A Novel of the Baroque

By Paul Anderson

Carroll & Graf. 1,358 pp. $35

At the age of 16, Juana Ines Ramirez de Santillana y Asbaje -- the illegitimate offspring of an illiterate, if prosperous, mother and an absent father -- was summoned by the scholars of Mexico's viceregal court for an oral examination to determine if her famed knowledge of history, mythology, theology, literature and languages was genuine. It was. The legend of her all-encompassing mind crossed the Atlantic to Europe, where she became known as America's Tenth Muse.

In our day, we know her simply as Sor Juana, the most important writer the Americas produced during the colonial era. She was a fecund lyricist and playwright, and a subtle and controversial theologian. Initially a lady-in-waiting to the vicereine, she left the court at 19 -- changing her name to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz -- to live the rest of her life in convents. But in 1693, when she was 44, the Officers of the Inquisition forbade her to put pen to paper ever again for daring to critique a sermon on the nature of God's gifts to us by the Jesuit priest Antonio Vieira. She was ordered to give away her immense library and to sign her mea culpa in her own blood. Two years later, she died of the plague.

But it is as a poet that Sor Juana made her greatest contributions. Her erotically unambiguous love poems well up from a fountain of Sapphic longing. Even today, their nakedness can be shocking. Her long visionary poem, "First Dream," puts her in the company of the likes of Milton. As a writer of sonnets, Sor Juana's achievement ranks with those of Shakespeare, Donne and the Spanish poet Luis de Gongora y Argote.

Octavio Paz's Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith carved for Sor Juana her rightful place in the Western canon. Now arrives Paul Anderson's epic novel, Hunger's Brides, 12 years in the making. Whereas Paz's seminal work remains unsurpassed in its thorough mapping of the political, cultural and intellectual landscape that produced Sor Juana, a novelist's empathy was needed for the flesh-and-blood woman to emerge. The creation of a believable voice for Sor Juana is Anderson's most remarkable achievement in his debut novel.

His reconstruction of the culture of racial fusion created by the conquest of the New World and of the religious and political climate of 17th-century Mexico is vivid, written with verve and authority. Equally impressive is Anderson's knowledge of Mexico's pre-Columbian past -- which he sees as a golden age. And he does a wonderful job showing us how important that past was to the development of Sor Juana's art.

Anderson's filigreed language is often resplendent, nowhere more so than in Book One, which describes Sor Juana's childhood in her family's hacienda. Its depiction of Juana's homoerotic friendship with Amanda, the child of the family cook, is lyrical and chock-full of dazzling images -- the bull standing "silent, solid, puffing gouts of steam, like the mountain itself . . . . Around its horns was wound, in a long figure eight, a dark blue cornflower crown." These early portions are the most focused and honed writing in Hunger's Brides.

Book One cast such a spell on me, in fact, that it made me forget about the framing device of the novel. In the Prologue we meet the book's narrator, Donald J. Gregory, a philandering professor of American literature in Canada who has found his student lover, Beulah Limosneros, covered in blood and near death. Eventually we learn that the rest of the novel is the manuscript Beulah had put together and which Gregory, who purloined it when he found Beulah in a coma, has embellished.

Unfortunately, the novel-within-the-novel devotes hundreds of pages to Beulah's puerile ruminations, her story of incest and bulimia, her sexual dysfunctions and other expendable subplots. Anderson's depiction of Gregory's marital problems is the stuff of soap operas. And Beulah's and Gregory's actions don't ring true. In addition, the film-noirish elements of the narrative (Who attacked Beulah? Will Gregory go to jail?) are tired stuff. Anderson's heart doesn't seem to be in it, which stalls Hunger's Brides whenever he returns to this limp mystery aspect of his novel.

Not to dramatize Sor Juana's relationship with Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, vicereine of New Spain, is another huge mistake. It could be argued that Maria Luisa was the most significant person in Sor Juana's life: She was her protector from the zealots of the church and the muse of many of Sor Juana's most impassioned love poems. She also published Inundacion castalida, Sor Juana's first book of poems, thus preserving them for posterity. Instead, what Anderson gives us is a series of uninspired letters that Sor Juana writes to Maria Luisa after she has returned to Spain.

Despite Anderson's extravagant gifts, he is an apprentice novelist, one who mistakes prolixity for weight, chaos for complexity, and cleverness for depth. We get plays, talky film scripts, poems by other major writers of the Spanish Golden Age, police interrogations, lengthy footnotes, and reams of clunky exposition. But the moments when we are allowed to look inside Sor Juana's heart are few and far between.

Hunger's Brides is a novel of high seriousness, a labor of love. And Anderson earns our admiration for his ability to write passages that leave us swooning with their musicality and their radiance. Still, we expect good novels to create an unbroken spell from which we awake only when we're done reading them. Instead, I was left with a fractured experience that reminded me of the worse excesses of the rococo gone haywire. We don't remember Sor Juana for her witty parlor games -- fun though they may be -- but for the toughness and brilliance of her intellect and the scorching passion of her art.

There is not one moment in this hugely overwritten novel that reminded me of the Sor Juana who advised Portia:

Leave those lethal coals alone:

your love's not equal to those flames.

Your passion teaches us that she who flings herself on the pyre will never learn that love can burn you alive.

And yet, in many places, Anderson touches greatness. *

Jaime Manrique's new novel, "Our Lives Are the Rivers," will be published in 2006.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz