Sunday, January 31, 2010

Child of the Twilight - Inspiration


When I was studying French in my final year at high school, I read a story by Prosper Merimee that really captivated me.
It was the story of a wedding in the Pyrenees. The bridegroom is a bit of a peasant, and the bride is more socially elevated. A few days before the wedding an archaeological dig brings up an ancient statue of Venus. It is a huge statue, black with silvery sinister eyes. While the community decides what to do with her, she stands beside the local pelota court.
(On the morning of the wedding the bridegroom and his yob friends play pelota. As a joke the bridegroom deposits the wedding ring that he will later put on his bride’s finger onto the ring finger of the statue of Venus while he plays pelota. At the end of the game, when he goes to recover the ring, he discovers that the hand appears to have contracted so that it is impossible to get the ring off. So at the wedding he uses a cheap little ring he got at a brothel.
The wedding is riotous and the bridegroom and his friends get very drunk. The bride goes upstairs to bed alone. As she lies in the marriage bed by herself, she hears the heavy footsteps. It must be her husband. He heaves himself into the bed and lies there as if in a stupor. The modest bride is afraid and lies very still. Then soon there is a second set of heavy footsteps and another figure lurches into the bed.
The first one was in fact the statue; the second is the husband. The statue believes she is married to the husband, and she claims him, holding him in such a fast embrace that she crushes him to death. She then steps out of the bed and returns to her place beside the pelota court.)
I was deeply affected by many aspects of the story, in particular by the idea of the ancient black statue of the goddess of love and of her profound malice and sense of justice.
At the same time I was studying the history of western art, and I came across many representations of Venus, some seen in her ancient black manifestation, some seen as a pure white beauty.
At some point I made the connection – perhaps first unconsciously – between Venus and the construction of the ideal goddess-woman, the Virgin Mary. The images of Mary that were most familiar to me were the sweet pink and blue and white images of Lourdes and Fatima, that is nineteenth century versions. I was also familiar with the pretty Mary in western painting.
But then I began to discover the manifestations of Mary in places such as Montserrat (Barcelona), and the ancient black image connected with the figure in the Merimee story. (Montserrat is not really far geographically from the Pyrenees.) I set off on a quest for the Black Madonna, discovering statues such as the one at Montserrat. This ‘quest’ was conducted by reading, but also by visiting places in Spain, France and Italy where there are Black Virgins. I learned that the blackness of the statues is often overlooked and even suppressed in a general desire to gloss over what are seen as the hidden and negative aspects of the ‘mother’ (and therefore of the ideal mother, Mary). I found many of the black statues to be amazingly beautiful and attractive. And there is a vast cult following of them, with powerful connections and superstitions. The one at Montserrat is one of the most well-known in the world. It is located on top of an almost inaccessible and very dangerous mountain ridge. Spanish couples make the journey up to her to have their union blessed. She is visited by couples who wish for a child (this sounds like a fairytale). Montserrat is generally a place of pilgrimage and miracle.
The black statues were important in the history of the troubadours, and there are songs and prayers that attest to this link. I became interested in the language of the troubadours, a secret, punning, rhyming language known as the green language or the language of the birds. It is not written down anywhere, but remains elusive yet real.
Since I am not interested in writing ‘historical’ fiction, the inspiration that was gathering from these several strands needed to find its expression in a contemporary story with some links to ancient matters.
In 1994 I read a short newspaper article in The Age reporting the theft of an old statue of baby Jesus from a church in Rome. I had seen the statue in the sixties, but had not paid a lot of attention to it really. It is believed to be responsible for miracles, particularly those concerned with birth (and also with wealth). Suddenly all the strands began to come together. The statue was in a Franciscan church in the heart of Rome, and there is a connection between St Francis and the green language, which he probably spoke.
One of the strongest human bonds is the bond between the mother and the child. This fascinates me (I am not alone here). There is a thread running through my writing that foregrounds and examines this bond. Mary with Jesus is a key image of the bond, in western Christian society. My interest in everyday mothers and babies intersected with my interest in Black Madonnas. (I think the first appearance of a Black Virgin in my fiction is in an old story called ‘Kay Petman’s Coloured Pencils – collected in The Essential Bird – HarperCollins).

Modern attitudes to conception and birth are different in some respects from what they were when I was in my early twenties. With the development of medical technologies and of legal technicalities, it is possible for women to conceive or not conceive, to conceive with their own eggs or with the eggs of others. Artificial insemination is quite ordinary. Assisted reproductive technologies are constantly evolving and are being used by huge numbers of people. The miracle of birth intersects with the miracle of technology. It occurred to me to put these methods up against the technology of the virgin birth of Christ, inspired by the miraculous wooden statue that had been stolen in Rome in 1994. (So far it has never been found. For the sake of the novel, it would be cool if it could be discovered in February 2010 – we shall see. )
The question arose as to what kind of character would be across all this. As I was considering the question, I was working as a teacher with a number of teenage girls who were the product of IVF and who were only too happy to discuss this matter openly with each other or anyone else who happened to be around. No big deal.
And so developed the narrator who is nineteen at the time of the telling, and who is an American IVF baby. Her character developed from there – she is the only child of a busy high profile international couple based in LA who provide her with every material thing including a nanny-companion and pets, but who apparently treat her more as one of their worldly achievements than as a little girl. She develops a cold and unsentimental attitude to most things, and spends much of her time reading the classics and writing novels. She is named, as many children now are, after a place, in this case Sydney, Australia. It is in fact where she was conceived, but I can’t remember whether this fact is still in the book or not. The family (on the mother’s side at least) comes from an old fashioned Catholic tradition, hence an interest in things religious, and a number of highly religious connections and relatives. Sydney doesn’t think she is unrelated to the ‘parents’. Everyone else seems to be either related internationally or else acquainted internationally. She is conscious that she has, in a sense, no discoverable identity. Her maternal ‘grandfather’ is a wrier of science fiction, and he loves Sydney very much, and thinks she is incredibly special and different. He calls her his ‘child of the twilight of time’.
So the plot is an intersection between the issues of modern fertility and conception and the ancient matters of faith and miracles located in such objects as the baby Jesus statue in Rome and the black statues of Mary.
One of the characters, Diana, is an Australian woman living in Barcelona, dedicated to completing a vast book by her late husband on the subject of the Black Virgin. Diana originated in Tasmania, and the novel ends (2007) in the place of her birth in the early 1950s. It is there that she discovers a painting of a Black Virgin in the little old rural church. Although she had seen this picture frequently in her early life, she had never made the connection between it and her late husband’s project. This is just an example of the ubiquity of the Black Virgin, under the nose as it were, but unrecognised. Diana and one of her friends have made an effort to trace the stolen statue of the baby Jesus. They still have hopes, but so far have had no real success.
Some of the characters are devout believers in prayer and miracles. Sydney is a narrator who tries to remain impartial and practical, reporting the facts and leaving the interpretation up to the other characters and the reader.
Sydney takes upon herself the role of that narrator of the lives of Diana and her niece Corazon who is young and fertile. One train of thought concerns the lost statue; the other concerns the romantic life of Corazon.
I can sum it all up by saying the story concerns the theft of a miraculous statue from a church in Rome, and follows the connections between the people who want to conceal its
whereabouts, and those who want to find it.

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