Strokes of Madness

By Ilan Stavans,
Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and Author of "The Disappearance"
Thursday, August 31, 2006


By Gioconda Belli

Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman

Rayo. 325 pages. $24.95

A painting by Francisco Pradilla Ortíz, a prolific 19th-century realist artist famous for depicting historical scenes, shows Juana of Castile, better known as "Juana La Loca," the unstable Spanish queen at the dawn of the 16th century, as a distressed widow, dressed in black, standing at the side of her husband's coffin. The landscape is ominous. A procession of women accompanies Juana in her grief. Her facial expression is ghastly.

In Gioconda Belli's novel "The Scroll of Seduction," Pradilla's piece is located at the Prado Museum. (In truth, it is at the Casón del Buen Retiro.) It serves as a magnet for a pair of modern lovers. One of them is Lucía, a 16-year-old student at a Catholic boarding school, who comes from an unnamed country in Latin America. Her parents died in a plane crash some years before. Curious, inquisitive and passionate, Lucía is eager to find a partner. And she does when she meets Manuel, a forty-something history professor who is a specialist in Juana La Loca. Manuel is the Humbert Humbert to Lucía's Lolita. He finds in her a hypnotic resemblance to the tragic Renaissance queen. In seducing her, Manuel hopes to understand what moved Juana, the true object of his fascination.

Although the novel is ostensibly set in Madrid in the '60s, most of it consists of flashbacks that reconstruct the 16th-century queen's schizophrenic outbursts. She was the daughter of the Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile under whose support Columbus made his first voyage and who orchestrated the Reconquista, unifying Spain under Catholicism. Juana was part of a distinguished lineage. Her sister was Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. Her son was Charles V, the ruler of an empire "on which the sun does not set," extending from Spain to Italy.

Belli, a Nicaraguan who was active in the Sandinista movement (she chronicled her political awakening in the memoir "The Country Under My Skin"), is convinced that Juana has been wronged by the "prejudices" of history. As "a 21st-century woman armed with a different understanding of the motives and reasons that lead us, women, to act one way or another," she interprets Juana's marriage to Philip the Handsome under a feminist light. She believes the queen's psychological instability might have been caused by the abusive men around her.

Philip was a philanderer whose sexual escapades made Juana jealous. She was betrothed to him as a strategy to expand the Spanish Empire. However, falling in love at first sight, they went straight to bed and were officially married a day later. When Philip died of typhus in 1506, Juana's stability quickly deteriorated. She kept his coffin at her side and opened it to kiss his feet. She also refused to bathe. Her father, ambitious as he was, eventually imprisoned her for years in a castle in Tordesillas, in the province of Valladolid, keeping her away from the power that was her rightful inheritance. She died in 1555, at the age of 76.

Pradilla's painting, made in 1877, is a romantic representation of a defining moment in Spain's past. It is just one of countless portraits of Juana La Loca, from plays to biographies. William Hickling Prescott, the mesmerizing American historian of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, discussed her in his "History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella." More recently, filmmaker Vicente Aranda released a movie about her, appropriately called "Mad Love" in English. Belli is at once aware of this artistic tradition and ready to unsettle it.

Unfortunately, like Juana, "The Scroll of Seduction" might be said to be bipolar. It has passing moments of luminosity, as when Lucía, alone in her room, reflects about her existential dilemma. In these passages the reader feels the style might be a tribute to Henry James, in particular to his unfinished novel "The Sense of the Past," in which another painting makes a character embark on a journey to understand, maybe even to change, the past. Yet Belli is a limited, predictable novelist whose ruminations on Juana's ordeal are stilted, schematic and utterly tedious. And for the most part Lucía's first-person voice is so syrupy as to make the average telenovela look emotionally restrained. "I told myself that I had to stop crying," Belli writes about Lucia. "I hugged and rocked myself and started to console myself the same way my father used to: speaking softly, sweetly, saying it's okay, it's okay, it's all over now."

Belli doesn't as much explore insanity and the gender gap as she indulges in sexual stereotyping. Members of the supporting cast feel like mere props in an ill-omened operetta to which Lucía's age adds an undercurrent of pedophilia.

The book's best feature is the lucid English translation by Lisa Dillman. Yet the publisher doesn't highlight the translator's name on the cover, as if embarrassed to recognize that this is a foreign artifact, not coming to us in the original. This is too bad because, as it happens, translation is an inherent component of Belli's novel. Manuel and Lucía translate Juana La Loca's inner feelings into a code of conduct justifying their liaison. As they return to the Prado Museum and look at Pradilla's haunting painting, they reenact a perennial story of extremes, but without adding much to it.

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