A historical novel can be a tricky undertaking, not least when it relies on celebrated figures from centuries past whose whereabouts and actionsóif not their thoughts and emotionsóare a matter of public record. Francisco Goldman turns this challenge into an advantage: The Divine Husband is, among many other things, a meditation on the slippery relationship of life to art and on the simultaneously artificial and essential nature of storytelling itself.

José Martí, the heroic Cuban poet and revolutionary of the late nineteenth century, is Goldman's central fictional subject in The Divine Husband, although not the novel's protagonist. Through Martí's musingsósome drawn from his writing, some inventedóGoldman infuses the book with discreet metafictional meditation. (Though perhaps best known in the United States as the poet whose "Guantanamera" was put to music by Pete Seeger, Martí remains a figure of gargantuan importance in the Latin world.) One of his most famous poems is widely presumed to articulate the circumstances of his greatest (doomed) love affair, with a deposed Guatemalan leader's daughter, María García Granados; but as the novel's narrator reflects, "[W]hat if it was all just a fiction, a story, dressed up as a poem of tragic love and confession? A lie told for the sake of art, but with the consequences of a real lie. A poem that tricked you into hearing a confession when maybe it just wanted to be a poem."

Similarly, Goldman's novel, in which the historical and the fictional are subtly intertwined, provides a web of unreliable narration, a systematic playfulness that transmits a delight in storytelling for its own sake. In addition to some of Martí's poems and letters, Goldman offers extensive excerpts from a detective's report on his life in New York City. This is all set in the frame of a tale told from Massachusetts over a century later, with a perspective that is inevitably skewed and partial. In this dense, digressive, and interrupted account, everyone, for one reason or another, is telling storiesóand everyone has something to hide.

The Divine Husband recounts the emotional life of the fictional María de las Nieves, also known as María Moran. A young Guatemalan woman of mixed parentage, she is, from early adolescence, touched by history. At the novel's outset, María's best friend, Francisca Aparicio, or Paquita, is betrothed to Justo Rufino Barrios, an actual historical figure who came to power in Guatemala in 1871 as the leader of the Liberal Revolution. Paquita attended convent school with María; at the latter's urging, the girls make a pact to lose their virginity together. María then takes religious orders, ensuring her sexual purity, in an attempt to prevent Paquita from marrying the anti-Catholic zealot they call "El Anticristo."

Jesus Christ, then, is María's first "divine husband"; but brides of Christ stand little chance in Barrios's ruthlessly secularized Guatemala, where "clowns costumed as priests entertained in the new state schools, sprinkling Florida Water instead of Holy Water from their hyssops, and dispensing pale marzipan cookies shaped like the Host in order to infuse children with disrespect for the mysteries of the Eucharist. Confessionals had been removed from emptied monasteries to the gardens of fashionable Liberals, where they served as flowering vine-draped booths for coquetries and dalliances." The convents themselves are closed; and María is "liberated" to construct a life in the wider world.

The former nun's attraction to Martíówho, exiled from Cuba, spent time in Guatemala and elsewhere before eventually settling in New Yorkóis immediate and dramatic; but not mutual, at least physically. Martí, for all his fame as a political figure, looms in the novel as an emotional center, a prophet of love and of destiny rather than of revolution. It is he who reflects, amid his passions and infidelities, that "love is a wild beast which needs to be fed anew every day," and who says to María: "You represent the new American intelligence, María de las Nieves. You will be a mother of our new America." Certainly sheóhalf Central American Indian, half Irish-American, educated by nuns and employed as a translator in the British Legation, destined to bear two fatherless children and to flee Guatemala for the tumult of New Yorkóis as vital a fictional embodiment of our contemporary pan-American legacy as could be imagined. And as such, although she cannot win Martí's heart, she is pursued by various suitors. At the British Legation, there is the First Secretary, Wellesley Bludyar, "who looked so much like a colorless, nearly albino, tall but plumpish blue-eyed Chinaman that . . . he really was known around the city as El Chino Gringo." From New York comes the avid and eminently buoyant Mack Chinchilla, to whom "it didn't matter that María de las Nieves was not in the least interested in him. If you are going to live in an imaginary world, Mack told himself, then you have to inhabit it all the way, until you make it real to yourself, or else surrender it to oblivion." There is Mr. Doveton, "the former Confederate diplomat"; Don José Pryzpyz the umbrella repairman; and "the mysterious muchacho," a charming illiterate Indio gussied up by the British to impersonate the exiled King of Mosquitia. Each of these men responds to a different facet of María's character; but allófrom the avuncular Pryzpyz to the brash Chinchillaóare drawn to her mystery and complexity. And while Martí appeals to her intellectually and emotionally, "the mysterious muchacho" attracts her viscerally: It is to him that she ultimately surrenders her virginity.

To summarize the novel in this manner may imply simplicity, an episodic progression. But The Divine Husband is, for all its considerable length, tightly compacted. No paragraph is extraneous, or ignorable, as the accountóoccasionally breathlessódoubles back on itself, takes up and reworks strands like a Bach invention, all the while providing distinct narrative tenors for its three central characters, María, and Martí, and Mack. The book offers frames within frames, tour-de-force descriptions, grand set pieces. It is replete with idiosyncratic details ("As in many older houses in this city, the ceiling in the parlor was not a real one, but was made of wide sheets of canvas, stiffened by whitewash, laid over the tops of the walls. . . . Whenever the wind gusted, the decorative false ceiling shivered and rattled, and the reflection of the light from the lamp shimmered upon it like rays of silvery sunlight spreading inside a cloud.") and strange historical facts (Martí "fueled himself with constant drinks of Mariani wineóBordeaux wine mixed with a strong dose of Peruvian coca; 'the Divine Drink' was a favorite of the epoch's workaholics and overstressed, including Thomas Edison, Emile Zola, Sarah Bernhardt, Queen Victoria, and three successive popes."). The prose slides from lyrical to practical, the diction from august to mundane. Goldman echoes Flaubert, Garciá Marquez, and even DeLillo, as well as biography and newspaper journalism, but he remains his own literary master, and in this book succeeds in making the novel new. He has produced a work of ambition, seriousness, passion, and seething life. The Divine Husband confirms Goldman as one of America's most significant living novelists, a voice of audacity and gravitas that serves as inspiration to writers and readers alike.

It is perhaps best to allow the book to speak for itself; in a single, infinitely elastic sentence, representative of Goldman's scope and daring, he describes Mack's early employment in Jacobo Baiz's import-export business in New York. María's most persistent suitor carries within him the tussling Americas, Latin and Anglo, just as María does; but unlike the object of his adoration, he was raised in the States. Mack's cosmopolitanism, along with his fierce optimism, is borne through the wilds of Central America, but is learned on the streets of New York, that singular place which, like the single sentence below, encompasses life's breadth and teeming variety.

Prosperity had given Mr. Baiz's business the air of a happy family party: the constant hum of voices, the manic and joyous activities of money and commerce, the smells of coffee beans and tobacco smoke, the clamor of the nearby port, young office boys racing (as Mack had) down South Street on errands (Go to Mr. Garretson, would you Mack, and ask him if he will not shade his price; We have a sale, Mack, go and learn today's price of gold) beneath a thrilling canopy of bowsprits and the amazing female figureheads reaching nearly all the way across the street, dangling naked sea-smoothed breasts above the multitude, office boys spending their meal hours (as Mack had) at the wharves, watching the cargo being unloaded from the great clipper ships and schooners, listening to the tales and banter of tattooed sailors of every conceivable nationality and race, and the often incomprehensible pitches with which they tried to sell the curios they brought to the New York wharves from the remotest corners of the earthóonce Mack had held in his own hands a delicate bone sculpture of a canoe paddled by a grotesque but charming trio of animals, a monkey, a parrot, a lizard, and two strange, seed-eyed human figures in serpent-feather headdresses; according to the sailor, it had been carved by the ancient Indians of Central America and depicted a fire brigade of pagan gods hurrying across the sky to put out a massive flaming meteor headed for their hidden jungle cityóalas, the sailor's price was far beyond Mack's means, and he felt the heartbroken covetousness of a child for another's toy when he had to hand the magical canoe over to Mr. Wing, of the great foreign fruit house of Wiley, Wicks & Wing, who bought it on the spot (and only a year later new signs appeared on the sides of that company's wagons, depicting a nearly naked, vixenish, and seed-eyed Indian woman, wearing a flamboyant serpent-feather headdress, standing in a canoe piled with fruits and paddled by monkey, parrot, and lizard, but the exotic image caused such a scandal among the city's virtuous sectors that it soon disappeared from view; and reappeared decades later, metamorphosed into a strikingly similar woman with fruit piled high on her head on the little stamps adorning every one of Mr. Samuel Zemurray's bananas; that mechanical method, invented at one of his Honduran plantations by an ingenious native engineer, of inexpensively branding individual bananas with the image of the fetching "Chiquita" allowed Sam "the Banana Man" to distinguish his bananas from the naked sameness of all other bananas on earth, and changed the foreign fruit trade forever, that nearly anonymous and soon forgotten Honduran's invention as revolutionary in its way as any of Mr. Edison's!) and office boys arriving back at Mr. Baiz's office (as Mack had) carrying fragrant sacks full of coffee samples from the warehouses and shouting like messenger gulls an order from broker Such & Such, the price of Santos coffee, the latest cables received at the Exchange announcing the London or Hamburg market up or down, and So and So, that rascal, is try ing to sell his inferior Angostura bean as the best Boca Costa peaberry! A handful of peaberry should feel heavy like a handful of shot, and, look here, this is like holding dried rabbit turds! Or whispering to Mr. Baiz, Mr. Garretson says he will not shade his price, siró."


Claire Messud is a novelist based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

 

 
     
     
 
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THE DIVINE HUSBAND BY FRANCISCO GOLDMAN. NEW YORK: ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS.
465 PAGES. $24. BUY NOW