THE DIVINE HUSBAND

By Francisco Goldman

Atlantic Monthly. 465 pp. $24 Novelist Francisco Goldman has won plaudits in the past -- for The Long Night of the White Chickens and The Ordinary Seaman -- and he will receive more for The Divine Husband. He writes well (even aphoristically: "All first kisses plant the possibility of more to come"), he can convincingly reveal the souls of women as well as men, and he is nothing if not ambitious: The Divine Husband embraces virtually every archetype of 19th- and early-20th-century Latin American history -- religion, dictatorship, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, British imperialism, Jewish emigration, American colonialism, revolution, poetry, near-legendary figures (in this instance, the celebrated Cuban poet-revolutionary Jose Marti), rubber plantations and coffee trading, forbidden love, baseball, emigration to New York and the magic-realist taste for sentimental coincidence and narrative tricksiness.

Goldman is clearly working a vein of riches, but one that some readers may feel is a bit overmined. After all, the above description could be loosely applied to every other big Latin-American novel of the past 40 years. (One Hundred Years of Solitude has a lot to answer for.) That Goldman's book largely succeeds in spite of this familiar material remains a testament to its author's deep imagination, stylistic verve and psychological acuity.

The Divine Husband traces the lives of two friends from their childhood through their years in a convent to their mid-twenties, with brief glances toward their maturity and old age. Paquita Aparicio comes from a well-to-do family; Maria de las Nieves Moran is the poor daughter of an Indio and a poor Irishman who dies soon after his arrival in this unnamed Central American country. In due course, mother and child are rescued from backwoods poverty by Don Juan Aparicio, who makes Maria the companion to his beautiful daughter. But when "El Anticristo," a brutal soldier who rises to the presidency of the country, grows infatuated with the 13-year-old Paquita, the two girls are sent away to the convent of Nuestra Senora de Belen for their protection. There Maria, hoping to prevent Paquita from yielding to El Anticristo's blandishments, compels her friend to vow to remain a virgin as long as she herself is one. Immediately thereafter, Maria becomes an acolyte of the order headed by Sor Gertrudis de la Sangre Divina.

From this point on, the narrative line of The Divine Husband starts to loop and twist. Apparently we are learning much of this late-19th-century history through the researches of an unnamed scholar of our time. He cites a 1927 biography of Sor Gertrudis, alludes to the future political consequences of the girls' pact, mentions surviving artifacts from their childhood, occasionally refers to himself and his hometown of Wagnum, Mass. Simultaneously, rather than follow strict chronology, the novel begins to shift back and forth in time -- Chapter Two opens with the suddenly grown Paquita and Maria sailing for New York with their young children- -- and then fills in the intervening years through shipboard conversations and historical speculation and reconstruction. Maria, we learn, has been seriously wooed by both a British legation official and the mysterious Mack Chinchilla, but gossip suggests that her daughter may have been fathered by the poet Jose Marti. Eventually, the charismatic Marti appears -- imagine Che Guevara and Pablo Neruda combined -- both in the flesh and on paper: We read, along with Maria, the Pinkerton Detective Agency's detailed reports on the Cuban activist's public appearances and personal affairs during his long sojourn in New York. As if such kaleidoscopic dazzle weren't enough already, our narrator eventually goes so far as to interrupt -- or enhance -- his pages by mulling over the claim that Jose Marti was the grandfather of actor Cesar Romero, who played the Joker on the television series "Batman."

Such playfulness and self-reflexivity in fiction permit, indeed encourage, authorial chutzpah, which can be entertaining, but the cost is nearly always a diminution in what one might call narrative enchantment. Francisco Goldman successfully creates an imaginary country with a real Cuban poet in it but then nearly undermines everything with his over-zealous Nabokovian narrator and a pervasive air of sham and contrivance. At one point we are told that "one of the ways life was superior to novels was its way of sending you totally unforeseen surprises without it seeming in bad artistic taste, or a pitiably strenuous way of resolving a narrative into a moral or sentimental lesson, or at least into a credible ending." One can almost visualize the wink as Goldman proffers this observation just before his own coincidence-filled, fairy-tale finale.

While stylistic virtuosity is one pole of The Divine Husband, the other is its historical weightiness. One learns a great deal about the ways of nuns, the social conditions of the backlands, the colorful immigrant life along old Broadway, the rubber trade (pay attention to all the balloons). Even Goldman's frequent citations from Marti's poetry and prose contribute to this almost documentary quality.

Marti himself is clearly the flashpoint of the novel. Goldman takes the main facts of the poet's life and finds room there for Maria de las Nieves. Indeed, The Divine Husband may be seen as not only an homage to Marti but also a meditation on what it is like for the human to encounter the divine, or at least the semi-divine:

"He was destined, after all, to become an indefatigable revolutionary leader, strategist and warrior, a frock-coated summoner of young men to warfare and death, a lover of life and death who would finally choose the latter -- who almost two decades later would disappear into the paradigmatic martyrdom that would transform his entire life into an enormous heroic statue, one whose shadow falls everywhere. Of course, Maria de las Nieves could not yet have foreseen any of that -- that his destiny as a ubiquitous statue would with every passing year petrify a bit more of her own life, trapping love and the memory of love inside its airless air, turning even her own tongue and memory to dutiful marble and bronze. (Perhaps posterity will never be able to discover the names of all the women's hearts melted down to help make that statue, though Maria de las Nieves' heart was certainly one of those, and it was willing)."

The Divine Husband is a novel packed with incidents and coincidence, a tour de force of temporal hide-and-seek, full of history and insight into history, even at times quite sexy -- one young nun turns whore to support her impoverished order -- but also long-winded and over-emphatic, almost as petrified as that statue of Jose Marti, or as relentless as Thomas Mann in the middle of Joseph and His Brothers. To some readers, it should be noted, Joseph and His Brothers is a great masterpiece of historical fiction. So, take a look at Francisco Goldman's new novel, a serious work by a serious artist. It just might strike you as a masterpiece. But even as I admire the artistry and hard work evidenced in The Divine Husband, I know that admiration is, finally, no substitute for love. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.