This review was first published in issue 2 of The Smal Press Review, 2006.
Kay MacCauley knows how to grab your attention with a single sentence. And that sentence is this: ‘For the first two hundred years or so, his favourite pastime had been to throw himself under the speeding hooves of horses.’ Our reckless friend is Leilo, ‘the Collector’, who wanders the streets of Venice with his cart, collecting ‘all that was worn out, discarded or dead.’ But perhaps he’s not that reckless after all, for a concoction he drank four centuries previously (it is now 1546) has left him unable to die – not that his body is still in perfect condition.
Leilo is one of several secondary viewpoint characters in this novel, but he is not the ‘man’ referred to in the title. That is Marin, whom we first meet as an infant at the San Barnabo Redentore Shelter for Foundlings. Sister Clara recognises something in him: could he be her own child, the one she abandoned? Believing so, she takes him from the shelter to raise herself (though, in the end, she dies while he is still a boy). As Marin grows, he discovers that people see in him who they want to see, which sometimes even leads to his own physical appearance changing in sympathy. This naturally leads to… various adventures.
I keep wanting to describe The Man Who Was Loved as ‘picaresque’, though I’m not entirely sure how far it is appropriate to use that word. I wouldn’t say the book was a picaresque, not least because Marin doesn’t really seem to me to be a picaro (though other characters would fit that description quite well, notably the escaped eunuch and master of disguise Agostino). No, MacCauley’s novel is more picaresque in the sense of being episodic. Such an impression is perhaps inevitable given how short many of the chapters are, but it’s more than that: the whole novel seems structured to focus on Marin’s journey through life, rather than on any particular destination (however temporary the stay there may be).
This is fine as far as it goes, because the journey through the book (our journey as readers, at least) is enjoyable. MacCauley’s prose is peppered with striking and insightful turns of phrase, such as this description of one character, the Contessa, as a hostess: ‘She plied her guests with food and gifts and addressed each that came as “true, dear friend,” because usually she did not know their names.’ Then there is the sustained interest in exactly where the events of Marin’s life will lead him next; not to mention scenes depicting some of the sights of Venetian life during the period.
I’ve chosen to gloss over the latter because, to a certain extent, Venice itself seems to fade into the background, so focused is the novel on Marin: the city is more a backdrop for his story than a place in its own right. This isn’t a problem until the ending, when the mysterious plague afflicting Venice that has appeared intermittently throughout the book swings to the fore. The denouement seems to happen more suddenly than it should, upsetting the pace of the novel as a whole.
That’s not the only flaw in The Man Who Was Loved. The author has an irritating tendency to switch viewpoint characters within the same scene (sometimes seemingly just to indicate that the stranger whom one character has met is already known to us from earlier on), which can make the book rather difficult to follow. In additiion, some characters remain distant despite our being ‘in their shoes’ for part of the plot; for example (without wishing to spoil anything), I was never sure whether Agostino went as far as he did just because Marin caused him to be captured and enslaved previously.
As noted above, The Man Who Was Loved is more about journey than destination; so perhaps it is appropriate that I am not sure quite what to make of it ultimately. By novel’s end, there has been a resolution of sorts; yet it’s clear that life will go on and the story has not ‘ended’ as such. One of the book’s recurring themes is the mutability of identity: Marin’s changes depending on who is looking at him; Agostino disguises himself physically; the Contessa flatters others to maintain appearances; another character considers that ‘the truth of anybody’s life’ is merely ‘a rough piling together of all they had chosen to accept as real’ – but, despite all this, the theme doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, and I’m left unsure how much MacCauley intended to say about it.
In summary, The Man Who Was Loved is a promising début which is good whilst you’re reading it, but which feels somewhat less satisfying once you’ve finished.