his shoulder.”

The rub is that for all this insight, it’s what they don’t see that dictates Sicily’s future – some things are too dangerous to acknowledge: “People in a trance, in a dream blind with fear, silent even though they knew.” Having returned to the island at the special request of the US army, their man on the inside, as it were, Cirò is no longer simply stealing sheep, “squeezing mill owners and collecting tributes”.

America was indeed a land of opportunity for him and his ilk: “They’d killed and they’d negotiated. They ran numbers and nightclubs and girls. They imported morphine and booze, Cirò’s special area of interest, and they received tributes from all sorts of people and all sorts of places. They’d negotiated with the authorities and got them on side. They’d become political.”

The Allied forces intent on the defascistification of the island can try as they might to reinstate what they see as order, but with it they’re re-establishing the “old, broken law” that sees Angilù, among others, walking a “precipice”.

Given that he’s both an acclaimed poet and novelist, to praise the poetic cadence of Foulds’s prose seems like somewhat lazy applause, but the subtle beauty of his writing is undeniable. Combine this with a haunting story of men buffeted by powers beyond their control, and the result is a captivating novel by one of Britain’s best young writers.