Italian writer Michele Mari writes about himself, he’s said, as a “narrative projection” rather than autobiographically. If this sounds vague, it’s likely deliberately so. Still, it may offer clarity to know that Verdigris – a novel published in 2007 as Verderame and receiving its first translation here – concerns Michelino, like the author a Milanese boy aged 13 during the summer of 1969. This element of drawn-from-life anchorage doesn’t prevent Mari from flights of fancy ranging from spy-comic code-cracking to psycho-gothic horror with a touch of Edgar Allan Poe.
School’s out and Michelino is staying at his well-heeled grandparents’ house north of Milan, filling time by chatting to Felice, their gardener: the book’s title stems from the diluted verdigris he sprays on the grape vines. An inscrutable bumpkin at the best of times, Felice is increasingly affected by early-onset dementia, needing the teen’s help to go about his business. Efforts to plug gaps in his ailing brain lead to the disclosure of historical secrets, which when investigated by the fastidiously curious Michelino beget greater and more gruesome revelations – ones dating back nearly three decades to Fascist-era Italy and WWII.
Verdigris is a clever construction whose parts work symbiotically and makes no bones about Mari’s love of ornate language. A reader can be forgiven for finding it tonally jarring, though: as a narrator, Michelino is now far into adulthood (the age Mari was in 2007) but relates his youthful escapades in unfeasibly precocious terms. Contrast this, as you’re invited to, with the simple-minded parochialism of Felice, who speaks in a dialect which Brian Robert Moore has rendered somewhere between rural Ireland and southwest England. Moore has gone the extra mile with his translation, rewriting passages so Mari’s anagrams and wordplay function in English. Still, he can’t do anything to assuage the unease at having an uneducated working-class character portrayed as implacably beneath his social superiors in the town.
Verdigris, Michele Mari [trans. Brian Robert Moore] (And Other Stories)
Price: £14.99/£11.99 Ebook. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER