My review of A Woman of Seville by Sallie Muirden in The Age 09/01/2010
Sallie Muirden’s novel Revelations of a Spanish Infanta sprang from the author’s passionate interest in Diego Velaquez, in particular his painting of the ‘Maids of Honour’. Now she returns to the early life of Velazquez, the young apprentice.
A Woman of Spain opens with Diego and his master Pacheco high up in the tower of the cathedral peering down on life through a telescope. The cathedral in Seville was built on the ruins of the Moorish mosque, and the tower of the mosque, the Giralda, became the tower of the cathedral. The Inquisition is still very active, so there is a sense of real danger. The position of young Morisco boys, separated from their parents who have been expelled from the country, is under threat. Pacheco has come here to spy for the Inquisitor. As the men look down, they establish the bustling pageant of 17th century life in the city, taking the reader smoothly from one key character to another. Diego observes that the telescope can be used for good or evil, of which there seem to be equal measure in Seville, a ‘sinful city’. An abiding colour and tone are established for the story in the image of ‘purple figs splitting out of their skins’.
This is historical fiction rendered in poetic image and careful language, and structured with regard for one of the key metaphors of the text, that of balance. This image is embodied in the ‘ladder-man’ who manifests himself to the beautiful Paula, a courtesan, mistress of a bishop, and an artist’s model. In the manner of such writers as Jeannette Winterson, Muirden incorporates the character of the ladder-man into the realistic historical narrative with wit and grace. The ladder-man moves across the rooftops of Seville with ease, taking Paula on excursions with him, instructing her in the necessary art of balance. Because he is mute he communicates in writing. ‘He has the look of a shepherd about him, wearing a rustic shift, his ladder a kind of crook.’ He is then a type of Christ, and from childhood Paula has wished to be personally loved by Christ. The ladder-man’s name, which is not revealed until late in the story, is Aurelio which means ‘golden’, characterizing him as precious, a fact that is clear from the beginning.
The novel’s structure balances and swings, chapter by chapter, between the first person point of view of Diego and that of Paula. One narrative thread concerns Paula’s sitting for the figure of Mary Magdalene with Christ in ‘The Penitent Woman’. The artist is a visiting Flemish painter (fictional) whose name, Harmen Weddesteeg, is derived from the name Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn who was born in Weddesteeg. Hence the great painters Rembrandt and Velasquez are embedded in the fabric of Paula’s story. More or less everyone is seeking love of some kind, the text enlivened by colourful scenes of lust and sensuality. Not for nothing was the split fig introduced in the first pages.
It is not only love they seek, however, but also freedom. And the most poignant of these seekers are the Morisco boys who are captive at the cathedral, valued for their beautiful voices. They want nothing more that to escape and find their way to their exiled beloved families, some of whom have been lost anyway in ‘boat tragedies’. There are disturbing resonances here with the desperation and tragedy of 20th century and present day conflicts, migrations and expulsions.
The history and the fantasy in this novel keep coming up against the deep and terrible cruelty of which the human heart is capable. Perhaps the sad thing is that the true balance Paula seeks with her ethereal ladder-man is located in the realm of fantasy. Velazquez plans a vast canvas ‘a scene of weeping Moors flooding down cathedral hill, their battered baggage strewn along the gutters and a blind Christian beggar caught up in the surge’. In a postscript to the novel the reader learns that Velasquez did execute such a work, but that it was destroyed by a fire a hundred years after it was completed. Thus the narrative plaits and weaves the moving dramas of fantasy and reality as they swing back and forth before the reader’s gaze.