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Daniele Mencarelli: Tutto chiede salvezza (Everything Calls For Salvation)
Given that the twenty year old narrator is called Daniele Mencarelli, we must assume that this is a substantially autobiographical work. At the start of the book, Daniele has been committed involuntarily for seven days to a mental institution, following a serious, violent outbreak at home, which caused his father to collapse. This is not his first breakdown and we soon learn that he is bipolar and that his parents are, not surprisingly, very concerned about him. This is essentially the story of those seven days.
There are lots of novels about people committed to institutions and here are various ways of writing them. Mencarelli has chosen one of the traditional ways – the staff are less than sympathetic and the fellow patients, more or less, band together. No, this is not One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by any stretch oif the imagination but it is certainly mildly tending in that direction. It was written well after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Indeed Mencarelli was born well after Kesey’s novel was written. (This book is set in 1994, a significant date in Italy as their football team lost to Ireland in the World Cup, an event that is mentioned in this book.)
Mencarelli wakes up to hear one of the neighbouring patients calling out Help me, my little Madonna. Nicknamed Madonnina, he will continue to call for her aid throughout the seven days. Having called for help from the Madonna, Madonnina proceeds to set Mencarelli’s hair alight . Fortunately no real harm is done. Mencarelli is already injured as, in his outbreak the previous day, he smashed up the house, including the TV, and his hand is bandaged up. We gradually meet the nurses and the five other patients in his ward. Pino, Lorenzo and Rossana are the nurses and they see their job as controlling the patients, not helping them. Pino introduces himself to Mencarelli by saying If you act bad like a loony, I’ll act worse than you. See? And believe me, us healthy people can be meaner than the loonies. Get that?” The three nurses do not get on well, particularly Pino and Rossana.
There are two main doctors: Doctors Cimaroli and Mancino. Neither seems too committed to their patients. On one occasion the doctor falls asleep while talking to our hero and on another mistakes him for another patient. It is his fellow patient, Mario, a sixty year old teacher who has been in and out of institutions, who says science understands a certain amount of what goes on from the feet to the neck, but up here?” He points to his head. “Nothing yet. We’re still in the shaman era and adds If you have an ulcer, what do you do? You cure the ulcer. If you’re mentally ill, you have to cure the mind. The rest is just psychobabble. Cure yourself. Mario will tell him of his experience in institutions and it has not been good. He specifically points out All the exceptional things were done thanks to characteristics that today are catalogued as symptoms and pathologies. He adds they need to know how to tell good, constructive craziness from the evil, destructive kind. Yes, indeed.
As well as Mario and Madonnina, the the other three are Alessandro, who is catatonic, Gianluca, who is gay and propositions our hero and Giorgio, who arrives a couple of days later and is a giant of a man and who is on his fourth involuntary commitment of the year. His large frame means he is very strong as the nurses will later find out.
We follow Daniele’s history. He has been having treatment for a period of time and we learn that he has seen many doctors who have prescribed various medicines which, as one of the doctors points out, are all for very different conditions. This is one more example of the view that modern psychiatry is not really capable of dealing with the various conditions people have. The latest proposal involves selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. We learn that he was studying law but has given up. He had a job selling air-conditioning units and it is something that happened on the job – something we might consider quite trivial – that caused his recent breakdown. We learn that he writes poetry but tends to keep it to himself and that he consumes alcohol and uses illegal drugs. He has had girlfriends but it has not gone well with any of them.
Other issues that they face include the excessive heat – it is a very hot summer and there is, of course, no air conditioning so they all sweat and stink. The food is awful. Daniele barely eats till his family bring him supplies.
What is he looking for? He has examined it all and broken it down to one word:
From death. From pain.
Salvation for all my loved ones.
Salvation for the world.
Gradually Gianluca, Giorgio, Mario and Daniele band together, if not in open rebellion against the doctors and nurses, at least, looking after one another, knowing that they are likely to get more support from one another than from the staff and, at least in some cases, from their families.
He does get out after the seven days with a sensible warning from Pino: Try to not end up in here any more. This place is a circle of torment. Not just for you loonies. Anyone who enters remains imprisoned.
The dedication may well sum up the book: For the loonies of all times, swallowed by the nuthouses of history. And, as some have said, aren’t we all a little crazy?
First published in 2020 by Mondadori
First English translation in 2023 by Europa
Translated by Wendy Wheatley