Friday, October 15, 2010

The Princess, The King, and the Anarchist by Robert Pagani

Translated from the French by Helen Marx

The Princess, The King, and the Anarchist is a combination of fairy tale and history book, with all the necessary components for an intriguing novel. The book has an almost mathematical precision to it. For some reason, I kept getting a sense of the number three throughout the prose. First are the obvious three characters in the title, who are revealed by their first-person voices in the text. Second are the three levels of society represented: the monarchy (the king and princess), the masses who attend the wedding procession “young and old, peasants with roughened cheeks, darkened by the harsh Spanish sun”, and the outsider who wants to destroy the monarchy. Finally, there’s the significant thread of the past, present, and future that is woven throughout the narrative.

The story itself is based on the actual events of a 1906 attempt on the life of Spain’s Alfonso XIII as his wedding procession winds through Madrid. He’s just married England’s Mary Battenberg, who has converted to Catholicism and now bears the name “Queen Maria Eugenia”. The setting and characters are accurate, but the events are imagined. However, this historical fiction novel reveals truths about the turbulence of Spain’s monarchy as well as the resentment building within the nation.

The King is a worldly playboy. He spends the ride in the royal procession trying to analyze if he chose the right bride; after all, he had a bevy of female royals from all over Western Europe (eight in all) to choose from. He observes the crowds, but from a distance, with no visible feeling towards the multitudes turned out to see the big day. He points out to his bride the Ministry of Finance building, laughingly noting that he’s never bothered to visit it. Maria admires his handsomeness, noting his particular skills without irony: “He was one of those fortunate people who know things before the fact: how to make an omelette, tie a sailor’s knot, drive a car…Spain was lucky.” Clearly, the King was a figurehead with little concern for the tumultuous condition of Spain’s people at the time.

The Princess is a hopelessly na├»ve, and spends the journey worried about her wedding night and wondering where she can find a bathroom. Her need to solve that practical matter contrasts with the pomp and elegance of the wedding day, where the streets have been washed clean and the city is bathed in decorations. Her heart appears more open to the people who line the streets, and this reveals a more practical side to her personality as well. 

The anarchist, Fernando, is an especially fascinating character, obsessed with the propaganda of Francisco Ferrer’s Free Education movement. While not specifically detailed in the book, Ferrer’s role in inciting the anarchist to violence bears mentioning. Ferrer was part of a movement to improve on the current educational system in Spain, where illiteracy was as high as 73%. (1) Only a third of the children were educated in schools, and those schools were predominately clergy-run, paid for by students, and focused more on religious indoctrination than life skills. What Ferrer proposed was radical: secular schools for all children at a lower cost, where “the proponents of rational education believed in knowledge derived from both experience of, and interaction with the world - "learning by doing." (1) He proposed that in his La Nueva Escuelas , “Instruction was to rely exclusively on the spontaneous desire of students to acquire knowledge and permit them to learn at their own pace. The purpose of the school was to promote in the students "a stern hostility to prejudice," to create "solid minds, capable of forming their own rational convictions on every subject."(2)

Whether Ferrer was an active part of the assassination plot is disputed in history; however, in this novel Fernando feels himself impelled to act on behalf of the leftist movements. He recounts conversations in his head with Ferrer, and one can only wonder if they actually took place. His rage against the monarchy and the Church is profound; he can find no way to reconcile any future hope with the existing conditions. He views the crowd, “…these great personages so sure of their God-given rights, steeped in their own importance with their bald heads and wrinkled necks. Haughty and overweening, yet pitifully vulnerable.”

I think that while the author spins this tale he’s also commenting on the irony of how the anarchist is the only one who really knows the history and the political issues involved, while the King is simply daydreaming. The common people just want to see the parade, and while their lives will not be changed, they are deluded into joy for the oblivious king. That some of them suffer on the King's account is not insignificant. Meanwhile, the anarchist actually has a plan, intent, and a goal. He's filled with a solitary purpose, even though his violent means of action may not be effective. The denouement is far from predictable, even if you've read the historical text.  Despite the anarchist's motivation, it is the practical nature of Maria that eventually settles everything.

As may be obvious, I really enjoyed this novel. My only complaint was it was too short! Despite my noticing the connection of things ‘coming in three’, nowhere does it become formulaic or dull. The characters are true to life, and the contrast between the rich and idle with the poor and overworked is easy to imagine. It would be possible to read the events of 1906 with a clinical eye in a history book, and miss the story beneath. While fictionalized, one is reminded that history is made up of real people, bad decisions, and terrible consequences.

This novel releases today, October 15, 2010.
Special thanks to Tamara at Helen Marx Books for the Advance Review Copy.


1 comment:

  1. I love historical fiction, Spain and royalty. You've added another one to my TBR pile, Amy!