Of insects and island men: Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan

Bees are disciplined and predictable, but the outcome of their labour is uncertain, the same as happens with the deeds of men…

The setting is Elba, the year, 1814. Napoleon having abdicated in Fontainbleu, has been exiled to the Italian island where Andrea Pasolini, a beekeeper with a secret passion for philosophy, awaits anxiously for an expected encounter with the Emperor. It seems that, along with an innate island sensibility, the two men share a fascination with and passion for bees. This is the simple premise of Napoleon’s Beekeeper, a fanciful novella by Spanish writer José Luis De Juan. Combining details from history with a contemporary understanding of apiculture, he constructs, through a series of short, crisscrossing chapters, a vivid portrait of two very different men whose lives seemed destined to intersect at what could be a critical moment in history.

Elba’s honey had, at the time, gained a far reaching reputation for its quality and curative powers. Passolini inherited his official vocation from his father, but his true love, nurtured under the tutelage of a free thinking priest, Father Anselmo, who had been, like Napoleon, exiled on the island for a number of years, lies elsewhere. Through him, the farmer’s son had been introduced to philosophical thinking far beyond the accepted scope of the Church. Reading became his greatest love, one he took great pains to keep hidden, first from the townsfolk and later from his own wife and family. But when he can find time he retreats to a room hidden in his cellar where he reads and fills notebooks with his thoughts and experiences. This most unusual beekeeper exercises a careful pattern of behaviour to reveal his private pursuits to no one, even more so now that Bonaparte is on Elba.

It so happens that Passolini has dedicated himself to studying the Corsican’s career for decades, inspired by an anonymous account of an odd behaviour observed during the Marengo battle which caused him to suspect that the Emperor’s adoption of the bee as a symbol and his apparent appreciation of varieties of honey signified a deeper obsession.

From that day forward, after he learned of the connection between Bonaparte and bees, Passolini’s routine as a beekeeper found a new release. He started foraging in the backrooms of booksellers located in Pisa, Luca and Florence, getting hold of the tiniest booklets with some special tidbit about the First Consul, the most intimate detail, the most secret.

Over time, the beekeeper begins to see, in the behaviour of the colony and the structure of the hive, a key to understanding, even predicting, the outcome of military actions. He comes to view Napoleon through the hexagonal lens of the honeycomb. However, this knowledge also has him caught as a pawn in a larger political scheme he no longer wants to be part of. Now that the object of his attention is close at hand and interested in meeting and touring the island’s hives with him, his anxiety and paranoia grows steadily.

Meanwhile, the Emperor spends his early months in exile keeping his leadership muscles as toned as they can be under the circumstances. Down but not defeated. However, the days begin to drag and soon Napoleon finds himself alternately frustrated by circumstances and troubled by doubts and insecurity. He passes his days with a measure of regimented boredom as he rules over his diminished domain. The glory he once tasted begins to feel more distant, less possible:

I confess I’m an impostor. I was never the youngest general of France. I never conquered the north of Italy or reached as far as Naples to cleanse the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies of its bandits. My great Alexander dream was just a boozy night in a tavern. I no longer make the foolish claim of having kept the Revolution from turning against itself, of having tackled the Terror, promoted civil justice, set the lazy clock of the centuries racing.

Of course, relieved, at least temporarily, from the full demands of his former existence, Mr. Bonaparte has time to indulge his interest in apiculture and from his arrival on his present island realm, that is one of his goals. He was already aware of Passolini, having received an unexpected missive from the modest beekeeper many years earlier and imagines the humble farmer to be a suitable guide to the island’s apiaries. Arrangements are made.

As the narrative inches toward their planned meeting, moving not chronologically but rather slipping in and out of the past to sketch out and fill in the characters of the Emperor and his would-be beekeeper, dropping into their dreams and nightmares along the way, a lyrical, slightly magical story unfolds. This is historical fiction at its most spare and whimsical, but grounded in possibility, that ultimately becomes a double stranded portrait of two sad figures longing to escape their circumstances.

Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Giramondo.

A deep and abiding melancholy: Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa

There is a moment in our earliest years, if we are lucky, when the outside world with all its attendant ills and hardships cannot yet touch us, but it is simultaneously a vulnerable space, fleeting, ephemeral—even more so when we look back and remember how quickly it passed:

It was the middle of the dry season but each time her lips parted I found myself in an oasis in which I wanted for nothing; I had no need to look to the horizon but if I did, it would have gone on and on, a hungerlessness that might well be called paradise. The wind was blowing from the coast, a salt wind from the Atlantic which I would feel against me as a phantom presence even when it was not there any more. The sun was not shining and its not shining was neither here nor there; I was not waiting for the sun to reveal itself to me . . . Although I was old enough – three years, perhaps four – I seldom spoke at this time. No one really remarked on this fact nor how I hung off every one of my mother’s words. Indeed, I could have continued in this same vein for an aeon or more, unaware of the peril of what might lie ahead.

Set in Angola during the years leading up to Independence from Portugal in 1975, Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa, an Australian author of Goan heritage, is a young woman’s account of childhood and youth during a time of increasing political unrest and instability. As she remembers the magic of her early, loving bond with her mother, in an idyllic setting secure in the comforts wealth affords, the truths she is not yet able to understand linger in the air. From the beginning, a tentativeness, a sense of an impending ending runs through the narrative, beneath the protection of a child’s innocence and an adolescent self-absorption, until it becomes evident that the last remnants of the colonial social structure must either face unfortunate dissolution or exile.

Named for the Portuguese expression meaning an unbearable longing or melancholy, Saudade is a novella of displacement. Narrator Maria-Christina’s parents, Indians from Brahmin backgrounds, their marriage arranged, had immigrated to Angola in the dying days of Portuguese rule in Goa. Africa was seen as a place of promise and hope for the future. At first they settled into a comfortable existence, and started a family. But their colonial experience, as such, has two sides. They have a certain status, hire African servants, and yet, to many Portuguese they are still bound to the reality that Portugal had once subdued and ruled their homeland. When, at school, Maria-Christina refers to explorer Bartolomeu Dias as an “invader,” her indignant teacher reminds her of her place:

Her voice tremulous, she declared that Bartolomeu Dias had been commissioned by João II and Isabel; she said that he had battled storm and shipwreck and cannibalism to claim Angola for Portugal. Bartolomeu Dias, she said, was responsible for civilising the people of Angola and was part of that long line of fidalgos who had cultivated my own loinclothed and mud-thatched and blue-godded people! When she had made this speech, the teacher from Coimbra was standing close to me and yet it seemed I could not see her; her face was blur. When she spoke, her breath smelt stale – as of onions and salt pork sitting in a pot too long. Not a day went by without one girl or other being humiliated by her, so I tried not to take the humiliation to heart.

After an initial period of prosperity, unrest begins to grow and threaten the security of the non-Angolan residents. As the fight for independence escalates, Maria Christina’s father is caught up secretive, risky activities, while her mother becomes increasingly stressed and homesick. Meanwhile, their daughter must navigate the mysteries and challenges of childhood and adolescence against a shifting social, political and domestic landscape.

The success of any Bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel, for me, depends on a certain recognizable authenticity of voice. Here the spare, wistful melancholy of the protagonist’s early memories, filtered through the lens of acquired understanding, carries just the right tone. Trusting and deeply attached to her mother when she is young, she gradually gains a more defiant edge as puberty arrives and the tensions at home and in the country intensify. Her relationships with her parents become strained as friendships and her first romance start to define her move toward an independent engagement with the world. That is, until political upheaval begins to draw her friends away from Angola, often to places and relatives they barely know. Yet, as much as this is a story of a family living through the final years of colonial power and privilege, the nostalgia for India is deep and  abiding—a loss that haunts the mother and leaves the daughter rootless.  Independence exacts huge costs for all and, of course, for the Angolans themselves, there will be many bloody years yet to come.

Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa is published by Giramondo in Australia and Transit Books in the US.

Wrapping up another year in reading: Farewell to 2019 and a long decade

The end of a another year is upon us and, at the same time, another decade is also drawing to a close. Both have offered a mix of joy and pain. I have written enough about the personal challenges and the opportunities these past years have brought. Suffice to say I approached the 20-teens, so to speak, with confidence, prepared to face my fifties as a time of increased professional growth as I assumed day-to-day parenting would become less pressing. I could not have imagined what life would look like heading into the year during which I will turn sixty. I still have a troubled now-thirty-year-old child at home, my career imploded years ago, I have lost dear friends and family members, and today I look around the world to see fires raging, Arctic ice melting, right-wing Nationalist movements rising, and hatred and instability spreading, often in countries that have nuclear capabilities.

We are living in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

Thankfully I still have books. And writing. And an international literary community — one that has expanded my horizons in ways I could never have anticipated.

The Himalya on the horizon above Nepal.

As avid readers roll out their annual lists of favourite books of the year, I’ve noticed many efforts to celebrate a personal book (or books) of the decade. I couldn’t even begin to do that. It would be like trying to hit a moving target. My reading has changed a lot, especially since I started actively writing reviews and publishing my own work. Chances are it will change again. Reading, like most things, is dynamic. As it is, it’s hard enough to narrow down a selection of favourites at the end of the year. There are so many that get left out. However, even though I keep promising myself I will give up on the regular spectacle, come the end of December, I find it impossible to resist shining a light on some of the books I especially enjoyed (and to be honest, I always like to see what others have been up to as well).

Now that I have them together, I’m surprised to see that my top reads for 2019  were all published this year save one — I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. However, reading the poems of a 14th century Kashmiri mystic in the same month the Indian government revoked Article 370 triggering a crisis in Kashmir that is still ongoing made it disturbingly timely. As well, all are translations.

Absent from this photo because I do not own a hard copy is Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski, tr. by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić from Istros Books, a tale of an unhappy marriage with a wonderfully engaging narrator.

The balance of my selection, arranged for aesthetics not relative value, includes:

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia, tr. by Rawley Grau) an evocative, filmic Holocaust tale set in the north eastern region of Slovenia lying between the Mura River and the Hungarian border.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Kashmir, tr. by Ranjit Hoskote). Not only is this book timely given the state of affairs in Kashmir, but because the body of work attributed to Lalla was likely created, in her name and honour, over the centuries by contributors reflecting a range of faith communities, ages, genders and backgrounds. Thus her example is critical at a time when forces are tearing at the threads of India’s diverse heritage.
Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos (Argentina, tr. Alice Whitmore) features a troubled difficult narrator who does not relate to others in a “normal” way — a challenge for author and reader, but I found much to recognize in her lack of social skills. Brilliantly realized.
Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger, (Swiss/German, tr. by Megan Ewing). Reading like a performance piece rather than a conventional narrative, this confident, complex, intelligent novel circling around the subject of borders and migration is one of the most original works I’ve encountered in a long time. Stunning.
Herbert by Naburan Bhattacharya (India/Bengali, tr. Sunandini Banjerjee). A new translation of this Bengali cult classic was also published as Harbart in North America. Both that edition and the Calcutta-based Seagull Books edit are boisterous and fun, but as an editor I was surprised to see how much was smoothed out of the former.
Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa/Afrikaans, tr. Marius Swart) this wonderful collection of interconnected stories by the inimitable Marlene van Niekerk, one of my favourite authors, is an example of how an English translation can maintain elements of Afrikaans and Dutch without alienating readers — if you trust your audience. These are stories about the magic of language, where the magic is allowed to shine through.
The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens by Raoul Schrott (Austria/German, tr. by Karen Leeder). Undefinable, indescribably beautiful, this text — best described as a prose poem paired with haunting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O — is etheral, heavenly and bound to the earth all at once.
Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat by Michel Leiris (France, tr. by Christine Pichini). As soon as I learned of the release of this text, the last major work by one of my literary heroes, I knew I had to have it and write about it.  A moving exploration of art, writing and aging by one of the most important French intellectuals of the twentieth century.

At the City Palace, Jaipur

This year I made two trips to India, both over a month long. Presently I am watching tensions rise there with concern, aware that I am an outsider, but it is impossible to ignore hateful rhetoric no matter where it arises. None of our countries or communities are immune from divisive discontent or politicians prepared to capitalize on it. And yet I still think about going back, about the places I have yet to visit, people I want to meet up with or see again. The restless loneliness of being home settles in quickly and India has become important to me. But I suspect it will be a while. . .

As I look ahead to the coming year, my primary objective is to write. Seriously this time. I know I have said that before, but my writer’s block has eased. I now need discipline. My goal is to have a draft of a nonfiction manuscript of perhaps 100 pages complete before my birthday in October. All other writing, reading, and volunteer editing will have to fit around that goal.

And so I go. Into a new decade.

A second-hand melancholy: Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos

At the beginning of Argentinian writer Mariana Dimópulos’ unsettling novel Imminence, it is immediately evident that there is something oddly off-balance here—a softly-hued disconnect that instantly sets the tone for one of the most finely realized representations of what it feels like to be oddly out of step with the world around you. The narrator, alone for the first time with her infant son awkwardly reaches out to touch him. She strokes a foot and waits for something to stir inside her chest as she had been assured it would. Nothing. Her partner Ivan comes into the room and, for the moment, rescues her from any further responsibility. Relief.

She was, we soon learn, hospitalized for a month with a serious infection following the baby’s birth, so young Isaac has been attended to by Ivan, her sister, and the nurses up until this point when she is deemed well enough to venture home. She does not even know her child has been named until that first night in the apartment.  His Russian father has chosen his own grandfather’s name, an appellation sadly devoid of Spanish musicality. But that’s okay.

The story that unfolds—or to be more precise, unwinds—belongs to that first evening home from the hospital, and to another evening with strong and increasingly ominous echoes—the last with her pervious lover, Pedro. Woven in and out of her careful accounts of those two evenings, are a flow of memories tied to her past and a number of key people in her life. There is Celeste, the relative she comes to stay with when she moves into Buenos Aires from the smaller rural community of Los Flores in her teens, and her friends, Mara the actress, and Ludmilla who was tragically killed young. These are the women she tries to measure her own insecure sense of womanhood against. And then there are the men: Ivan and Pedro, of course, and the Cousin, a mysterious distant relative with whom she has an occasional sexual relationship—a manipulative, distasteful character with an uncanny sense of timing.

Her account is not chronological, she foreshadows and repeats herself as if slowly filling in a fluid, watery tapestry. There is a dreamlike quality to her stories that bounce off one another, gradually taking on greater shape and form. Her observations are strange, often almost mechanical as if existing in the world is not something that comes naturally. She tries to take her cues from others. Mara and Ludmilla are especially important as early role models:

They were masters of subtlety, and both possessed a scathing wit. And as the stars of the night I would feel a great admiration for the two of them, and I would swear alongside them the sacred oaths of their master plan: I would never get married; I would never cry a single tear over a man who didn’t deserve it; I would never have children, nor would I attend to any other such calls of nature, if indeed nature were ever to call.

As her story is gradually fleshed out, her differences become more explicit, and more intriguing. Socially she struggles. She is, it appears, truly unable to interact with reality, if there is such a thing, with the same ease others seem to demonstrate. Aware of this shortcoming, she has learned, as she puts it, to disappear “inside the parenthesis”. She cannot even recall when it first happened—as a child or as an adult in response to loss perhaps—but either way she has found a refuge, first in the comfort of numbers and if that fails, in a private ritual:

In order to pull off the trick, all I had to do was imagine a beautiful derivative. If that didn’t work, I would make a little ball out of a stocking or a scarf and place it where I imagined my stomach to be, then spin around on the floor or the bed and wait for a few seconds, and soon enough it would start working, and any feeling remotely like an emotion was swiftly eliminated.

This ability to push emotion aside, one that could well be deeply embedded in the narrator’s personality, is a double-edged sword. If it eased the trauma of Ludmilla’s death, or Celeste’s difficult final years; it impairs her resistance to the Cousin’s inappropriate attentions, and undoes her relationship with Pedro, an academic who had visions of a future she could not share. In close proximity to others, her capacity to “perform herself” tends to fall apart and she becomes the architect and the audience of her own misfortune, watching from the impassive default position she continues to fall back into.

But when Ivan unexpectedly comes into her life, the ground suddenly shits beneath her feet. She feels. Unprepared, she is secretly pleased at this thing stirring inside. However, he is a doctor, called back to Minsk at least temporarily, and she has to act fast on this rising tide:

I was triumphant: I made promises, I sent signals, I invested all my energy into calculating what Ivan was really trying to tell me, rummaging for the hidden meaning beneath every sentence, in a feverish kind of hermeneutics, trying to enthrall him, letting myself become enthralled.

Ivan does return, their relationship blossoms, and ultimately they are sitting over soup on this first night together as a family while their child sleeps in his cot. She and Pedro likewise had had soup for dinner on the night their relationship ended. Is the stage set for another repetition, like the many coincidental duplications our number-obsessed narrator has previously noted? As the trajectories of the two accounts at the core of this tale threaten to converge, the tone becomes increasingly measured, disturbed. Tensions rise.

Imminence is an exceptionally well crafted novel. The narrative winds forward and back in time, but never loses its focus. The compelling voice of the narrator is the key, the magic that pulls this work together. Translator Alice Whitmore allows the full beauty and the strangeness of her reminisces and reflections to come through. Lyrical, but odd, the narrative strikies a tone somewhere between that of  Fleur Jaeggy’s SS Prolterka and Max Frisch’s Homo Faber. Some may find her detachment difficult to forgive, but she herself is aware of a lack, a disconnect—a something that sets her apart from other people, especially women. She will frequently assert that she is not a woman, but this is not an indication of an inherent gender insecurity, so much as a failure to play by the normal rules of human engagement which, because she is female, she assumes are those of a woman. Yet, with less of a record to set straight than Jaeggy or Frisch’s protagonists, her story is one with many more undefined edges. This is not just a confession, but a sombre self-examination, a mess of complicated emotions muted, repressed and viewed through a haze of time and physical fatigue. And it is a narrative that holds you in its spell until the very end.

Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos is translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore, is published by Giramondo.

No country for young men: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

The reflective, circular “report” that occupies the narrator of Gerald Murnane’s latest, and if he can be believed, last, novel is presented as an account “of actual events and no sort of work of fiction.” This clarification, coming in the midst of an extended extrapolation of possible impossibilities, anticipates the skeptic:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

Of course, in Murnane’s mental terrain the line between fiction and events actually experienced is a slippery one, but Border Districts reads like a meditation on a lifetime of traversing imaginary landscapes as a reader and writer famously adverse to physically travelling beyond the confines of his home state of Victoria, refracted through a playfully multi-toned meta-fictional prism. This is a novel about perception and memory, and the degree to which we can ever hope to grasp the contents of our own minds. More critically it’s about the way our experiences and our experiences of our experiences are inflated or telescoped with the passage of time.

The narrator of Border Districts has relocated from a capitol city to a small town near the state border, echoing a similar move made by Murnane a number of years ago. He has not entirely shunned the city, he makes several return trips to visit friends and family, but his stated goal in moving to this remote place is to spend his last years focusing on the images, emotions and words that have stayed with him over time, “guarding” his eyes, as he puts it, so that “I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my range of vision.” Anticipating the essential, fragmentary quality of this mental inventory he embarks on a meticulous effort, paragraph by paragraph, to trace the connections from one recollection or set of recollections to another.

The result is a digressive internalized odyssey. Perspective shifts from first to third person for a time as the book-hungry boy approaches the remembering man. Uncertain boundaries exist between recalled events and the fiction writer (and reader)’s inclination to wander off on paths not taken, to imagine what might have been, sketch out potential storylines, flesh out characters that could have existed, and step out from the shadows of possible unlived trajectories to anticipate a meeting of minds on the open plains of a mental landscape. Idiosyncratic sideways cognitive processing is acknowledged, examined, and entertained. But the challenge with exploring the way our minds work is that we can never clear the workspace, step back from the stage. We are always in our own way.

There are a number of key motifs or pivot points to which the narrator returns as he attempts to maintain order and control of his own report. Lines of thought that keep circling back and merging. Readers familiar with Murnane will recognize the elements of the rural Australian landscape, the fondness for horse-racing, and a certain literary cynicism. Houses with return verandas hold a peculiar affection. But the key image that recurs is one of coloured glass—from the windows of the unassuming church in his adopted hometown, to observations about stained glass, to a treasured marble collection—and the difficulty of accurately perceiving the shade and details therein. Just like our memories, in our mental images, appearances are mutable. Light is the key because:

. . . a coloured pane better reveals itself to a viewer on its darker side, so to call it; that the colours and designs in glass windows are truly apparent only to an observer shut off from what most of us would consider true light—the light best able to do away with mystery and uncertainty. The paradox, if such it is, can be otherwise expressed: anyone observing the true appearance of a coloured window is unable, for the time being, to observe through the window any more than a falsification of the so-called everyday world.

Yet knowing this limitation does not diminish the narrator’s natural inclination to want to penetrate the opaque surface of the window, to truly see the nature of the glass itself. He even attempts to capture, on film, the coloured windows of a friend’s house. When he retrieves the processed images and brings them home, he realizes that the image-panes are less colourful than they were when he photographed them. Was this a function of his modest photographic skills or further evidence of the unreliability of memory? Perhaps. But the explanation he chooses to endorse, is that the qualities he perceives as lacking are not inherent to the glass, but rather unique to himself:

. . . what I missed when I looked at the photographic prints was the meaning that I had previously read into the glass. And if I could give credence to such an eccentric theory, then I might go further and assert that I saw in the glass part of the private spectrum that my eyes diffused from my own light as it travelled outwards: a refraction of my own essence, perhaps.

As he makes his way through a range of remembered images, experiences, and feelings, obscured with the patina of time, he is interested in what details he does recall. What he has forgotten, if it does not resurface on its own by association, is of no regard. He is keenly aware of his age and fascinated by the memories that have persisted, with a measure of intensity, for thirty, forty, sixty years. The narrator’s associations and meanderings are unique to him, but they reflect our own idiosyncratic mind loops—those layered networks of connections constructed through exposure to art, literature, landscape, life experience—which increase in depth but become more firmly attached to our specific pivot points or mental signposts, as we get older.

I have come to this book midway through my sixth decade (as frightening as that sounds), younger than Murnane and his alter-ego, but close enough. I come to it as a writer interested in capturing his perceived experience, rather than biographical detail, and inclined to believe that we only have the ability to know what we think we know, a through-the-coloured-glass perspective at best. Border Districts is an older writer’s reverie. It dips back to childhood and adolescence, marriage and parenthood, and spins off into realm of possible lives unlived. There is something to greet a reader at any point in life, but I wonder what my twenty-eight-year-old self might have found. What I do know is that this novel entertains the kind of questions about memory—about the feelings, colours, and images that linger ever “on the edges of my range of vision”—that occupy me more and more with each passing year.

 Border Districts by Gerald Murnane is published by Giramondo Publishing in Australia. It is now available in North America through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

A delicate madness: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanne d’Arc has been the subject of countless historical, literary and dramatic accounts, and it is likely that, at least in the western world, everyone has some image they associate most readily with the famed young woman who donned men’s clothing and led the army of France to a series of decisive victories against the English during the Middle Ages. The rough outline of her story is so ubiquitous in our culture that it is likely difficult to recall one’s first encounter. But I certainly remember my most intense moment of identification with the Maid. It was late May, just over twenty years ago. I was, at the time, at the height of an episode of psychotic mania that would lead to a bipolar diagnosis and, ultimately, to an understanding of the deep gender discomfort I had felt for as long as I could remember. At the time however, I was a mess. Female-born and married with two children, my ex and I had endured a few years of destructive soul searching on my part. My madness, complete with visions, was just one more thing we tried to survive in the desperate hope that it would all pass. In my experience I’d seen drag queens and butch lesbians but no one I identified with. Until May 30, when I suddenly realized—and to this day I don’t remember how or why I knew it—that it was the feast day of Joan of Arc. In this convergence I saw a message. I saw myself. In the state I was in, the timing was fortuitous and seemingly miraculous. In the end, the ultimate moment of self-understanding was still a number of months ahead, but I will ever think of Jeanne’s appearance on my journey toward belated manhood with a mixture of embarrassment and wonder.

When I first heard of the premise around which The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc , the recent novel from Australian author, Ali Alizadeh is constructed, I was skeptical. It triggered my frustration that, looking back in history, cross-dressing women are typically conflated with lesbians or “straight” transmale identities, in these days of heightened trans awareness. However, it’s not always accurate, historically or today. But that is another matter. My initial negative reaction quickly turned to curiosity the more I heard about the unusual, innovative approach taken in this account of a life that has been celebrated, and excoriated, in so many well-known renditions over the past six centuries.

For Alizadeh, who was born in Iran and emigrated to Australia in his teens, the fascination with Jeanne d’Arc is long standing. It goes back to his childhood years.  His enigmatic heroine was the subject of an epic poem he wrote for his PhD and it is this background—a comprehensive understanding of the historical material combined with the spare elegiac prose of a poet—that allows him to create a curious, sensitive, and deeply human portrait of a complex historical figure.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, as the title implies, is structured around the final days of Jeanne’s life. After months of brutal interrogation, she has renounced her Voices and her actions by signing a letter of abjuration. She has saved herself from a charge of heresy, torture and execution, but now she is imprisoned in a cold, damp cell beneath the Treasury Tower of Rouen Castle. Forced to remove her male attire and put on a white gown, she feels vulnerable and alone. However, it seems that there is something more weighing on her, a sense that her passion runs deeper than a divinely inspired drive to serve her King and country—something much too fragile and painful to remember.

As Jeanne’s story is fleshed out, the narrative will return repeatedly to this dim prison, and each time we will know her a little better. But, Alizadeh, a skillful storyteller, takes his time, inviting the reader to remain open to possibility. Effectively employing an inventive style that weaves together a chorus of voices and shifting perspectives, The Last Days avoids falling into the morass of detail that can drag down more conventional historical novels. Narrated primarily in the present tense, from a third person perspective, the historical context and military conflicts are presented in a spare, dated, often time-stamped, documentary style echoing nonfiction prose poetry. It is blunt and remarkably effective:

1413

In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of France…

Once Jeanne enters history and, in her first battles proves her value, the narrator gradually moves closer into her thoughts, letting the account slip back in time again, to meet our heroine as she hits adolescence. It is at this time that young Jeannette, as she is still called, has her first visionary encounters. It is also the when she begins to sense that the affection she has for her childhood girlfriend is of a somewhat different order. Before long she finds herself distanced from the other youth of her village. She is excessively pious and decidedly indifferent to the idea of dancing with boys, marrying and having babies—something her peers are well on their way toward achieving by their early teens. There is a soul wrenching loneliness in being set apart like this, by desire and, if her beloved Saint Catherine of Alexandria is to be believed, by divine destiny.

As the narrative turns to follow Jeanne’s life more directly, her Voices are allowed to speak, set apart in italics and indentation, appearing to float in the text. Jeanne’s own voice also enters, slipping in periodically either to comment on or clarify the account, or to address another, a “you” who remains, for a time, unnamed as in this passage, just prior to her first encounter with her Voices, where perspective and tense shifts several times:

She has never been caught in such a terrible storm and there is so much pain in her skinny body. I struggled to stand back up. The whole world flared up in the lashes of blinding lightning. The rain immersed my being. She is kneeling, paralysed by the mud. My tears merged with the rainfall. (Did I tell you, my love, how exactly it happened?) The thunder strikes harder and the rain is now a flood and it is in this cascade—why do historians insist it was a sunny day?—amid the fruits and plants being washed away by the storm that Jeanette clenches her fists. It is then that she howls back at the unforgiving sky. She rips off her scarf.

O God O angels O Saint Catherine.

Are you there?

Are you there?

 Allowing room for Jeanne’s voice to reflect back on her experience deepens the intimacy of the present tense narrative. This polyphonic quality will become more pronounced as other emphatic voices interrupt with curses and threats as the story progresses toward its inevitable and unfortunate end.

The portrait of Jeanne d’Arc that emerges over the course of this novel is one of a mix of vulnerability and determination. We see a young woman torn between her convictions and her doubts, conflicted by her desires, and isolated from others by gender, lack of education, and the unconventional role she plays. She is never entirely free from concern about the reality of her Voices and her own sanity, especially when her entreaties meet silence. And, while she becomes hardened to the violence and gore of the battlefield, she grows increasingly distracted by her love for another woman and all of the complex emotions that such a forbidden affection arouses. What comes across is a certain naivety. She is, after all, young (only nineteen at her death) and has, in a sense, been protected from the kind of demands of life that would have hardened and matured her peers who married early. So although she becomes an experienced soldier and commander of men, her romantic love affair has an idealized, almost adolescent intensity that betrays her youth.

Alizadeh does not offer this speculative image of Jeanne d’Arc as a lesbian woman lightly. He knows the relevant documentary material exceptionally well and is aware not only of the limitations but of the spaces where possibility resides. His narrator respects his heroine, balances the historical account with the personal, and situates his chronicle to the contemporary reader. His Jeanne is a medieval heroine for a modern imagination, his novel is an absorbing, lightly experimental, and human re-imagining of the life and death of a young woman who has never ceased to be the source of inspiration and intrigue.

As I can attest.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh is published by Giramondo.