Gothic, Grand-Guignol, Grisly, Grim and Gorgeous!
Good Heavens! Michelle Lovric has a rich, inventive imagination, steeps herself in research, wears it lightly, and overflows with a kind of earthy vitality that seems to belong to an earlier century and indeed to be more akin to South American literature than English literature. Or it may just be the time and the place she is writing about
The marvellous Book of Human Skin is set in Venice, and also in Peru, or what later became Peru, at the tail end of the eighteenth century, up to and beyond Napoleon’s death on St. Helena in 1821
The book is written in 5 voices, each of which is excellently delineated. Two of them are quite definitely of the devil’s party, even though one of them is a deranged nun who believes she is due to ascend in beatitude, and 3 are most definitely on the side of the angels
Minguello Fasan, born in 1784 is a vile, sadistic, sneering, puffed up and very funny scion of the house of Fasan. He bears more than a passing resemblance to the monstrously compelling central character of Patrick Susskind’s Perfume. Minguello, right from the start has a whiff of brimstone about him, and whether by nature or by nurture is determined to express that fully. He is the second born of the house, and aware of the dislike in which everyone holds him, including his parents, is determined to inherit all his family’s substantial riches. And he is a passionate collector of books which are bound in Human Skin.
Unlike Marcella’s my flesh proved insultingly mortal. The damaged finger turned yellow, then red and then black…..In the end Surgeon Ruggiero unceremoniously lopped the digit off. I had lost my index finger, my pointing finger, my stabbing-on-the-table-to-prove-a-point finger, my eye-poking, shame-slitting finger. I kept it in a box until the worms found it
Marcella Fasan is his younger sister. Born with a congenital weakness, she is initially loved by all, (except Minguello who loves no one) and almost immediately becomes the next target of Minguello’s sadism and ire (something happens to his older sibling) Marcella is intelligent, a gifted wielder of the pen and pencil, loyal, loving, resourceful and refuses to accept the role Minguello assigns her (dead through his many designs)
My pencil began to reveal fear in people’s eyes when they beheld me – me, the slightest, least fearsome creature imaginable. Even my hair was soft like chicken-down. The very cartilege of my nose was transclucent in the sunshine. But that, I was learning, is what frightens people: creatures who are weaker and rarer than themselves. I drew caricatures of elegant baboons, their eyes and tails askew with terror – fleeing from a tiny mouse – with my features – in a wheeled chair
Gianni delle Boccole is bright, devoted to Marcella, but appears a dolt. By circuitous means he learned to read (though most assume him illiterate); he is Marcello’s valet. Though he can read, he can barely write, and certainly has a more than usually phonetic grasp of spelling. Initially, his often hugely funny misspellings were a little irritating or contrived, but by the third or fourth of Gianni’s tellings of the tale, I was sold on him. And some of the tale is so dark and seamy than the levity of unintentional writos are a relief!
Swear my old Master Fernando give the boy babe one long look and betook himself to the furthest corner o the world. He were that shamed to be the author o sich an abdomenashun as Minguello Fasan, Great Canary ovva God!
Doctor Santo Aldobrandini is a poor young orphan, with a desperate desire to help and heal, and a large and tender heart, who gets himself, by hook or by crook, apprenticed to learn the craft of physic.
My famous patient, Napoleon, suffered his first attack of dysuria at the Battle of Marengo in 1800. I never got quite close enough myself to make a personal diagnosis, but they say his urinary pain was a terrible thing to behold. He would lean against a tree, moaning as he tried to relieve himself of a burning liquid clotted with sediments. His men rather admired his symptoms, which seemed those of an amatory complaint
These four start their journey in Venice, a proud, patrician, sophisticated, urbane, cultured – not to mention decadent (according to some) – state, whose fortunes will be changed by Napoleon.
Sor Loreta, the deranged, delusional nun, dreams of becoming a martyr, a saint, and the prioress of Santa Catalina, Arequipa, in modern day Peru
Arequipa, Peru, Santa Catalina convent
I contented myself with Santa Catalina. She knew she was married to Christ, for she received a vision in which she wore as a wedding ring the Holy Prepuce…..When she was just a child she threw herself into the boiling waters of a spring near her house in order to burn the skin of her face and body and so discourage human suitors……When they took my Santa Catalina away too, my soul rebelled inside my body. I scrubbed my face with the pepper and lye that I had hidden in my bureau drawer
Another way of looking at these five (and there are many other equally ebullient characters who might almost have strayed from Balzac or even Rabelais) might be in the tradition of some of Rossini’s operas. And I’m sure this is deliberate, on Lovric’s part, as another character, the kindly prioress of Santa Catalina, whom the deranged Sor Loreta is desperate to eliminate and supplant, is devoted to Rossini’s music (not all nuns are quite the dour characters which the outside world thinks they might be)
In this, Marcella and Santo are of course the young lovers (Rosina, Almaviva/Lindoro) (Santo, like Almaviva in The Barber of Seville is expert in disguise in order to gain the enemy stronghold to meet his truly beloved) Gianni, valet, is Figaro, and Minguello the much more wicked version of the merely buffoonish Doctor Bartolo, and the equally sadistic Sor Loreta a notched up version of the prim Berta,
Act I Finale mayhem, production by Ponelle, Hermann Prey as Figaro, Teresa Berganza as Rosina, Luigi Alva as Almaviva
This is a glorious, twisty, turny (utterly credible within its own reality) plot. Characters that make sense in place and time. Humour which is as dark as you like, but, overall, an explosion of intelligence, vivacity, inventiveness and originality.
Saint Sebastian by Gerrit van Honthorst, circa 1623
As you can tell, I like Lovric rather a lot, following my earlier read of her later novel, involving the wonderfully tressed Irish sisters The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters
Photo of Lovric by Marianne Taylor, from Lovric’s website
The 466 page novel is followed by a much soberer and more explanatory 30 page afterword by Lovric, where she lays out the factual aspects of her book, and where she departed from the facts. In essence, all the historical information IS there, but may have been woven in a unique way by Lovric. The dots are in place, she does the joining.
I think I’ve gone off reading ‘wood books’ and will stick to the less potentially dangerous Kindled editions. Readers of this will understand my new sensitivities……….
The Book of Human Skin Amazon UK
The Book of Human Skin Amazon USA