Whenever something really complicated happens in a football match (was that a foul or not? Should the referee award a penalty kick or not?) the TV producers show an action replay from the “reverse angle”. Then we can see that the player cheated and the referee was taken in. So the reverse take serves to clarify a story that presents no problems from a normal angle. And we could call Andrzej Bart the master of this sort of take, not for describing football matches, but for telling famous, serious stories from the reverse angle.
In his latest novel we go back to the sixteenth century to be party to a bizarre event in history. Joanna the Queen of Spain, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, has gone mad. The ruler of the most powerful state in modern Europe is determined not to accept that she is a widow: she has cunningly got hold of her late husband’s corpse and sets off on a journey around Spain with it.
The envoys of various powers head after her, each with a different task. Ferdinand’s agent is to persuade the queen to give up the crown and place herself in her father’s care; the British ambassador wants to persuade her to marry King Henry VII, as a way of initiating the emergence of a world superpower that would rule Europe, South America and half of Asia; and the Papal envoy wants the queen to understand that she is committing a mortal sin that will spread depravity among the faithful. Each of these missions demands a different rationale, a different approach to the queen, a different intellectual game at court. Don Juan is drawn into one of these games. Who else could be as gallant to a lady, who else could turn her attention back to life or steer her thoughts towards love and the world of mortals?
The problem is, Don Juan is no longer twenty years old; he is now an ageing penitent who has meted out his own punishment for the sins of his youth – he has gone to live in a monastery where he cares for the incurably sick.
Meanwhile the atmosphere around Joanna grows tense: Philip’s death has unexpectedly strengthened the Inquisition and weakened the papacy, given England an unclear opportunity to increase its domain, and opened up new prospects for Spain. Very soon everything will slip out of control…
This is what Andrzej Bart’s reverse angle is all about: he returns a ready-made story to an incomplete state and lets us take a look behind the scenes. There we see not just the stage machinery of history and the directors, but also the hidden motives.
And as this strange show progresses, at almost every turn there is a surprise in store for us. Bart never lets us think history is created purely by worthless people, or allows us to plunge blithely into the past. By constantly reminding us from what point we are reading and what sort of world we live in, he seems to be saying that while we may have no influence on the past, at least we can consider the consequences of past events. Ultimately we are the heirs of those powers.
- Przemysław Czapliński
Into the library, whose walls Brother Alfonso had decorated with scenes from the life of the prophet Jeremiah carved into the wood, came Don Juan, with Brother Alfonso leading the way. He saw rows of empty bookshelves, tables and chairs, but above all a woman of no apparent beauty, and so terribly neglected that her hair had not seen water for some time and her complexion was deathly pale without the help of any whitening powder. The state that is often called blessed gave her no femininity, but merely reinforced the impression of neglect. However, he would not have been a man of experience if under this array of human misfortune he had failed to perceive majesty, and that of the highest order. For some unknown reason, the image appeared to him of a knight suffering from leprosy whom he had cared for in his illness. He was said to be from a family distantly related to the royal clan, and even when he had already lost his nose and half his face, he still had so much dignity in his eyes that, compared with him, healthy men looked leprous.
Don Juan bowed low before the queen. Herrera, who was standing beside her, beheld him for the first time without his habit. Naturally, he did not even bat an eyelid to betray his amazement. Their three gazes crossed in the air. Only Joanna’s thoughts are nimaginable, and thus indescribable.
“How is your health, my lord?”
The fact that the queen was aware of someone else’s health and chose to ask after it was a good sign, to Herrera’s mind.
“It is excellent now, Your Majesty,” said Don Juan, bowing once again.
“What are you called?”
“Juan de Valesco, Queen”.
“Juan, a fine name. I have heard that you know my husband.”
“King Philip was even good enough to call Don Juan his friend,” said Herrera, taking on the burden of a charitable lie.
“Father, when I want to know something from you I will ask,” said Joanna, without even glancing in his direction.
“Ever since a certain skirmish, King Philip has often shown me favour.” The reply was simple, more that of a soldier than a courtier.
“Were you so very courageous?”
“I had the honour of shielding the king.”
“With your own breast!” Herrera butted in again, but this time he was not reprimanded.
“You saved his life?”
“That I cannot know. Perhaps he would have been wounded. God alone knows.”
“That is a heroic deed.”
“Any nobleman in my position would have done the same.”
It was clear the queen was re-living the moment when the infidel had dared to raise a hand to her husband. Now it was she who was shielding him with her own breast. However, she did not scream or sink to the ground, and the words she uttered were simple and precise:
“In that case I welcome you, my lord, to my retinue and invite you to meet with the king.”
“Is that not too great an honour for a man who has only just arrived?” It could be assumed Herrera had something to fear from Juan de Valesco’s bravery.
“As the Pope’s envoy I shall afford you the same honour. Please follow me, my lords.”
Joanna left the library without looking round at them.
“So we’re not going to do any reading,” stated Don Juan, pointing to the empty shelves.
Herrera did not regard this as a joke and indicated that he was to go with him. The queen passed the gallery surrounding the cloister and walked towards the abbot’s apartments, which he had placed at her disposal. No document has survived from which one might conclude which rooms Luis de Rueda had taken for himself for the time. Nor in any case would it be interesting to know.
The two men following the queen aroused no special interest, and only one person scrutinised Don Juan, carefully inspecting his figure, costume and even the quality of his boot leather. He also tried to catch his eye, but Don Juan did not pay him the least attention. So Inquisitor Quint shifted his gaze to Herrera, and here he found full understanding for his curiosity, even a sympathetic nod of the head. The soldiers guarding the bedroom made way for the queen, and when she waved her hand, they did the same for her guests.
The room was in semi-darkness, illuminated by the glow of a few candles set around the bed. The black leather coffin was open. Fearlessly Don Juan examined the work of the embalmers. They had done everything to ensure King Philip looked dignified, but it was plain to see that as far as eternity was concerned they had been urged on by haste, and possibly also terrified by it. No issue concerning man, especially a dead one, could have put Herrera out of countenance, yet he too was sweating from a suppressed desire to vomit. The queen went up to the coffin and leaned over it.
“Philip, you have guests.”
Herrera and Juan de Valesco bowed low.
“Greetings, Your Majesty, please accept my readiness to be at your service. Though the world wishes to see you dead, for me you will live for ever,” said Don Juan, looking straight at the corpse’s brow.
“Thank you for those words, my lord. And you, Father? The king attends you.”
“May the light eternal brighten your way, Your Majesty.”
“A most uncommon remark indeed,” said Joanna, grimacing. “Don Juan, the king would like you to remind him of the last time he had occasion to see you.”
“Your Majesty, it was several years ago in Ghent…”
“What was I doing there?” she asked in a voice two octaves lower.
“You were debating the matter of a peace treaty, Your Majesty.”
“Was I alone?”
“Your noble spouse had left you for some time…”
“Because I was surrounded by a swarm of harlots…” Joanna’s voice dropped even lower, yet after the question uttered in the name of the king, she hissed her own comment: “Scoundrel!” She was breathing deeply and it looked as if she really was about to explode, and then not even Philip would be safe.
To Herrera’s surprise, maybe to his own too, Don Juan took a step towards the open coffin and said out loud: “You have always had great success with women, Your Majesty, but even though the circumstances indicated otherwise, I know full well that you were able to keep a suitable distance. Yet I also know that your innate goodness gave some of them exaggerated hopes…”
Joanna was gradually calming down.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones