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.”