FROM MY BOOKSHELVES - The Book of Human Skin
20th April 2013; 20:53
Even though I write ghostly mysteries, I dont usually go for books that are too gory, graphic or unpleasant. I believe that gory descriptions have their place and should not be used simply for shock factor.
The Book of Human Skin, by Michelle Lovric, is one of those rare ones that manage to do the trick. There were passages that made me shudder - properly shudder, yet I had to keep on reading. It was like watching a horror movie, covering your eyes but still peeping through your fingers because you have to see more.
I was initially drawn to it while looking for books set in Venice (I have become a bit of a Venice aficionado). The Book of Human Skin caught my eye because it is also set in colonial Peru and my Latinamerican roots called for it.
The story skips around five distinctive voices, telling us the story of deranged Miniguillo Fasan, as he subjects his sister to all sorts of abuse in order to make his way to the family inheritance. Even though I utterly hated him, I could not help sniggering at how he kept mocking me (the reader); yes, the actions he narrates are deplorable, but I kept on reading and thus became an accomplice in a way.
The entire novel is told in very short chapters, which makes it even more readable. I found myself reading late at night, thinking oh, just one more...
If I had to complain about something, it is that Giannis broken English was a bit hard to follow, although this was an intrinsic feature of the character.
It was a fascinating reading nonetheless, and I must confess it inspired a few ideas for my future books (Michelle, I'll get you an Aperol next time I'm in Venice).
A few weeks after I was done reading it, I came across an article about the book shops crisis in Venice. Michelle Lovric turned out to be one of the authors trying to save the book business in the most beautiful city in the world.
She very kindly agreed to answer a few questions for the blog, for which I am more than grateful:
- You describe sadistic behaviour, abuse, mutilation and other human niceties without compromise. How much of that came from research and how much from your own imagination?
Research always reveals things that are darker and more horrible than even my fevered imagination can conjure! The skill lies in plaiting the fact into your fiction so that you are no info-dumping but bringing the past to life via your characters.
- Did you at some point consider the book might be too disturbing for your readers? Or did you take Minguillo's attitude? ("The Dull Reader may at this point betake His stupid rectum to His preferred armchair in the Coffee House, and pick up His penny journal, satisfied in knowing that there is nothing between these covers for Him" - wonderful line!)
I wanted the reader to confront his or her own responsibilities in reading horror and unpleasantness. The reader is warned, right from the first page, that this book is challenging. But at the end, I hope the reader realizes that more than his or her own personal tolerance of evil has been challenged. It is also his or her complicity.
- Did working with such dark material affect you at a personal level? I ask this because the last time I wrote a very gory scene (at 3:00am, not smart) I found it hard to turn the lights off!
I am ashamed to say that I enjoyed it. It was like a holiday from real life most of the time, especially when researching the Holy Anorexics like Sor Loreta. However, I did find handling the book of actual human skin (at the Wellcome Trust) made me acutely uncomfortable about my role as a writer, and wonder where writing might cross into prurience or voyeurism. I wrote a poem about it, which I'm happy to share. (Congruent, attached [see below!]). In the end I decided that it would be the quality of my writing, my proper expression of outrage, that would be the test of my right to handle that material.
- Having a Latinamerican background I was astonished by the authenticity of the passages in Peru . People, customs and language are all spot on. How long did you stay in Peru doing research? It must have been really rewarding; in my experience people are always very excited to help an author!
Thank you! I made two trips to Peru, taught myself primitive Spanish (I speak Italian) and read copiously. In Arequipa I was given a guide who speaks Italian. She and I got along famously. I explained the scenes I wanted to write and she helped me find locations for them within the convent of Santa Catalina . Her enthusiasm was wonderful. She even mimed a nun dragging a dead body down the convent steps so effectively that I made her do it a couple of times so I could describe the body language.
- As a successful writer who spends half her time in Venice , you are officially amongst the people I envy the most! Do you do the writing in-situ? Is there a bar/cafe in Venice where they have a glass/mug with your name printed on it?
The best bar in Venice is da Gino in San Vio. The best coffee, the best smiles, the best everything. Yes, they know how to make a cappuccino "tipo Michelle". I love going there to write early in the morning. I also drag the manuscript all over Venice , refreshing each scene in-situ. But of course the hard slog is done at my desk, or in the library.
- You are actively supporting a campaign to save Venetian bookshops. I discovered a couple of lovely independent establishments last time I was there; in one I bought a really nice set of books by Emilio Salgari and practised my rotten Italian over a glass of Aperol. The prospect of losing places like these is awful. What do you think can be done besides protecting them with rent control?
We have just published a manifesto signed by 100 writers with some extremely practical suggestions about what to do. We have carefully targeted each institution and suggested what could be done. Rate control is one thing. Allowing bookshops to hold events in the open air without regulating things out of existence is another. More cooperation with the museums is yet another. But in the end the appeal must be to readers: please support your local bookshop. Not just as a shop but as a cultural institution and a meeting place. And as somewhere you'd want your children to go. If you don't, your children may grow up without knowing how to be in a bookshop.
- What are you working on at the moment? Any titles we should look forward to?
Having done skin, I am now working on hair, which turns out to be just as interesting. Maybe even more interesting! I am just finishing a new "hairy" adult novel called The Swiney Godivas. But that's not out till next year. And in two weeks I have new children's book published, The Fate in the Box. In its ay, it's just as dark as The Book of Human Skin. Of course it is set in Venice, this time in the 18th century - actually about the same time as The Book of Human Skin early chapters.
- Finally: e-book or paper? (I like to ask this question to all fellow writers)
Paper. I don't even own a kindle. I like the smell of books and I like the weight of them in my bag, and I like my friends (mostly writers) to get hardback royalties. Hopefully you'll be one of those friends with hardback royalties very soon.
Never touch breakfast. That day I muddle milk in grain like a normal person,
like a normal person going to see a book of human skin. Humid hands all the way
to the library, I say and say it's research, and who if not a writer? And anyway
I'm writing a novel about how bad are books of human skin. That day
I suspect readers on the bus of Mein Kampf and OJ's memoirs: I glare, they
look away. Milk-breathed, I take the long march up to "Special Bindings". A frowning
girl takes in my black dress, brings out my request. The format hurts: gift-book,
small, could be a cheek or hand you'd know, yet the skin's tanned riding-boot brown
and smells of pepper. If you'd asked me what it was, and I was innocent, I might
have offered snake? My cannibal hand's softer than her skin, not quite so scaly,
but I've not been flayed, cured, dyed in sumac and gold-embossed by a doctor who
thought female leather a fit binding for a tract on female tracts. I make my move
I start to write. I want to give due her honour and it due disgust, and please
not lick my fingers, and most of all, while I handle her, for this not be about me.