Authors: Michelle Lovric
THE BOOK OF HUMAN SKIN
is the author of three novels—
Carnevale, The Floating Book
(winner of a London Arts Award and chosen as a WH Smith Read of the Week) and
(longlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction)—as well as two children’s novels,
The Undrowned Child
The Mourning Emporium
. She combines her fiction work with editing, designing and producing literary anthologies including her own translations of Latin and Italian poetry. Her book
New York Times
Lovric divides her times between London and Venice, and holds workshops in both places with published writers of poetry and prose, fiction and memoir.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Floating Book
NOVELS FOR CHILDREN
The Undrowned Child
The Mourning Emporium
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First published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury Publishing, 36 Soho Square, London W1D 3QY, 2010 Published in Canada by Penguin Group (Canada), a division of Pearson Canada Inc.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (WEB)
Copyright © Michelle Lovric, 2010
The extract from
Holy Feast and Holy Fast:The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
by Caroline Walker Bynum, published by University of California Press, copyright © 1987 by the Regents of the University of California, is reprinted by permission of the publishers.
All rights reserved.Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Publisher’s note:This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Manufactured in Canada.
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
The book of human skin / Michelle Lovric.
PR6112.O83B66 2010 823’.92 C2010-901654-8
British Library Cataloguing in Publication data available.
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Vile and contemptible is the book which every body likes.
Thomas Spooner of Lemon Street,
A Compendious Treatise of the Diseases of the Skin,
from the Slightest Itching Humour in Particular Parts
only, to the most Inveterate Itch
Gianni delle Boccole
I want to tell ye the story of Marcella Fasan, someone have got to do it.
Ye wunt believe it.
Ye’ll say, ‘No girl were ever so sinned agin, tis like Job in a dress. Tis a dirty lie, Gianni. Ye have took me for a fool.’
And I would say, Listen.
This is going to be a little uncomfortable.
If you ever see a portrait of a nun, you should know she was a dead woman when it was painted. Nuns may not have their portraits painted while they are alive, a nun’s face being nobody’s business, not even her own, not even her brother’s.
If I had known that fact when I set out to discover what had happened to my sister, I would have saved myself a voyage and a disease, and I might never have laid a hand upon a fatal book of human skin, making cannibals of my nine remaining fingers.
Now it takes very little to disgust the Adorable Reader, so I’ll not stay dwelling on all the unpleasantness of things for a small while yet, or after the very first chapter I’ll risk having to open letters adrip with indignation along the lines of ‘What a thing to say and me with a mouthful of hot wine and the wall just recently distempered white!’
And of course the first thing that the Dearly Beloved Reader asks Himself when He opens a book, and lets a voice have at Him, is – ‘Do I wish to go on a long walk in the dark with
person?’ He has a choice. So I (Minguillo Fasan, enchanted etcetera) shall be making every effort not to irk but to beguile.And to be mindful of my duty to give pleasure even in the recounting of disgustful memories.To smuggle in the sinewy meat, as it were, under the light, sweet pastry.
In this spirit, let us go back to the wishbone, to the clean fork of the beginning of things, when there are certain items that the Enquiring Reader really needs to know in order to dine well on the said meat of this story. 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
covers for Him. So.
To begin with the fascinations.
The portrait of my sister Marcella arrived unexpectedly in Venice, having travelled by donkey down the scarcely credible slopes of El Misti in Peru, whence it was taken by boat to Valparaiso (of incomparably lush memory), where it was impounded for three days in a damp customs house. By the time her face was released from imprisonment, my sister’s skin had pocked. Flakes had fallen even from the pupils of her eyes, leaving numerous tiny white highlights that gave the erroneous impression that she was not only living, but lively in the flesh.
My sister was never a lively girl. I saw to that. Marcella always looked like tuppence worth of dead, even when she was alive. Not at all the kind of thing I went for, myself.
What is that?
The Reader has a wonderful story that the whole world would love to hear?
La-di-da, etcetera and so forth. I know what.The Reader should scratch His scribbling itch and tell
tale by all means.And I’ll just have a little nap.
A wonderful story? The whole world?
Mine is much better.
And I am not even born yet.
The two wretches who shall beget me are fumbling towards my conception, none too fast. They’ve already made a mistake: a girl called Riva.
And as for Marcella, the object and heroine of this entire tale? Well, for
the Eager Reader must wait even longer, but we’ll find ways to fill up the time, eh?
Gianni delle Boccole
Ile regret it till my dying day if I live that long that I niver knowed to write a direy when I were young. Now I must remember myself of evry thing peace by peace, God-on-a-stick!
I were nothin more than a kitchen lad, borned under the kitchen table as it appened, for my Ma were a cook at the Palazzo Espagnol. My father were a itinnyant pedlar who wernt seen agin in these parts after he shone my Ma his wares, as ye mite say. Our kind Master Fernando Fasan hallowed her to keep me, e’en tho twere her second offents for I alredy had a half-sister Cristina by a passin coalman.
My crib were set below that kitchen table, so in my first years I saw mostly the broad bords of its underside insted o the sky. I have two memmaries, the one o my Ma’s lovin face peepin under the cloth to kiss me reglar. And t’other of her
tortellini in brodo
that were a wonder prazed upndown the Grand Canal.
Our Ma were carrid oft by the Small-Pox when I had jist six years. That could of been very poor for me n my sister. Yet by the kindness of my Master Fernando Fasan, Cristina n I was not turned out nor yet sent to the nuns.
‘But you are one of us, young chap!’ that’s what my Master sayed seriusly oer his spectickles to sixyearold me. ‘How could we do without you, Gianni?’
We was set to makin ourselfs youthful by turning the spit on the fire and runnin for kindling.
Cristina doated on me, and all t’other laydies o the house were that kind too, especially the maid called Anna what were jist three years older n myself and were little, pretty, proper n fine.
By that time my Master Fernando Fasan ud took himself a andsome fat wife with a towering hairdo. My Master hisself were freakwently way in Peru, where he done his busyness. But all were did proper in his absents. There was the grate bankwets for t’other nobbles, balls in season, card tornyments and so on.
Like all laydies of her stashon, my Mistress Donata tookt an assistant husband what kindly presided when my Master were way, and een sumtimes when he come back, seein as how the assistant husband Piero Zen and the marrid husband Fernando Fasan was like the lovingest pare of brothers ye ever seen. The very walls thesselves was warm in them days with their feckshonit laffs n shouts, Sweet Little God!
A little daughter, Riva, were borned to my Master and Mistress. There was more bankwets, and grate snootfuls of wine for the servants too. My sister Cristina were straitway pointed number four nussmaid and twere a pleasure for her, for ye could hear the little one chucklin in her crib all hours o the day. In onour of the new babe, my Master Fernando had a garden o roses n lilacks planted in our courtyard. He leaved a space, sayin summing Ile not soon forgit, ‘There will be more children, and more flowers for us.’
Swear I got more sweet memmaries from those times than ye got hairs. In retrospecked, twere as if we was makin o the Palazzo Espagnol a perfeck bower, a vegetable paradise on earth, for Marcella Fasan to be borned into.
We was more than sorry each time my Master Fernando had to sail agin for Peru. Twas vilent times in that far place. There was stories comin out o there to make yer hairs turn white n curl up yer toes.
I was warned against writing this.
I ask all you who read it not to think badly of me because I had the bold presumption to set down this text, given that I am utterly ignorant and without graces.
Should any Christian cast his eyes on this work, he must understand that it is not my own arrogance but the will of the Lord God that flows down upon the page through these worthless fingers. He should take sustenance from my words as he might swallow the Blessed Eucharist.
That same good Christian should naturally look on the testimony of the Venetian Cripple and her friends as the saliva of the Devil turned to ink and spat upon paper.
I shall start with the first of my significant memories. That was the long death of Tupac Amaru II. It lasted from ten in the morning till five in the
afternoon, which thoroughly pleased all devout persons. It happened in Cuzco, Peru, where I was born. It was 1781, and I had twelve years.