To see the truth, we need to lie. A good line, and the perfect words to describe Miha Mazzini's autobiographical novel in fictitious stories. This summer Mazzini's novel, Childhood, won the annual Slovenian Kresnik Prize for the best novel of the year, and rightfully so.
Of course, this isn't Mazzini's first literary success. The writer is versed not only in prose, but has achieved a great deal of success in the seventh art, as well; beside being an author, he is also a screenwriter and a film director. He has thirty books published in ten different languages, and his short stories were selected for many anthologies, including the famous Pushcart Prize in 2012. As a screenwriter, he wrote many TV and feature films, two of which are award-winning films (a Golden Palm for the best film of the XXII Mostra de Valencia, and European CIRCOM Award for the Best TV Film of 1992). Mazzini also wrote and directed a TV documentary and five short films, for which he was awarded as Best Director at the Highgate Film Festival in London, and Best Short Film of 2011 at the Slovenian film festival.
Childhood isn't Mazzini's first success this year, either, since his novel for young adult readers, Star Call, received Slovenia's Modra Ptica Award for the best YA novel.
As I lie back in my broken deckchair, with Mazzini's book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, I truly don't know what to expect. Will this be just another typical Slovenian novel, or will it be something else entirely?
At the introduction, I am greeted by the line Remembering means creating a story from the past. The title fits the story's content perfectly, as we read through the protagonist's earliest years of life. Short flashes of sentences are so diverse that the novel almost reads as a stream of consciousness. The fragmentation of passages makes us aware that the story is written by someone who is remembering something from a while back. Most people have very few memories from when they were children, especially from before age six, which is why those memories are left to us in small fragments, mostly set into us as feelings. The writer himself says that since he remembers only flashes and scenes from the first years of his life (unlike in his novel King of the Rattling Spirits, where he talks about his 12-year-old self and his mother, and is capable of telling longer stories, since 12-year-old brain remembers better than that of a 5-year-old), this novel will contain short stories connected together.
Through the character of the protagonist's religiously-fanatical grandmother, we encounter fear, horror and loneliness. Nona, as the boy lovingly calls his grandmother, is anything but the soft and kind grandma we are used to. He grows up an unwanted child, a bastard, if I may. Unwanted and cast aside by his mother, unwanted and seen only as a burden by his grandmother. Instead of feeding the young boy love, she feeds him the fear of god. Nona prefers safety over freedom, and hardly lets the boy be a child or enjoy his childhood.
The “bastard” theme is omnipresent throughout Slovenian literature, from the fin-de-siecle prose of Ivan Cankar to the poetry of 19th century icon, France Prešeren. Being a bastard was like being cursed. The stigma not only damaged the child, but also his mother and the entire family. And in Childhood, the little boy isn't the only one without a father: so is his mother. Nona tells him that, because he is a child out of wedlock, original sin is worse for him, and he will have to do much more to repent than others. His entire childhood, she is emotionally abusing him with the imagery of hell and a vengeful god, and she shows no mercy with the choice of her words.
There are two fragments that stayed in my mind very vividly after I read this book: one was when Nona told the boy that, after he dies, worms are going to crawl from beneath his skin, and the other was when he was testing god to see if he would smite him, so he crushed an entire nest of baby birds, still in their unhatched eggs. Those two fragments definitely stirred up some negative emotions, horror and disgust. The child had no safety net, even if we wish it for him, more than anything.
We wish for it in his mother, but she proves herself to be only a faint reflection of his grandmother. Like all mothers and daughters, they believe themselves to be completely different people, but at the end of the day their actions portray them as very much alike. They are both highly manipulative, one religiously, the other emotionally, and they try to control the boy with what they make him feel. They both feel trapped in their lives, they both feel victims of circumstances, and they both blame anybody else but themselves for the mess that is their life. The boy is unwanted by both of them, and they both feel a tremendous draw of wanderlust; the grandmother wants to visit the holy places, and the mother wants to travel to exotic lands. But for their failure to do so, they blame the boy, and take out all their bitterness and anger on the unwanted child.
Mazzini wrote “We grow up when we realize that we are a link in the chain of ancestors and descendants, and that the more completed entireties within, the better.” With that in our mind, we ask ourselves, did the grandmother and the mother every truly grew up? Or were they forever caught up within their own miserable childhood, and was the city their Neverland that they could never really let go off?
The only person who seems to care about the boy is his uncle, Vinko. He is and does all the things Nona and the boy's mother dream of. As a truck driver, he gets to leave the town from time to time, and he describes his life on the road to the young boy by using only a few words: “freedom and joy.” Vinko is the father figure and is the desire, or at least his life is, of the three main characters of the story. Both Nona and the mother want to have a life as rich in travels and freedom as his, and the boy sees him as someone he wishes to become, someone he admires but can't quite reach. Vinko's scent of cigarettes, brilliantine, fake leather car seats and women's glances portray him to the boy as a confident man, one who attracts life. The author inserted a picture of an acting lesson (from Lessons in the Art of Acting by Edmund Shaftesbury) before every chapter, and it's no wonder that the chapter named Uncle Vinko is accompanied by the lesson of love.
The story sometimes feels dream-like, or a sequence of night terrors. Grandmother is trying to keep him out of Hell, but she doesn't notice that she is placing her grandson into one right there, in the world of the living. The mother is so careless, victimizes herself and carries her demons with her, like an overnight bag, everywhere she goes. She lives in a hollow pit of misery with no bottom, and unknowingly, she's dragging her son with her.
Childhood is definitely a Slovenian novel, at least its darkness and always persistent pessimism, with a hint of black humor. Mazzini's beautifully dark novel is accompanied by very strong visual fragments that crawl into your mind with no intention of leaving.
The fictitious stories are set in the first six years of Mazzini's life. We are left to wonder what part of the stories are truth, and which are lies. To tell the truth by lying – it reads like a violation of itself, but did we not see the truth and are able to disregard the lies surrounding it? Did we not feel the horror, fear and sadness? Perhaps the words weren't the truth, but maybe the emotions are. In the words of Andrej Nikolaidis, “one can't conceal the obvious.”