By Federico Andahazi.
New York: Anchor Books, 1999.
ISBN # 0-385-49133-6.
Comments of Bob Corbett
Federico Andahazi creates a brilliant and imaginative work of historical fiction which is more centered on the fiction than the history. We follow the career of anatomy professor Mateo Colombo, two women – a rich widow, founder of an abbey, Ines de Torremolinos, and Mona Sofia, the most beautiful and expensive courtesan in Venice. All this is overseen by an ever-present crow.
Andahazi builds his two-part moral and metaphysical tale within a constantly repeated analogy. Mateo Colombo (Columbus in English) shares the last name of the more famous Christopher Columbus. The two are not related, and Mateo was born nineteen years after Christopher died. But, it is Andahazi’s contention that Mateo’s “discovery,” was every bit as world-historic as Christopher’s. Mateo “discovered” the clitoris
There are some slim historical references which stimulate Andahazi’s fertile imagination, dry and bawdy wit, and dead-pan metaphysical realism. Indeed Mateo Columbo did write De re anatomica which deals with the anatomy of the clitoris. However, the details of how this work came about are the fictional creation of Andahazi. Inez also did publish some poems in her later years, of which a few seem to have survived. The rest seems to be the novelist’s flight of fancy. And marvelous fancy it is. Entertaining, persuasive and reasonable. And so very funny.
The novel actually reads more like two separate books, connected in time, space and theme and put together into one, but really almost like two different stylistic short stories
The first part – let me call it “the discovery” – is filled with humor, much of it fairly crude, and hilarious, worthy of a Chaucer, Boccaccio or Rabelais, and builds on the oft-cited analogy to Christopher’s discovery of America.
The second section is rather short, highly imaginative and centers around Mateo’s defense of himself at a trial by the Inquisition. It is also witty, dead-pan and ironic. It terminates in the “miracle” of events which allow the novel to tumble toward a harsh ending surrounded by Andahazi’s metaphysical views of human existence.
No matter what the modern world thinks of Christopher Columbus, all recognize his so-called “discovery” changed the world that followed. Of course there is the irony that he “discovered” something that was never lost, and was even occupied by millions of people.
Similarly, but less well-known is Mateo Colombo’s “discovery” of the clitoris in 1557, written about in 1558 and then placed on the list of forbidden books in the year he died, 1559. That he made the “discovery,” at least for the European world of his time seems to have been known by very few until Andahazi’s creation of this historical fiction. However, even the discovery itself has still not been made known to many in our contemporary world, or at least not at all well-known to masses of people.
The plot of the first section is simple. Mateo falls madly in love with the stunning courtesan, Mona Sofia. But she is strictly business, and like Jane Fonda in that great scene from the movie Klute, times her services by the clock. Mona’s main line is: “your time is up,” when the hour bell chimes at a nearby church.
Maddened by love or lust, Mateo seeks the means to win her, desiring to find the secret to controlling a woman’s will and love. He tries all manner of drugs, and his experiments on whores in his university town of Padua give ample evidence for a charge of witch craft against him. Andahazi explains: “His task was dangerous because the boundaries that separated pharmacology from witchcraft were vague and ill-defined.”
It is when he is called to Florence to cure the saintly rich widow, Ines, that he discovers the answer to his quest is not to be found in drugs. She has a condition of a highly enlarged and sensitive clitoris, in her case, really a small penis. His hilarious treatment for her reveals to Mateo the properties of this organ, but leaves her deeply in love with him.
Eventually he writes his book and dreams of demonstrating the new found power on Mona Sofia, and she then giving her love to him for life.
Before he can effect this dream he is brought to trial before the Inquisition, accused of “… heresy, perjury, blasphemy, witchcraft and satanism.”
I don’t care to detail the plot of the second section. Andahazi’s imagination is in an extremely high gear and he flies off in a bizarre tale that we follow with delight and amazement, unable to keep up with where the next leap with take us.
The intellectual meat of the novel is in Andahazi’s analogy between the two Colombos, his treatment of Mateo’s amoral morality and his deadly realistic metaphysics. The metaphysics gives rise and substance to his moral theory.
There seems to be two main points that Andahazi is concerned with in the Christopher Columbus analogy:
Leonardino – the crow
I think I’ve just missed the significance of the crow. He’s there at the beginning, has the final few paragraphs of the novel, and appears at significant junctures along the way.
He seems to follow Mateo around even from city to city, because Mateo feeds him entrails from some of the corpses he uses for experimentation.
There must be more, but I just don’t get it. Perhaps he is somehow a symbol of inevitable decay and death. Perhaps he is to remind us of the ever presence of death and decay in the midst of our every day living. Perhaps he is more intimately tied to Mateo’s life, but in ways that elude me. Perhaps, even, Andahazi has not given enough clues so the reader can sort this out. One of us failed in relation to the crow, but I rather suspect in would be me and not the author. Hmmmm, perhaps he is just a crow.
Secondly, Mateo is stunningly amoral. He is scientific to the core of his being and takes the world as it presents itself. His tools of science allows him, in company with other specialists, to uncover the reality, to know it more fully and more clearly.
With the knowledge of the “is” it is possible, again, aided by reason and the methods of science, to interact with the world to change it. Thus, for example, his hilarious experiments with mind altering drugs to attempt to gain control over women’s will and love.
It is not that he then develops a theory of good and evil, of right and wrong with which we might agree or disagree. Rather, the question of morality, the allowed and the prohibited, never arises. The only questions are: is it (any “it”) possible to change it or not? And do I wish to change it?
All of my adult life has been spent in the milieu of intellectuals, rationalists and scientists. I think there is a significant degree of Mateo in most of us, but rarely have I seen it in the degree of purity which he exhibits. Nothing seems to matter to him save desire and perceived possibility of change.
Which brings me to the final point of these three – this amoral morality (a strange concept in itself) is not primary for Mateo. It grows naturally out of his ontology, his view of how and what the world is, we humans as well.
The world is a process. It follows certain rules or laws of nature. In that sense it is invariant. The enlightened, like Mateo, like us, can inquire into the nature of that world and come to know it. Oh the knowledge may be fallible, even essentially incorrect, but the METHOD of science is the tool to more us forward.
Mateo gets puzzled. How could I get Mona Sofia to love me? He decides there might be a way to control the will and love of a woman, any woman. He theorizes that plants might do it – thus he experiments with many mind altering substances… and so on, following the logic of science until he accidentally discovers the origin of this control – the clitoris. (He seems not to have “discovered” that is can also be the organ of independence of woman from man at the same time!)
Thus Mateo’s world view:
No question of traditional morality ever comes to the fore in Mateo’s world.
I enjoyed Andahazi’s novel a great deal. It was creative, imaginative, bawdy and funny and gripping. I wondered whether he would win Mona Sofia, or would he be burned at the stake before getting a chance to try his discovery on her. It’s a quick but delightful read.
One of the strongest appeals of the novel for me was the humor. I close these comments with some of my favorite passages:
Anatomists of the time used dead bodies (as we do today) to learn and research. However, the dominant theology of his time officially prohibited the use of bodies, regarding them as sacred. Like many laws, however, it was widely ignored in practice, as long and one did it somehow beneath the surface. Andahazi writes:
Since the Papal Bull of Boniface VIII had forbidden the dissection of cadavers, obtaining corpses was a job fraught with danger. And yet, in those days, there was in Padua a sort of black market of the dead. Its most solvent member was a certain Giuliano Batista who, after a fashion, had come to put things in order in this free-for-all economy. During the time of the reckless Marco Antonio della Torre, the previous Professor of Anatomy, the students had been encouraged to open graves, rifle the hospital morgues, and even take down the condemned from their cautionary gibbets. In fact, their teacher barely prevented them from murdering those who walked the streets at night. Such was their zeal that they were even forced to take precautions against one another. Such was their necrophilia that the highest compliment to which a woman could aspire in their hands was "What a beautiful body," before they proceeded to cut her throat.
Perhaps my favorite single sentence in the novel is:
“Venice suffered from a surplus of three things: noblemen, priests and pedophiles, and, of course, all possible combinations of these things.”
Once Mateo decides to use mind-altering drugs to find his means to Mona Sofia’s love, he has to face a problem of method.
But how was he to get the whores to drink his potions willingly? The most practical method was to rub his penis with the brews, highly concentrated, and via fellatio let them find their way into the women's bodies.
The effects were dreadful.
On the first occasion, Mateo Colombo tried an infusion of belladonna and mandragora in equal proportions. His victim was a stout and elderly mamma, an old whore from the brothel situated on the top floor of the Taverna del Mulo, an ancient strumpet by the name of Laverda. He paid half a florin for her, which was certainly too high a price. However, he paid without arguing.
Before swallowing her client's morsel, Laverda gargled with a sip of rancid wine which, since it had been blessed, had the property of guarding from contagious diseases and demonic possessions. The anatomist knew that this custom had its roots in superstition and did not think it would affect the success of his experiment. Laverda was a woman knowledgeable in the art of fellatio, a skill favored by the fact that she lacked every last tooth, so that her client's member could slide in with ease, undisturbed. The anatomist noticed immediately the first signs of the potion's effect: Laverda stopped her work, stood up and stared at the anatomist with exultant eyes and a sudden excitement that brought color to her old cheeks. Mateo Colombo felt his heart jump.
"I think I'm-" Laverda started to say. "I think I'm-"
"-poisoned," she completed and immediately vomited every last drop in her guts onto the lucco of her client.
After this unfortunate incident, Mateo Colombo prepared an infusion with the same herbs but in unequal proportions. If the first potion had provoked boundless loathing, then, logically, changing the proportions would provoke the contrary effect. He felt he was on the right path. The following week he climbed, once again, the stairs that led to the brothel. He had smeared himself with the new potion but the results were no less disastrous. His second victim was Calandra, a young whore who had only recently started her career. After suffering a fainting spell, she awoke; in horror, she saw all manner of devils fluttering through the room and landing at the anatomist's feet. The hideous visions gradually disappeared and left in their place a stubborn mystical delirium.
And lastly, the most bawdy and hilarious of all. In order to appreciate the humor of the crude scene of the actual “discovery” and first explorations, one needs to understand a bit more about Ines de Torremolinas.
As a very young and rich widow there were no prospects for her future at that time. Thus she sells all and founds a monastery where she is safe and occupied.
But she is safe to be a saint and not much more. This closing off of her life is killing her, especially since it is couple with a physical condition of an oversized and overactive clitoris. She is dying of this condition. Mateo, renown physician, is called to Florence to attend her. After his discovery comes the cure:
The anatomist ordered his disciple to stop shouting at once. Certainly the discovery, whatever it might be, put the already fragile life of his patient in great danger. Mateo Colombo remembered a case, fifty years earlier, in which a man had been led to the stake because he had the features of a woman, an aberration which had allowed him to work as a prostitute. Ines de Torremolinos's anatomy was fully female; her three daughters bore witness to her female physiology. And yet, in front of the astonished noses of the master and his disciple, was the small erect organ, pointing directly at their startled eyes, open wide like two pairs of gold florins. The hypothesis that best explained the phenomenon was that the patient was a hermaphrodite. The ancient chronicles of Arab and Egyptian doctors told of numerous cases of creatures that displayed both sexes in the same body. The anatomist himself had been able to witness the case of a hermaphrodite dog. But this explanation did not take into account the facts. The common characteristic in such cases, set down in all the medical chronicles, was that these aberrations suffered from a total atrophy of the sexual organs, both male and female, making reproduction impossible. Not even considering the three daughters whom Ines de Torremolinos had brought into the world, the tiny organ was most obviously far from atrophied; on the contrary, it appeared to be inflamed, throbbing and moist.Bob Corbett email@example.com
Intuitively, the anatomist took hold of the strange organ between his thumb and index finger, and with the index finger of his other hand he began gently caressing the red and engorged gland. He then observed that every muscle in the patient's body, up to then completely relaxed, tensed suddenly and involuntarily, while the organ grew somewhat in size and throbbed with brief contractions.
"It moves!" cried out Bertino.
"Silence! Or do you want the abbot to find out?"
Mateo Colombo continued to rub the protuberance between his fingers, like someone rubbing a twig against a stone in order to make fire. Suddenly, as if he had finally managed to light a spark, Ines's entire body shook with one great convulsion that made her lift her hips and balance her body on her head and heels, like an arch. Gradually, her hips began to move to the regular rhythm of the anatomist's fingers. Her breathing became agitated, her heart was racing in her chest, and suddenly her entire body glistened with sweat. The anatomist's ministrations were provoking each of the dreadful symptoms that assaulted her every night. And yet, though the patient remained unconscious, it did not seem as if the proceedings were making her suffer exactly. Ines's breathing became hoarser and then broke into a loud panting. Her lifeless features changed into a lascivious grimace, and the mouth, half open, revealed the tongue thrashing between the lips.
Bertino made the sign of the Cross. He was unable to tell whether this was an exorcism or if, on the contrary, his master was forcing the Devil into Ines's body. And he almost fainted when the patient suddenly opened her eyes, looked around and, now fully conscious, lent herself willingly to the anatomist's diabolical ceremony. Ines's nipples had grown red and erect and she herself began rubbing them with her own fingers, never taking her lascivious eyes off the stranger and muttering a few unintelligible words.
It appeared as if Ines had gone from her deathly agony to a frenesi veneris. Fully conscious of what was happening, or so it seemed, Ines gripped the bar at the head of her rustic bed. Between cries, convulsions and admonishing How-dare-you's, Ines allowed the anatomist to proceed.
"How dare you?" she would whisper, spreading her legs as far as possible. "I'm a mother three times over!" rubbing her nipples. "How dare you?" she'd implore again and let him carry on.
The anatomist's task was not an easy one. On the one hand, he had to remain aloof from the contagious arousal of his patient; on the other, he had to prevent the arousal from waning. And Bertino, making the sign of the Cross over and over again, continued to ask questions, crying out and even rebuking his master.
"You're committing a sacrilege, a profanation!" "Shut up and hold down the arms!" Confused as he was, Bertino obeyed.
"Not mine, you fool. The patient's!"
"How dare you?" Ines whispered. "I'm a widow," thrusting her hips against the anatomist's hand.
"How dare you?" she whimpered. "You are two men and I'm one defenseless woman." And she stretched her hand toward the assistant's member which, in spite of his calls to God, had begun to grow firm, thus thankfully ensuring for the anatomist Bertino's silence. "How dare you?" Ines murmured. "I've never cast eyes on you before."
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org