Here is another interesting observation: compared to literature, life is much more mottled, incoherent, variable, detailed, tedious. What follows is a bizarre suggestion: perhaps literature is indeed life, in other words, the ideal of its construction, the standard for all weights and measures, while so-called life comprises a sketch, avenues of approach, a blank, and in the most felicitous situations—a version. More than anything it looks as if literature, word of honour, is the fair copy and life a rough copy, and not even the most useful.
—The New Moscow Philosophy, Vyacheslav Pyetsukh (trans. Krystyna Anna Steiger)
This statement holds a poetic and appealing truth for any genre of literature, yet it becomes nearly provocative in a discussion of historical fiction. Which is better? An imagined literature which takes a true historical event as its beating heart? Or a richly-detailed but otherwise straightforward account of that same occasion?
Robert Pagani’s The Princess, the King and the Anarchist raises this question in the subtlest and sneakiest of ways, offering itself up as a piece of evidence for the truth of the former. Its claim is based on the idea that every history has an unrecorded element, the part of the moment that can never be precisely known. That element remains hidden in the minds of the witnesses and participants. Historical fiction, by daring to go inside the minds of its characters, can work to uncover this truth, to present certain possibilities, to offer a possible consciousness to what are otherwise facts and chronologies.
It would be, however, a slight misnomer to call The Princess, The King and the Anarchist a work of historical fiction. This book is nothing like what usually populates the genre—longish works built of intricate, as true-as-possible historical detail thrown up around fictional characters who are designed to fit their times but never to have truly existed. No, Pagani’s book is historical fairytale. The novel strikes against a true, historical event, and the impact creates a spark that then burns with its own heat, flame and illumination.
The event: On May 31, 1906, King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Britain’s Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg were married in Madrid. On the way home from the wedding, they narrowly escaped assassination by a bomb hidden inside a bouquet of flowers and thrown from a balcony by the anarchist Mateu Morral. The explosion missed the royal couple, injuring bystanders and several members of the procession. Morral was caught the same day and committed suicide.
But let’s get inside the event, let’s imagine, as Pagani has, what exactly the king and queen were thinking about in that long carriage ride leading up to the tragic bombing. Let’s also pretend that Morral didn’t vanish immediately after throwing his bouquet, but snuck himself inside the palace. And finally, let’s explore what effect the trauma had on the psychology of Spain’s new King and Queen.
Pagani’s version of the story is succinct: the procession and the bombing, followed by the condensed wedding festivities. These bare-bones plot details do not, however, even hint at what The Princess, the King and the Anarchist is really about. Because The Princess, the King and the Anarchist is really about sex. Not bombs, not hidden anarchists in garden sheds, but sex. Sex and “congress,” that wonderful euphemism the young queen ponders while seated in her carriage. As King Alfonso and his lovely princess wind their way through the marital procession, they are each thinking—no, they are each obsessed—with the idea of sex. For the princess, this is because she is absolutely unsure what she will be required to do in a few hours:
Aunt Alice had said to keep her legs straight. But how could she? Cunningly, she had managed to consult a medical book in a small office off the library at Balmoral. In the chapter on obstetrics, the anatomical illustrations were either too explicit or not explicit enough. Stretched out, really straight . . . no, it just wasn’t possible. The thing wasn’t placed well enough for that. It depended on the other things and the way it tilted, but . . . no . . . too low.
Not only is the Princess hounded by these disturbing questions, the young lady is dying for a tinkle, thus increasing her preoccupation with a certain private region of her body.
Her new husband, for his part, is equally uncomfortable, although his discomfort comes from too much understanding of what will occur in just a few hours. Sitting in the carriage waiting out the interminable procession, he considers his lovely new wife beside him, which consequently brings him to think of the many women in his past. And quick as a wink, he’s as hard as a rock.
He was erect right now, in the most shameful way, worse than a donkey in spring. If the hardness didn’t subside, it would become annoying. Very, very annoying, given that it was not yet noon and the ball was not scheduled before ten.
On the surface, Pagani’s novel is meant to be funny, and in this it is thoroughly successful, but it also touches a very serious subject in the way it manages to draw attention to one of the great myths of a monarchical system—that a king and a queen are superhuman and immortal. A queen should not be worried about making it to the bathroom, a king should be focused on matters of state at all times. Even procreation should be a matter of state. A disinterested, necessary “congress.”
Instead, both the permanently “excited” king and the poor princess; with her intense fixation on the impending wedding night and the reference of “carrot-sized” she’s been given by a kindly cousin, the truth becomes shamefully, ridiculously reduced. Their symbolic “bodies” become ordinary, even animal. Despite the promise of monarchical power, they are vessels, mere shells, for the incarnation of further power.
The attempted assassination further underscores the true fragility of their physical selves. Princess Eugenie takes this lesson very hard:
She would like to laugh but doesn’t have the strength. She is empty. Her skin consists of nothing anymore. . . . Her heart beats against her ribs. She is a bird in a cage, a piece of living, torn, living, flesh is all she is.
The King is just as shaken, but his reaction is war-like, frenzied. He consoles his queen and stunned court by reverting to the same bombast that generations of monarchs have used to dispel the notion that a king is vulnerable:
“Come now, it’s over,” he says to a German princess, collapsed in a chair. “We won’t think about it anymore. Life is beautiful, Spain is great. Prussia, Bavaria, and England are great. Tomorrow we’ll go duck hunting, and kings are eternal.”
Now if, as Vyacheslav Pyetsukh cunningly suggests, literature is the polished copy of life’s original messy draft, than Robert Pagani has discovered one of the truths of that disastrous May morning in 1906 and distilled it, honed it and given it voice.
Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including: Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cerise Press, Ascent, Necessary Fiction, The Kenyon Review, and Fogged Clarity. She writes about literature at Pieces.
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