July 27, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Pope’s Daughter
Author: Dario Fo
Translator: Antony Shugaar
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 274 2
Dario Fo – playwright, comedian, Nobel Laureate – is an admirer of the 16th century form of street theater known as commedia dell’arte. These roving theatrical troupes employed masks, improvisation, wordplay and slapstick comedy to entertain the masses. The actors and actresses performed broad “types” (stereo- or arch-), which were popular in that time period.
For The Pope’s Daughter Fo has translated the theatrical form into a novel. He encourages these somewhat archaic references by dividing the tale into episodic chapters with old-fashioned descriptive titles such as: “The puppet king who walks like a marionette” and “Out of enmity between women, sometimes a great friendship can spring”. At the same time Fo imagines conversations, spins events like a contemporary satirist and displays a razor sharp eye for historical absurdities. The narrative voice (which we can only assume is the author’s own) always seems to be on the verge of laughter. It is a charming, farcical portrayal of the Borgias – with a preamble at the front, a bibliography at the back, and Fo’s drawings & paintings of the main characters scattered between.
“… The chronicles of the time, in fact, reported all sorts of social events, some of them held within the walls of the Vatican itself, with a matter-of-fact approach and without the slightest hint of scandal. But when the Borgias strode onto the stage of Rennaisance history, to the cheers of a horde of supporters, first and foremost among them their closest relations, then indeed the attention of the public, an audience both national and international, really became keen.”
What do we know about Lucrezia Borgia, her brothers and her father? Quite a bit, actually. She and her family were 15th century celebrities on the scale of Kardashians – subject to all the attention and public scrutiny that kind of celebrity brings. There are the historical records. But because they were so much in the public eye, positioned at the epicenter of all of Christendom really, we also have an almost embarrassing wealth of rumors, gossip & innuendos. Take the time to sift through the mess of information and an image forms of a smart, extraordinarily pretty woman who enjoyed all the privileges of status, wealth & education. A woman who made the sacrifices which were expected of well-born females of that time period. Sacrifices which were necessary to maintain a life of privilege (three marriages to further her father’s & brother’s political ambitions) and luxury.
History has assigned her the alternating roles of virgin and whore, political victim and poisoner, incestuous seductress and cultured Renaissance Duchess. That need to define Lucrezia through such a multitude of archetypes has obscured her many real accomplishments and achievements. Few portrayals focus on the known facts: that at age nineteen she acted as governor of the cities of Spoleto & Foligno; or that she remains the only woman to have sat on the Papal throne and wielded the power of the office (which she did at the age of twenty-one while her father was away from Rome); or that after her father’s death, when her brother most needed help, she would raise and send him an army. As Duchess of Ferrara she would be known throughout Italy as a Patroness of the Arts. Byron admired her love letters. Where her father & brother failed in their quest for dynasty, Lucrezia succeeded – many European monarchs trace their lineage back to the Borgias through Lucrezia and her granddaughter Anna D’Este (who was also the granddaughter of the French King Louis XII).
Throughout her life Lucrezia Borgia demonstrated intelligence, humility and no small amount of political acumen – all of which allowed her to survive the fall of the Borgia family’s fortunes.
This is the Lucrezia Dario Fo is set on portraying. And to that end he has swept aside much of the unsubstantiated speculation (and cable tv melodrama) to present a very real woman who possesses the full range of human emotions. Fo’s Lucrezia is in turns frustrated, angry, intelligent, desperate, loving, affectionate, wily, passionate and a little bit bawdy. He allows her to grow from a young girl to a matron. And, realizing that her story is always bound to the stories of her brother Cesare and father the Pope, he’s put them in his book as well. Not as sinister demons consumed only by ambition, but as men with a multitude of failings. Setting them all in a world that bears uncanny (but very intentional) similarities to the one we live in today.
The hardest thing for Alexander VI was getting past the stumbling block of the “morality” issue. That is, how was he to modify, at least in appearance, his licentious need for forbidden copulation? For that matter, how on earth could anyone keep their distance from such an adorable creature as Giulia? An old saying goes: “If the hyenas are on your heels, then toss them the most savory morsel, say a newborn lamb. You’ll see, when they open their maws to savage their prey, there’s not a hyena or jackal on earth that will pay the slightest attention to anything else.”
And so the great reformation was gently lowered into the swamp of forgetfulness. Every so often someone with a good memory would ask: “When are we going to talk about the revolution again?”
And everyone, from the pontiff down to his cardinals, would reply: “Never fear, we haven’t forgotten. Just be patient and we’ll bring it back up again.”
Sure, and who believed them?
If I’ve given the impression that The Pope’s Daughter is a history book or even your typical historical novel then I’ve badly mis-represented it. Fo creates an atmosphere of old-fashioned theatricality which is unusual and at odds with the genre. He relies heavily on dialogue, usually imagined but sometimes taken from actual letters, which he exaggerates to the point of pantomime. He uses this dialogue to convey most of the historical plot points of his heroine’s story. For example, when Lucrezia is attended by the same doctor who was also there when she miscarried her first child she spends some time answering his questions and recounting what has befallen her over the intervening years. Fo tells his story on a stage: sometimes employing a sardonic voice-over commentary as in the passage above… or creating elaborate set pieces as in the passage below.
Lucrezia was in Rome. The scene opens in the very instant at which the thump of the doorknocker is heard at the bottom of the central staircase and the voice of a servant girl calls: “Milady, it is your lover who just knocked on the door!” And Lucrezia responded: “At last! What are you waiting for? Let him in?”
“He’s already entered, that’s him on the stairs!”
Alfonso appeared, she hurried toward him to throw her arms around him, and he pushed her away.
“Hey, what’s come over you? Why do you shove me away?!”
“Why don’t you ask your brother and your father, too! You’re a fine gang of blackguards!”
“Blackguards? Why, are you drunk or are you just pretending to insult me?”
“Listen, you’re a woman of letters, do you like ballads and strambotti? Then why don’t you just try reading this!” And with those words, he pulled a sheaf of paper from inside his jacket. “Be my guest, it’s dedicated to you, or really, I should say, to us both. It’s funny as can be.”
The scene above features the archly delivered, wooden style of dialogue (seemingly fully aware of the audience listening in) that appears throughout the book. Similar stylistic choices – which in other books would be seen as weaknesses – make up a good part of The Pope’s Daughter ‘s charm. Antony Shugaar has done an excellent job of reconciling modern language to an antiquated context. Fo’s storytelling is self-conscious and referencial in a very calculated way. He plays off of the historical events (juicier than anything he might have made up) and theatrical forms, slyly grinning all the while. My one criticism is that he doesn’t go far enough. An often quoted description of Fo, made on his receiving the Nobel Prize, is that he is a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. With that in mind, this first novel seems to be at odds with itself. Instead of a jester who mocks authority secure in his knowledge that he does so with impunity, Fo is strangely restrained. Some of the characters speeches stop just short of becoming pedantic/preachy. I was expecting wordplay, pratfalls, send-ups… I suppose I was expecting a little more of the Spanish Inquisition. Fo is so much of a playwright that the absence of the visual, performance component in his work is inevitably felt. The shadow of the author is standing in the wings of this novel, winking at the audience and holding a banana cream pie behind his back.
While it may not be for every reader, The Pope’s Daughter is sophisticated, clever, challenging and flawed – everything we have come to expect from a Nobel Laureate and in a first novel. With it Dario Fo has decided to rehabilitate the image of Lucrezia Borgia – though in his own, unique way. His substitution of commedia dell’arte for the sinister gothicism we’ve come to associate with the name Borgia is both unexpected and refreshing. His combining of contemporary social criticism and (yes) Monty Python-style lampooning is incredibly entertaining. His history isn’t bad, either. There’s much more to recommend than not, and it seems to me a delightful first introduction of this Italian artist to an English, novel-reading public.
Random Updates: What I’m Reading, WIT Month Cometh, Summer Holiday Reading & Two Translation Awards Get Together
July 14, 2015 § 6 Comments
I’m currently enjoying The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy – a swashbuckling Alexander Dumas kind of tale translated from the French by Howard Curtis. It’s completely charming! The two main characters remind me quite a bit of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. Jerusalmy has taken what’s best about sword & sorcery fiction and moved it into a historical setting – 15th century France, Jerusalum & (perhaps, I haven’t gotten that far yet) Italy. I’m not sure if he did it on purpose – this is where an introduction or translator’s note would be helpful – but the parallels are there all the same.
Have I mentioned lately how I wish more books included Introductions, Forwards, Afterwards & Translator’s Notes? Obviously not all at once – there wouldn’t be much room for an actual story – but any combination/variation of the above would be acceptable & is always appreciated.
August is Biblibio’s 2nd Annual Women In Translation Month – I’m hoping to take a more active part this year and with that in mind I’ve been putting together a tentative list of books to read & review. There was a link on Twitter this morning to the New Yorker article “The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector” (am I the only one who is constantly thrown off by the similarity between “Lispector” and “Inspector”?) It was written by Benjamin Moser – well, taken from an introduction Moser wrote to a New Directions collection of her work, to be exact. Benjamin Moser also wrote a biography of Inspector Lispector (see!?).
I’m very interested in reading that biography, titled Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, despite the fact that I still need to read anything by her. A deficiency I hope to correct soon. Thanks in a large part to New Directions the English translations of her work seem to be enjoying a well-deserved moment in the California sun. And from what I’ve heard about her books she seems to belong to The Club of Fierce Women Writers – members include Marie NDiaye, Naja Marie Aidt, Yoko Ogawa, Anne Garréta, & Therese Bohman (to name a few). Women writers who aren’t afraid to leave it all on the page.
If you’re not already planning to take part in #WITM2015 follow this link to a great post listing FAQ’s & suggestions on ways to participate. The only real requirement is to read women writers who’ve been translated into English. And if you’d like some recommendations (or would like to leave some recommendations) feel free to use the comments section below.
More August News: This year we’ve scheduled our Summer Holiday for the end of August and I’m already putting together a list of books to read poolside. A solid seven days of uninterrupted reading time – bliss! 5 books seems to be a safe, and somewhat realistic, number. Current contenders are:
- War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, tr. Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent
- The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, tr. Sam Taylor
- Decoded by Mai Jia, tr. Olivia Milburn & Christopher Payne
- A Clarice Lispector book & biography double-header
- Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar
Of course this list will change at least 12 times between now and then. Not least because I don’t think the Viola De Grado book is going to last (i.e.- remain unread) until then.
By now everyone has heard that the Man Booker International Prize and the International Foreign Fiction Prize have joined forces… just when the Man Booker International Prize finally had a list that was actually interesting! In my unsolicited opinion the whole thing seems like a step backwards for International & Translated Literature. The two prizes evaluated two entirely different things – the former celebrating an international author, the latter an individual book published within the same year. Of course, now the translator will be recognized (obviously a good thing) . And the Man Booker International Prize list is usually a huge disappointment. But wasn’t it lovely seeing the likes of Mabanckou, Aira, Van Niekerk, Krasznahorkai, Condé & Ghosh all up for the same award in 2015?
July 11, 2015 § 5 Comments
Title: The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Author: Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Translator: Adriana Hunter
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978 159051707 9
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat is a generally inoffensive, if slight, novel brought out just in time for Summer. According to a Publisher Weekly article, Other Press is marketing the title as a “YA Crossover”, which speaks to the awkward position the book occupies. The plotting and prose are not sophisticated enough to impress adult fiction readers, but the characterizations (and perhaps even some of the situations?) are too sophisticated (without being engaging) for tweens and early teens. In other words: the novel lacks the pleasurable appeal of genre, and at the same time offers no challenge to the literary fiction reader.
Hélène Roche is a 20-year old archeology student, invited by her Great-Uncle Daniel to stay with him while completing her studies in Paris. He is the author of a beloved series of children’s adventure novels known as The Black Insignia series. Novels everyone seems to have read and adored… except Hélène. Her relationship to Daniel is complicated. Even as a child she was critical – thinking his word games “dumb”, his adventure stories “all the same” and finding his behavior clownish. Whereas Daniel, in contrast, is inordinately fond of her. At holidays he never forgot to single her and her brother out from the other cousins with special gifts – exotic items he picked up on his travels. And, of course, inscribed copies of all his books. Still, despite his many kindnesses Hélène goes out of her way to avoid him.
Otherwise it’s a very convenient arrangement for her: she is given her own apartment on the top floor of Uncle Daniel’s building. Rent free. He resides on the ground floor and is frequently out of the country. He leaves her notes and sends her letters, planning for them to spend time together when he returns. Otherwise he leaves her to her own devices.
That evening she found a postcard of Patagonia in her mailbox. It was sent from Ushuaia, featured low-slung houses against a background of mountains, and had a really beautiful stamp. She recognized her great-uncle’s handwriting, the same writing as those dedications in the Black Insignia books, its sloping letters clinging to each other with tiny connecting hooks as if afraid of losing eachother. My dear Hélène, I hope you’ve settled into rue Vavin. It’s magnificent here. I’ll tell you all about it, but only if you insist… Affectionately, Daniel H.R.
Hélène is not the only member of the Roche family who has issues with Daniel. The adults in particular seem to have mixed feelings, his two sisters and Hélène’s mother and father seemingly the only ones who have a genuine affection for him. Which makes what happens next so odd. Hélène begins to probe into the mysteries of Daniel’s life. Daniel is Jewish. A war orphan, adopted by the Roches after his family was killed in the Holocaust. And while she goes to great lengths – even so far as to travel to America with her boyfriend to visit Daniel’s “Ascher” relatives – her sudden interest is inexplicable. Almost half-hearted. In fact, everything about Helene comes across as half-hearted. Her research is never presented as a means for her to become closer to Daniel, to understand him, or to learn about her family’s history. With one or two exceptions she does not engage with him in any meaningful way as she sets about excavating his life as if digging through an ancient ruin. Hélène moves through the world in a state of self-absorbed ennui. Smoking, brooding and thinking herself better than everyone around her. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat has done something worse than create an unlikeable character… she has written a thoroughly uninteresting one. One who has no more self-knowledge at the end of her narrative journey than she did at its beginning. This matters as, despite it being a third person narrative, the entire story is told through the lens of Hélène.
As for the ending and the mystery’s final resolution – well, to be blunt, it’s a bit ridiculous. My reaction to it all is very similar to my reaction to Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, another French novel written in a similar vein. Neither book demands an emotional commitment from its characters or readers.
The redeeming feature of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is the amount of care and thought which went into publishing the English/American edition. Adriana Hunter has made a lovely and flowing translation (she was also the translator of Hervé le Tellier’s Eléctrico W) of the source text. The writing itself is really very fine with pretty flights of fancy – for example that line in the passage above describing Daniel’s handwriting. Other Press has created a lovely book in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events series and filled it with charming pen and ink illustrations by Andreas Feher. Included at the end of the book is a drawing showing the spines of a complete set of Black Insignia books and a list of the titles in the series “so far”. Overall the physical presentation is delightful – whimsical in a way which is normally just my style.
June 29, 2015 § 4 Comments
Title: The Meursalt Investigation
Author: Kamel Daoud
Translator: John Cullen
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 751 2
When L’Étranger was translated into English and published as The Stranger in the United States in 1946 two articles appeared in the NY Times. The first was a fawning profile of Camus, hailing him as the “Apostle of Post-Liberation France”. In the second article, a review of the actual book, Charles Poore wrote, ‘Mersault’s unkindness toward his mother weighs more heavily in the court’s scales against him than the fact that in a drunk and heat-dazed moment he shot an Arab. There may be poetic justice in that, though it doesn’t seem to be the futilitarian point that Camus is making. (Incidentally, the fate of the Arab’s family is completely overlooked in the proceedings.)’
Poore’s insight seems to have been exceptional, not the norm, among his contemporaries. Albert Camus’ L’Étranger was once taught in schools across this country as an example of post-war existential and absurdist literature, but I don’t remember any examples of it being discussed in the context of colonial history. A ommission that continued over time and which seems ridiculous in hindsight. True, things were different in 1946 – the entire world would be rebuilding after the Blitz, the Holocaust, the Dresden bombings, the Vichy occupation, Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Berlin – every country had a tragedy and every tragedy seems to have been given a name that stuck. Existentialism, absurdism and nihilism were philosophies that fit then and (I suppose) continued to fit as time went on. And let’s face it – no one was in the mood to discuss dismantling a racist colonial system. Particularly not those who benefited from it. Algerian Independence wouldn’t be won – hard won – from the French until 1962, twenty years later.
Pied-noirs – black shoes – was the nickname given to the white, French colonists who benefited from the colonial system. And Meursault is the more extreme version of this privileged class. Camus’ place in and stance on Algier’s society was as complicated as his protagonist’s motivations were simple. As a journalist for an anti-colonial newspaper prior to WWII and during the Algerian War of Independence he would express sympathy, even some solidarity, for those who fought on the side of Algerian independence. “The truth is that we are living every day alongside people whose condition is that of the European peasantry of three centuries ago, and yet we, and we alone, are unmoved by their desperate plight.” But he didn’t support full, Algerian self-rule. Instead he thought it best for Algiers remain part of France. (The obvious question is “best for whom”?) It was a stance which did not make him popular in Algiers and to this day he remains un-celebrated (and largely unclaimed) by the country where he was born. Camus was very much a man of his time, as was his book.
And so it is unsurprisingly an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, who has set out to correct the omissions in Camus’ narrative. He gives the murdered Arab a name: Musa. A mother. And a brother, Harun, who tells their (the “Arab”) side of the story. In a way Daoud has created a parallel, Through the Looking Glass version of L’Étranger. He opens with the words “Mama’s still alive today” and ends with “I too would wish them to be there in force, my spectators, and their hatred be savage”. What happens in between is a tale told to a stranger in a bar decades after the events it describes took place. Told by a narrator who is in every way Meursault’s opposite. Harun, as already stated, is Musa’s brother and so one of the Arabs Meursault & his friend Raymond despised. He contextualizes the familiar story within the history of Algiers – his and his brother’s world – rather than the first half of the 20th century as experienced by Europe. Harun ultimately disputes every fact in the original account, disperses our illusions, and goes on to explain the repercussions of that afternoon on the beach. Some we might never have considered. (One new detail that is introduced: because Musa is never named in the original story, he can never be identified as a martyr and so his mother can not claim a martyr’s pension).
Meursault and Camus blend into a single man – the author/actor of this retold story – who is cleared of a murder he does not deny having committed and then goes on to write a book that enthralls the world. In this way Daoud holds both men, and by extension the readers who were complicit in the dehumanization of the victim, accountable.
Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test, but whose days were numbered anyway: one day or another, they would leave, there was no doubt about that. And so nobody responded to them, people clammed up in their presence, leaned on the wall, and waited. Your writer-murderer was wrong, my brother an his friend had no intention whatsoever of killing them, him and his pimp friend. THey were just waiting for them to leave, all of them, your hero, the pimp, and the thousands and thousands of others. We all knew it, we knew it from early childhood, we didn’t even need to talk about it: we knew one day they’d eventually leave. When we happened to pass through a European neighborhood, we used to amuse ourselves by pointing at the houses and sharing them out like spoils of spoils of a war. One of us would say, “This one’s mine, I touched it first!” and set off a frenzy of claims and counter-claims. We were five years old when we started doing that, can you imagine? As if our intuition was telling us what would happen when Independence came, but leaving out the weapons.
To his credit Douod doesn’t try to match the eloquence of Camus’ writing, cleverly dismissing its perceived worth in the very first page – “The murderer has become famous, and his story’s too well written for me to get any ideas about imitating him.” Instead he focuses on what happened to that other, forgotten, mother and our narrator, Harun. How they dealt with their grief and survived the decades of war. Harun is presented to us as a drunk – angry, bitter, irascible. His voice is coarse, his manner Falstaffian*. He is a tragic figure, too, in his own way. Harun may have lived while his brother did not, but circumstances forced him to live in the shadow of another man’s version of Musa’s death. Though he goes on to paint a picture of what came after post-colonialism and rages against a country where religious has replaced the secular in day-to-day life – for him and his family all these events pivot around the millisecond, 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when his brother was shot. “And so when Musa went away into the mountains to talk to God about eternity, Mama and I left the city and went back to the village.”
I wonder what Camus would have made of it.
If you haven’t read The Stranger there’s really not much point reading The Meursault Investigation. It is not a stand-alone book. You will have to read both books, back-to-back. Which is not a suggestion but, rather, a directive. (Just in case anyone was confused). Daoud’s novel is increasingly relevant – as literature, as social commentary and as an aid in understanding current events. If that’s not compelling enough consider this: The Meursault Investigation corrects the record 70-years after and proves that every life – even a fictional one – is significant. That there always exists an untold story. And every story gains power in the telling.
*Perils of a reader/reviewer: I just want to admit that at this point I’m not sure if that Falstaff comparison is entirely my own. If I somehow absorbed it from another review (or even the book itself?) it was unintentional & I’ve forgotten where I came across it.