Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wednesday, November 6, 2013: Maximum Shelf: The First True Lie

Crown: First True Lie by Marina Mander

Crown: First True Lie by Marina Mander

Crown: First True Lie by Marina Mander

Crown: First True Lie by Marina Mander

The First True Lie

by Marina Mander

A slim and unusual novel translated from the original Italian, The First True Lie by Marina Mander is the story of a young boy who conceals the death of his mother for as long as he can. In an unnamed city in Italy, Luca lives with his single mother and their cat, Blue. His mother, an attractive and artistic woman, is always dating the wrong men--at one point, even a man Luca suspects is homeless. The toll of being a single mother is wearing on Luca's mother, and her life is fraught with a job she hates, pills, and therapy notes.

Luca perceives his mother's depression as an inability to cope with the demands of adulthood, noting: "Mama has a hard time with all the gys put together"--concepts like "psychology, energy, strategy, allergy." These are all adult words from his point of view. Meanwhile, Luca observes of his depressed mother: "She says that psychology's no use to her, that sciatica doesn't let her get to sleep, that no matter how much she sleeps she has no energy, that she has nostalgia for a man who's a man but you need a strategy to find him or else to make more money, that with the pollen every year her allergies just explode, and the vaccines aren't worth the money."

The picture painted in these words, even before Luca's mother's death, shows a woman on the brink of collapse. The depth of her devastation is something the adult reader can understand better than Luca; yet, even lacking the intellectual framework in which to grasp his mother's situation, Luca does know it all intuitively. His continuous use of profanity seems less like an attempt at accuracy on the author's part and more like an indirect cue signaling his unspoken rage. This faux-mature profanity is offset by Luca's vivid daydreams and the imaginary games he plays in which Blue is his personal assistant who can talk. Like the protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Luca tells the reader a series of emotional truths just by keenly observing.

Yet despite the emotional intensity of the events that unfold, Luca holds emotions at arm's length--perhaps sensing that if he allowed himself to experience them, the grief would be an agony. He chooses, instead, to pretend that he is grown up; that his mother's death has catapulted him to adulthood rather than reducing him to an orphaned state.

Luca himself is exceptionally bright, a fact his mother whimsically attributes to his having been born two months premature. When tragedy strikes, perhaps it is in part Luca's intelligence that both aids and paralyzes him: returning from school to find his mother dead in her bed--ostensibly from a sleeping pill overdose--Luca is immediately seized with the terrified thought of being placed in an institution for orphan children. Additionally, on a deeper level, the idea of being an orphan--and thereby somehow deficient, different from other children--holds an especial horror for Luca. For the remainder of the novel, while Luca pretends that catastrophe has not struck, that his life is normal, the chill of his new status in life creeps into the text in increasing degrees; more than anything else, The First True Lie is defined by its pervasive atmosphere of complete isolation. There is a concrete symbol for this too: the cold winds of February wafting through the windows of the apartment--which Luca must keep open due to the smell of his mother's corpse--represents the reality that constantly threatens to sweep away his world.

Before his mother's death, fatherless Luca already felt like an orphan. The stigma is ever-present, has come to define his self-identity in damaging ways. Luca thinks, "Adults say 'orphan' under their breath, like when they talk about diseases or the rent or bad things that happen to other people. There are lots of parents who decide to break up, lots of kids who see only one or the other parent, but not orphans, that's really, really bad, like you're missing a body part and everyone only sees the part that's not there. You're not what you are--you're what you're missing."

This perhaps is the idea at the heart of the novel: while Luca struggles to conceal what he is missing--a living parent--he is forced to confront who he is, the true self that emerges after everything else has been stripped away. To get there, he journeys through many fantasies and daydreams, all of which contain the yearning for a different reality; but in the end the reader knows--and we believe Luca knows, as well--that the winter air can't be shut out forever. --Ilana Teitelbaum

Hogarth, $13, trade paperback, 9780770436858, January 21, 2014

Crown: First True Lie by Marina Mander

Marina Mander: Passport to Adulthood

photo: Ilario Botti

Marina Mander is the author of the story collection Manuale di Ipocondria Fantastica (A Fantastical Manual of Hypochondria, 2000) and the novels Catalogo degli Addii (A Catalogue of Goodbyes, 2010) and Nessundorma (Nobody Is Sleeping, 2013). The First True Lie is her first U.S. publication. She lives in Milan and works in publishing.

The First True Lie is written from a child's point of view. Were there advantages to this approach? Were there challenges?

Personally, there were many advantages, on both an emotional and a mental level. Emotionally, I had to return to being a child, which required revisiting old fears, fantasies and wonders, all mired in a mode of imagination that I had lost touch with. As a child I loved to read the dictionary like a book of adventures, and when I was sad I spoke with cats and invented stories that could console me (to tell you the truth, I still do this today)! When writing the book I tried to revisit that mode, and had to use my heart more than my head.

Mentally, writing from the point of view of a child allowed me to explore with new eyes the ambiguity of language; the words children use to say one thing when they mean another; and that way of talking to an adult-child that sometimes seems absurd, illogical. The ambivalence of language reflects an ambivalence of feelings. But a lie cannot be true. Luca learns this, and this discovery is a passport to adulthood.

Writing from this point of view was not necessarily a challenge, it just meant listening closely to the child that all of us have within us, however hidden it may be.

How did the idea come to you? Was it painful writing from the point of view of such a tragic character?

The idea came from the fact that, alas, every day you read newspaper reports of people who are found days after their death. They are usually older, but this is not necessarily always the case. Sometimes the only witness to the tragedy is a cat, a dog or a child--helpless creatures who do not know how to deal with such an awful occurrence. Creatures that maybe know only one thing: they do not want to end up in an institution, whether that be an orphanage, the pound for dogs and cats, or the asylum for the mentally unstable.

Also, years ago, I worked on a documentary about orphanages in Nepal and on child-trafficking: the photographer and I were presenting as a couple in search of a child to be adopted and the kids, who were well-educated by their guardians, looked at us with their big eyes and said: "Take me; Take me!" I will never forget that, and it was with me when I was writing the book. As for writing from this point of view, as Flaubert said, Luca c'est moi. Some analysis states that an ego is composed of a parent, an adult and a child. Returning to the child ego state for me was simple; I let that part of me to be expressed freely, which was also liberating.

Luca's terror of ending up in an orphanage fuels all his actions. Is the story intended in any way as a critique of Italy's childcare system?

Not specifically. The orphanage is the nightmare of many children in fairy tales and reality. Luca recalls Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant, but there are endless stories that borrow from this fear, which is the counterpart of the desire for protection and nurturance. In Italy, orphanages now have a better name, and are called "family homes," but I'm not sure that the substance or quality of care has actually changed. Adopting a child in Italy is very difficult, and I would like to push the question of why? Is it better to crowd an impersonal structure and system, or find children their own bedroom, a family and a real home?

The setting seems intentionally vague--the characters have Italian names, but the cultural references are American and British. We don't know if the story takes place in a city or a suburb. Was this vagueness deliberate?

Italian children are exposed to TV, media and live Anglo-Saxon cultural references. They're normal for us, from Disney onwards. And the story takes place in a city--in fact, as Luca says--we're in "all cities." It is not specified which city it is because the loneliness and lack of social support networks are felt in any metropolis, be it Milan or New York.

Tell us a bit about your background as a writer. How is The First True Lie different from your previous books?

Each of my books is different from the previous one. I wrote a book of short stories about the balance between irony and melancholy (A Fantastical Manual of Hypochondria); an epistolary novel between a romantic and a cynic (A Catalogue of Goodbyes); Luca's monologue (The First True Lie); and, most recently, a choral novel that, within the framework of a collective event, investigates the deepest desires, defeats, and hopes of the protagonists (Nobody Is Sleeping). And this is the challenge: keep the love and the accuracy of style and voice, but do not repeat tested formulas. Always experiment, if possible, and avoid sequels, though they are so trendy.

How have Italian readers responded to The First True Lie? Do you think it may resonate in a different way for Americans?

Italian readers have cried, laughed and expressed great fondness for Luca. I have received a lot of mail saying that if Luca had been a "real" child, his life, thanks to my story, would be changed. Italian readers have offered ways of adopting, saving and curing Luca, his cat, and maybe even me. I do not think the American response will be very different, as the story of Luca touches deep--and therefore universal--issues: the fear of abandonment, the desire to be "normal" and not discriminated against, the desire to be loved. "A lot of people are ashamed of not feeling loved enough," Luca says at one point. That is a feeling without boundaries or borders. The book has also been translated in several other countries. Humanity has roots that predate political geography.

What would you like readers to take away from The First True Lie?

I would like readers to reflect on the fact that an accident can happen to anyone, not just the poor or marginalized. Luca's mother is a "normal" person belonging to the middle class, and yet she is alone (because she is depressed, or depressed because she is alone), without relatives or friends in a big city where it is sometimes difficult to know even your next-door neighbor. How many people live like this? Too many. So I would love for the readers to ultimately reflect on the need for social solidarity and the importance of relationships, the only nourishment we're really capable of offering one another. This is something we're all a part of, and it can--at times--save lives.

What's next for you as a writer?

My latest novel was just released in Italy and is titled Nessundorma (Nobody Is Sleeping). It is a story that takes place all in one "fatal" night in which the fates of many characters can change. I've been told that the protagonist of this novel seems like a grown-up Luca: 25 years old, dealing with a difficult challenge but carrying a singular quality of beauty and hope with him. Even in the face of the worst tragedies, a breakthrough is possible. Or at least I want to think so. I am currently committed to promoting that novel, but am also planning on writing another one, with an entirely different approach, one more time. --Ilana Teitelbaum

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