06. 21. 2011. 13:06

Stranded between life and death

Péter Farkas: Johanna

The heroine of Péter Farkas’s new novel "Johanna" is not St Joan of Arc, but a much less known queen of the same name: Joanna of Castile, nicknamed the Mad (1479–1555), who was supposedly so crazy about her husband that she went insane when he died. This novel is the passion play of a woman; the portrait of a sensitive woman in an austere, mechanical world.

The eponymous heroine of Péter Farkas’s new novel Johanna is not St Joan of Arc, but a much less known queen of the same name: Joanna of Castile, nicknamed the Mad (1479–1555), who, according to the novel’s blurb “did not let her husband [Philip the Handsome], who died young, be buried. She roamed around for seven hundred and eighty days with the coffin that held the corpse. Later on she was imprisoned by her children in a tower where she was confined for forty-six years.” The Spanish call her the ‘fool of love’ who was so crazy about her husband that she went insane when he died. However, there are sources which claim that she was not mad at all, it was only in the interest of the usurpers of her power to declare her insane.

Péter Farkas’s novel mingles historical truth with fiction. The narrator himself sometimes refers to contemporary historiographers, but we also learn that their data are not to be trusted blindly, because they tend to be faulty or contradictory at times. The narrator does not identify his heroine with the historical character, but neither does he deny their similarity. He introduces the story with the sentence: “So the protagonist of the following narrative could as well be Joanna.” Sometimes he breaks away from historical events, at other times he seems to follow them. Just like the cover, which merely hints at Joanna’s portrait by John of Flanders: all we can see are the distant look in the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the medal and the chest (of course, covered with clothes)—it shows just one thin streak of the painting, surrounded by darkness from left and right, as if death was slowly and gradually, but irrevocably closing in on the queen.

Farkas’s short novel does not follow the line of the ‘fool of love’ myth. The Joanna of this novel had always possessed weird abilities and intuitions, since her childhood. “Apart from her own body she only had contact with dead things”; she had a very sensitive touch; she made stones speak; her imagination—if that is an appropriate word at all—made everything that was lifeless alive. Joan is not the fool of love because there is no love involved, only sexuality; here we have a woman who is at the mercy of her husband Philip and the power struggle of the other Habsburgs, not only in the sexual but in almost every sense. This is a patriarchal world in which men play with women—in this case, Joanna—as they please. Johanna is far from being a historical novel—it is, above all, the Passion play of a woman; the portrait of a character who has practically no space to move around, and whose environment has no need for her sensitivity. While we learn about the stations of the queen’s life (her marriage and married life; her roaming around with the corpse; the kidnapping of her son; and finally her death), we get a glimpse into a mechanical world.

Statements referring to ever-present limits and regulations abound from the beginning of the first part, which can be interpreted as an allegory of the whole story. It is entitled (cold song), an allusion to Henry Purcell’s King Arthur and perhaps also to Klaus Nomi’s fantastic interpretation of Purcell’s Cold Song. This is a world in which everything moves along a predetermined path; bodies are like machines, human life is mechanical. Joanna “rebelled against her fate, persistently and in vain”—in vain because, according to this novel, one cannot escape one’s fate. The mechanical effect is strengthened by the narrator’s cold, reserved voice, which remains so even when he describes the cruelest scenes; as if he was giving voice to the spirit of the age. This voice is consistently aloof and austere, whether it describes the murder of an animal, a sexual act (it introduces one such scene with the words: “The act was carried out as follows”) or the convulsions of a dying body.

There is only one thing that could potentially defy this coldness. As the allegorical story entitled (cold song) says, only Love can compete with the Spirit of Frost. That Love is doomed to failure in this struggle is suggested by the fact that the subtitle of the whole book is also (cold song). In the beginning Joanna feels pity for her husband who is imprisoned by his sexuality and who is absolutely cold emotionally, then she wants to resurrect him so that she could unite with him at least once, in his death, if she was unable to do so in his life. She cannot resurrect the dead body, but some other borderlines that are normally thought of as impermeable are transgressed many times and in various ways in this novel. Joanna herself is like a spirit who got stranded on the borderline between life and death. She and her daughter Catherine sometimes appear to be consubstantial with an inanimate thing (rock), an animal (pigeon, cat, jackdaw) or a plant (tree). The mother talks as if she was singing, the pigeon is like the rock, borderlines are blurred, just like the contours of first Philip’s, then his wife’s body. Johanna is a dispassionate, inexorably bared book about the ultimate questions, completely lacking in humour and irony, in which the narration mirrors the world and the characters that are depicted in the novel. It is tough reading, but it is worth the effort.

Farkas Péter: Johanna
Budapest: Magvető, 2011

Ferenc Darvasi

Tags: Péter Farkas