Review by Sophie Develyn
You, Bleeding Childhood, by Michele Mari – translated by Brian Robert Moore, published by And Other Stories (August, 2023)
You, Bleeding Childhood keenly recalls the breathless urgency of childhood’s passion. Mari’s writing is rhythmic, poetical, antiquated, like the sight of a beautifully rendered toy horse that sends elderly men into blissful reveries. The reader can sometimes find themselves drifting in the sheer quantity of language, until – when the flow suddenly does take hold – the voice springs off the page and rips them along in the current.
The meticulousness of Mari’s prose style feels something like a religious litany; he lists, as he does in many of his stories, the words and sentences stacking on top of each other, towering up over the reader. The antiquated quality is also quite literally and openly acknowledged in the physical presence of earlier writers in his work – “‘Jules Verne,’ I said, and like an inhabitant of Hades, Jules Verne moved off on asphodel-covered waters, a shadow vanishing into the shadows.” The stories share a sense of wonder and high-adventure, blended with a nostalgic glance at the past which manages somehow not to feel saccharine: a boy standing in a greenhouse full of long-lost footballs, contemplating the infinite and his own small place within it.
In ‘They Shot Me and I’m Dead’, Mari drops into a closely detailed physicality, which, in the collection, comes as a relief after the more abstract and ekphrastic ‘The Covers of Urania’. In ‘They Shot Me and I’m Dead’, the action (though imagined) is embodied, clear. The main character seems to be playing and re-playing a lovingly crafted cowboy fantasy inside his mind, in which that character rides up, walks in, gets shot in the back by townspeople, again and again.
“Looking at your body through the eyes of those hayseeds, then, was like dreaming of yourself and in that glory you found – only then would you find it – in that glory you, child of anguish, found peace.”
The point of the fantasy seems to be the death and the unfairness of it. The protagonist wants to possess a final injustice to be wept over by the ages, a flourish on a legend that seals his legendary-ness for ever, as opposed to the often ignoble and complicated business of being alive, in the real world.
“You would be walking to school, and a gloomy hatred for your classmates would take over you; envisioning for them a thousand different deaths, you worked yourself up into an exalted state that soon putrefied into poison–”
And fantasy is a delicious poison, particularly in a younger mind which has only recently thrown open the cupboard doors of introspection and revealed their spiralling, bottomless insides. ‘They Shot Me and I’m Dead’ mixes the profound with the childlike effectively: the idealised cardboard cowboy world, the second person narration reaching out for ‘you’ and returning again and again to meditate on one central theme – that facing the primal reality of death can be a rejuvenating tonic for the pain of living – ‘magnificently incongruous with the present.’
Another story that particularly stood out to me was ‘The Horror of Playgrounds’, in which we follow a peculiar little gentleman around his local playground (whose inhabitants and materials he finds disgusting and troubling in the extreme) and back into his home, where a host of monsters wait for him to join them for a friendly game of monopoly. A body-horror from the first sentence, Mari viscerally explores the way the protagonist feels about his surroundings in terms of the bodies of other children, the ‘greyness’ under their knee skin, the fluids of these children that seem to fountain everywhere around him. After seeing one boy wipe spit down the slide to make him slide faster, the narrator remarks:
“From that moment on the slide ceased to exist for you; passing by it, remembering that there was a time that you didn’t disdain to climb up on it, you feel as though you are reflecting on the life of a dead man.”
His prim disgust with the unseemliness of everything he is supposed to find ‘fun’ is delicious. Then, when he goes home, where he has control, we go with him into a world of abundant and pleasurable fantasy, where his rampant imagination has conjured friends and made friendly monsters of familiar adults:
“I go through the main entrance to my building just as The Thing is exiting, and behind the doorman’s desk I spy a Triffid and The Vampyre; a damp spot on the elevator floor assures me that The Worm has come home too.”
‘You’ has become ‘I’ by the end of this story, first when the child contemplates himself as he appears in the eyes of an old man he passes on the street, and then at the last, when he is among his monsters. I found the person switch a little unwieldy, though effective in conveying his sudden control of his own perspective whereas before, in the matter of other children and their bodies, he felt compelled by it.
My favourite story in the collection is Down There, in which two old men reminisce about their childhoods in unconnected fragments that sit together to feel profound. The anecdotes are all micro-stories, the rhythm of their telling is gentle with no differentiation of voice, so each story could belong to either man. This creates a kind of collective consciousness between the two old men, through the fog of memory and time, their childhoods become one – as somebody’s father says to him over a bowl of bread and milk pudding: ‘What a nice mishmash!’
Mari makes liberal use of experimental techniques in his rendering of a kind of ‘classical’ childhood (or boyhood, really, since little girls are here all but absent, silent or idealised). This vivid, living, grasping boyhood of ‘you’ and ‘I’ where fantasies walk around, menacing or comforting you, anxieties stacking up to the sky, treasures are stolen, time stretches like gum and shatters like glass, is able to cope with the weight of its own romanticism – swashbuckling and scabby knees and vague and forbidding father figures. This is ‘childhood’ as it exists in the mind of adults who grew up in a very different world from the one children are in now, and for which they would be unsuited for – the very first story in the collection makes it clear:
“These comics, Filippo, cannot be shared, they are the flower of my childhood and they are, therefore, my essence.”
In the note on the translation, Moore recalls a quote from Mari on the topic of this collection that lives at the shared heart of all of these stories, when asked what preoccupies him, besides the writing of literature, Mari replied: “That of living life as a continuous mourning for my childhood, for which I have a nostalgic, neurotic fixation. Not because it was a golden age—quite the opposite . . . But because it was the most meaningful thing I ever lived through.”
Sophie Develyn is a short fiction writer from Bristol. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and is currently cooking up a novella. Her work has appeared in Five South Literary Journal. Find her at @sophicathrinlou on Twitter.