Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: The King Amaz'd

Diego Velásquez, "El Venus del espejo," National Gallery, London

At about 150 pages, The King Amaz’d: A Chronicle (Crónica del rey pasmado,1989) - the only one of the late Spanish writer Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s novels currently in English translation - is something of an amuse-bouche given that the writer’s better known works stretch to several times that length. It certainly whet my appetite, however, for a good-hearted translator to come along to serve the main courses. Miguel of the St. Oberose blog has written about some of those, and I’m indebted to him for this welcome introduction to an author about whom I knew next to nothing.

In The King Amaz’d, Torrente Ballester offers up a kind of political fairy tale, employing an ironic tone and wry humor to give a cross-sectional glimpse of 17th century Spain and in particular the machinery of power. He dispenses with the sumptuous detail of many historical novels, instead choosing to push the furniture against the walls to let a few key events and ideas have plenty of room, and giving just enough specifics to pinpoint the story in Madrid during the early years of Philip IV’s reign. Neither the king’s name nor that of the capital is ever mentioned, however, and this detached distance lends the book its fairy tale atmosphere. Nevertheless, the narrator occasionally provides evocative period details, such as when a character riding in a coach complains, “I need to pee” and is told: “Just pick up that cushion where your bottom is. I’m sure you’ll find a hole underneath.”

The novel’s imaginative opening is written so assuredly that one can’t help but sit up and take notice: the capital has been plunged into a sudden chaos of supernatural events: witches seen flying across the night sky; a sulfurous crater opening in a street; rumored sightings of an immense serpent said to have wrapped itself around the palace. These prove a kind of mass hysteria (“everybody was talking about the events, but nobody had seen them”) that occurs coincidental with the novel’s main event: the 21-year-old king, following an initiatory experience with a well-known prostitute, has asked to see the queen naked, rather than (another amusing period detail) clothed on every part of her body but where necessary to ensure continuation of the royal line. This innocent request produces a disruption of state that sends clerics and bishops scurrying to heated conference talks that devolve hilariously into behind the scenes scheming, echoed by the network of hidden passageways and secret doors of the palace and capital. Popular opinion runs amok. Machinations are put into motion in the palace – where “decency doesn’t exact thrive in [the] corridors” - to optimize certain outcomes and careers. The novel uses this precipitating event to explore the relationship between sex and state and religion, rulers and ruled, and political power versus personal will. It shares with Leopoldo Alas’ 19th century La Regenta a focus on the thorny zone where human sexuality and Spain’s Catholic clergy intersect, a dynamic apparently little changed in two hundred years.

Framed within this diverting story, the inner workings of government, the variety of political motives, and the many facets of power are on display. These include the division of society into one morality for rulers and another for subjects; the uses of superstition, gossip, propaganda and violence to prop up authority; the hidden politics that lie behind the political theater performed to a susceptible and apathetic public; and the questionable relationship between the personal peccadillos of rulers and the maintenance of state order. This last notion is pointedly satirized when a Duchess in the palace is told,

“For the fleet to reach Cadiz safely, and for us to win or lose in Flanders, it all depends on the King’s sins.”

The Duchess gave a great laugh: “I can never reason out why the country is so full of idiots who believe in such things.”

“It’s what the theologians think.”

“I’d say it again even if the Queen of the Fairies thinks the same.”

In another scene in which a minister describes to the King the rumors swirling around the city, the gullibility of the public as well as the manipulation of public opinion are laid bare:

“…what appears to have frightened [the people] is the presence of a huge serpent many claim to have seen. Some think it’s going to push the city walls down. Others think it’s going for the royal palace, but most think it’ll attack their own homes. They all know they’re sinners.”
“That’s the way it goes with public opinion, Your Excellency. There’s always someone who creates and manages it, but then each one starts thinking on his own account.”

Scenes like this clearly apply almost globally to contemporary politics (one only need think of the persecution of Bill Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky scandal as regards the first example or of how distant threats of terrorism or Ebola can evoke panic close to home as regards the second), and as a political parable The King Amaz’d has rather universal relevance. But The King Amaz’d belongs to that genre of novels that address themselves to a nation (the book sold 150,000 copies upon publication in Spain and has gone through multiple printings). It takes specific aim at certain proclivities and dynamics in Spanish culture, sardonically milking sacred Spanish cows such as national pride in the glories of the Siglo de Oro and the continuing prominent place of the Catholic church in Spanish society. The introduction by translator Colin Smith makes clear that some resonances might be lost on readers (present!) not well-versed in Spanish history and culture. Torrente Ballester inserts cleverly disguised appearances by Siglo de Oro poets Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo, and also uses period paintings – especially the Rokeby Venus (La Venus del espejo) by Diego Velázquez – as inspiration for some of his scenes. In this portrait of 17th century Spain, Torrente Ballester also alludes obliquely to the country’s more recent history under Franco. The arbitrary exercise of power is seen in the ease with which the kingdom’s Chief Minister accedes to the sex-phobic, sadistic religious fervor of one friar, Father Villescusa, who dreams of a mass auto-da-fé which would simultaneously placate an angry God and conveniently rid the country of his political enemies. Just beneath the abundant humor of The King Amaz’d runs a frisson of abhorrence and contempt at the wanton abuse of political power that manifests itself in the malleability of the young King by those truly holding the reins, in politically expedient detentions and the threat of torture and execution capable of being dispensed at whim by authority, and through religious superstition that infects a credulous people and incites violence in the worst of those who rule them. Still, it’s the withering comedy of the barbs Torrente Ballester hurls at Spain’s self-image that have the most tenacity, as when one character demands of another, rhetorically,

“In what part of the world has it ever been the case that, for a husband to be with his wife in private, the protocols and even the clergy have to come into it?”

“In this part of the world where we are, such things and even greater miracles are ten-a-penny. Don’t lose your sense of reality.”

Friday, September 5, 2014

Vitaliano Brancati: The Beautiful Antonio

Still from the 1960 film version of Il Bell’Antonio, starring Marcello Mastroianni 
and Claudia Cardinale, directed by Mauro Bolognini, written by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

It’s relatively rare to find a literary work centered on a rare subject, but Sicilian writer Vitaliano Brancati’s Beautiful Antonio (Il Bell’Antonio,1949), may be the first novel I’ve read concerning male impotence. It will probably long endure as the most impressive.

The beautiful Antonio Magnano possesses a killing handsomeness. Wherever he goes in his Sicilian hometown of Catania – even to mass – women turn their heads. The frustrated priest even suggests the boy would be better off dead, but reacting to Antonio’s mother’s tears, modulates his careless remark into a hope that “God…in his infinite wisdom…will find ways to mitigate your son’s satanic beauty without reducing him to dust and ashes!” Like many other youth during Mussolini’s rise, Antonio ardently supports Fascism. In order to angle for an elite position in the party and, presumably, to sow some wild oats, he moves from Catania to Rome. Rumors of his sexual conquests, including of a high-ranking official’s wife, drift to Sicily. A few years of this libertinism, though, seem sufficient to his parents, and they recall Antonio home to marry the young bride they’ve picked out for him. The strikingly beautiful but naïve Barbara Puglisi, daughter of the city’s esteemed, conservative notary, hails from a family so proud of its normalcy - counting but three black sheep in the past century - that it watches zealously for any sign of deviance. Though not fully on board with the arranged marriage, Antonio spies Barbara in the street one day and is immediately smitten. The marriage ceremony is a joyous one. The young couple moves into the Puglisi palazzo. Three ostensibly happy years pass. One day, an explosive truth suddenly emerges: Barbara is still a virgin. Having learned at last that it takes more than mere “fraternal embraces in the night” to consummate a marriage and produce an heir, Barbara feels cheated. Her scandalized parents demand an annulment. News of Antonio’s impotence is “heard all over Catania like an eruption of Mount Etna.”

The situation – a devastatingly handsome youth, two families full of expectations, and a revelation that upsets everything – supplies plenty of comedic potential, which Brancati exploits in spades. Beautiful Antonio features snappy dialogue, humorous character sketches, and deftly spun one-liners (such as a description of Hitler as having a “moustache like that of a hyena whose trainer has been trying in vain to teach it to laugh”). But Brancati goes well beyond this considerable comedy to demonstrate a fundamental compassion, conveyed through splendidly drawn characters, and to use Antonio’s sexual inadequacy metaphorically to target Italy’s disastrous experiment with Fascism. The novel evolves from light-hearted bedroom comedy, widens out to grander notions of love and relation, and reaches an apogee in portraying Italy’s potential as a sort of agape betrayed by the narrow and rigid funneling of the nation’s energies, sexual and otherwise, into blind devotion to Mussolini. Fascism appears as a compensatory politics arising from a lack of agency (or potency) rooted in an Italian gallisimo that places a social premium on male virility and public boasting of sexual exploits, and that leads to a gender dynamic in which many men fail to link the women they view as sexual objects in any way to their own “mothers and sisters.” Regarding these last, a character in one scene tries to interrupt the salacious boasting of a group of men by vainly asking, “But aren’t they women too?”

The degree to which such virility is given vital importance is best demonstrated by the most dramatic of Brancati’s terrific characters, Antonio’s father Alfio, proud of his own sexual conquests and of those he imagines for his son.  Alternating wildly between an obsequious desire to maintain a good reputation in Catania and a volatile anger and mistrust of those around him, Alfio prioritizes virility over his love for his son. Hearing of a problem in his Antonio's marriage, he axiomatically assumes it to be sexual insatiability, and is nearly driven mad by discovering that it's the opposite, seeing such inadequacy as a fate worse than death. In one of the novel’s more outlandish scenes, Alfio’s distraught shame over his son’s incapacity results in a demand that the Puglisi father accompany him and Antonio to a brothel to watch the son prove his ability to perform.

The bedroom comedy aspect of the novel turns to more serious subjects when an uncle, Ermenegildo, is invited to speak with Antonio and divine the truth behind the boy’s problem. Ermenegildo serves as a moral and philosophical lodestone in the novel, albeit a profoundly cynical one. Jaded by what he’s seen in the Spanish Civil War, with “both sides…quite ready and willing to butcher, burn and make mincemeat of Jesus Christ in person,” he has lost faith in humanity, viewing with knowing contempt the “black supervisor’s uniforms in which…so many bourgeois nonentities had been hiding for years.” When asked to which party he belongs, he replies: “I belong to the party of the worms who will shortly be eating the meat off of my bones; or, if you prefer, it’s my fleshless skull that thinks that way, and I’m certain it will stay intact until a time when Fascism and anti-Fascism no longer mean anything to anyone.” His cynicism extends even to sex: “…is it possible that I have to go on and on, mindlessly filling holes in flesh with other flesh? And, for crying out loud, it’s always the same thing!” His eyes opened to the horrors of dictatorship, he longs for a death that will deliver him from the scourge of his fellow human beings, speculating that even Jesus Christ himself may one day seem nothing more than a “barbaric moralist.” But his compassion for Antonio is genuine and generous, as he gains from the boy “what his nephew had shortly received from him: the powerful distraction of an anguish other than his own.”

Antonio’s crushing frustration is depicted with great sensitivity in a lengthy, tortured and moving monologue in which he gushes out everything to his uncle, including recounting a first failed attempt with Barbara:

My blood boiled and my head seethed with intense excitement, but this, at a certain point, leaked out through the pores of my skin and was lost in the air, leaving me with the sort of dispersed, ineffectual pleasure that children have in dreams, shortly before they lose their innocence.

His impotence has conferred upon him a kind of annihilation that evokes the rigidity and vitiated nature of Fascism. “There’s a dead man in the midst of your life, a corpse so placed that wherever you move you’re bound to brush up against it, against its cold, fetid skin.”

One of the few other persons to whom Antonio turns to relieve his anguish is his cousin Edoardo, another of Brancati’s memorable creations. Self-absorbed, shifting with any political wind, and anxious to exploit Antonio’s Fascist connections in order to become mayor of Catania, Edoardo nonetheless fervently admires the great historian Benedetto Croce, scribbling in the margins of Croce’s History of Europe things like “No!...The man’s mad!...No, no, and no again!” in case the book should fall into the hands of the Fascists. But Edoardo - displaying another kind of impotence - possesses neither political courage nor the capacity for true empathy, as demonstrated when the two cousins go out for a walk following the disclosure that has disrupted everything:

Lacking the courage to speak open-heartedly about the terrible thing that had happened to one of them, they spoke not at all. Any other subject would have aggravated the magnitude of the one they were avoiding. So that the immense events of that September, the order to black out the cities, Hitler’s bellowings filling the darkened streets from loudspeakers positioned in windows, the call-up of recruits, Munich – all failed to cohere into a single word on those two pairs of lips twisted with bitterness.

The beautiful Antonio represents a fantasy in the microcosm of Catania: the girls and women who feverishly dream about him, Antonio’s family members who exalt his virility, Barbara’s family who seek in the marriage increased social standing and a vigorous heir, and an entire community that sees Antonio as a paragon of the ideal Italian man. As with Italy’s experience of Mussolini - “that man [who] pocketed our youth” – the unmasking of a flaccid fantasy world also reveals its inherent violence, and the events at the end of the novel prove considerably darker - “The lights are out all over Europe” - than the book’s initial comic premise would suggest.  Brancati’s brilliant choice of metaphor for Italy’s destructive flirtation with Fascism – one that aims right at the libido - makes Beautiful Antonio an unusual, biting, and especially trenchant contribution to the genre of the Italian anti-Fascist novel. In combining such effervescent comedy with the gravity shown in so many of the genre’s other representatives, Beautiful Antonio is a rare thing indeed.