Friday, 7 December 2018

Book Review: Monique by Luísa Coelho
It can be a big shock to realise that it’s absolutely impossible to know any person inside out, not even closest relations like a spouse, children or parents, sometimes not even ourselves. Some people have learnt well to hide their nature because they fear – often rightly – to risk their status and dignity showing the world who they really are. The more shattering it is when they finally muster up the courage to come out. After fifty years the protagonist of Monique by Luísa Coelho answers to the letter that her husband wrote when he abandoned her and their son. Because the homosexual pianist could no longer bear living a lie and thus chose to defy social conventions, he turned her well-ordered and idealistic world completely upside down overnight. The French noblewoman looks back on her sheltered youth that didn’t prepare her for suddenly being on her own.

Luísa Coelho was born in Luso, Angola, in 1954. When Angola gained independence in 1974/75, she moved to Portugal with her family and studied German philology, Languages and Literature at the University of Lisbon. In the following, she taught Portuguese as a foreign language at the University of Lisbon and at several universities outside Portugal. In 1992, she brought out her first book, a collection of novellas titled O canto de amor das baleias (The Love Song of the Whales), while she continued her studies for a PhD from the University of Utrecht and a M.A. in from the Catholic University of Lisbon. After writing two novels Cavalgar um Raio de Luz (2000; tr. Riding a Ray of Light) and Monique (2003) she turned her attention increasingly to fairy tales for adults and juvenile fiction. Luísa Coelho lives in Berlin, Germany, where she is head of the Instituto Camões and teaches Portuguese classes there as well as at different universities.

After fifty years Monique finally takes a heart to answer Alexis’s letter in which he explained to her at length why their marriage had been doomed to fail from the very start and why he felt that he had to leave her as well as their little son. Until then she had believed them a happy couple and their life together had meant everything to her, but without a warning he brutally destroyed the noble illusion after three years in order to devote himself entirely to his career as a pianist and to be able to live his homosexual nature.
“[…] Later on, I’ll talk about the pain you caused when you left. Later on, I’ll talk about the pain you caused when you ignored your obligations. But right now I’m going to tell you about my early life, when all time was future time, when all time was harvest time. You don’t know a thing about that part of my life because we never got to talk about it. Our own childhood is something we cannot share with others; we can only take someone on a tour through it, and discovering me was never something you wanted to do. […]”
She relates her carefree childhood in a spacious house surrounded by gardens on Martinique. Until ten years old she lived there with her adored father and her always sick mother whose ghostly appearance frightened her. Everything changed dramatically when her mother died eventually and her father left her to live with his aged parents in France. The family mansion turned out to be cold and shadowy like a shrine devoted to death and the memory of her uncle who had been killed in the Great War. In those difficult days the books in the library were the girl’s only solace.
“[…] The gray days that never ended because they were already painted with the color of the infinite. Weeks of endless tedium went by in a house where every day was the same and only time dared to go forward, but without touching anything. I looked for an exit, and, on a fall day it appeared. My grandparents had decided, without consulting my father, that I would go to a religious boarding school run by nuns and would come back only during the summer vacation. […]”
At boarding school, too, the power of words kept her alive and eased her loneliness and exile. As a sixteen-year-old she met Princess Catherine de Mainau, a friend of her maternal grandmother whom she visited at the time, and she invited her to spend the summer vacation on her estate. So she did the following years also and it was during her third stay that she first saw Alexis and recognised him at once as her long-expected firebird, her fairy-tale prince charming. And since they were a perfect match in the eyes of the world, nothing could prevent their marriage…

First released in 2003, the novella titled Monique is a late literary response to the letter that Marguerite Yourcenar published in 1929 as her debut novel Alexis, or a Treatise on a Vain Conflict. Being an epistolary work, it necessarily gives a very personal and one-sided account of the first-person narrator’s life until the agonising and humiliating experience of being abandoned by her husband. What happened afterwards is no more than hinted at here and there, i.e. the narrative focus is on the past, namely on one that has long ceased to be painful and that even evokes certain nostalgia. Only as the novella progresses it becomes clear that death has parted the narrator for good from her runaway husband so she can finally close this chapter of her life. Not knowing Alexis’s letter, her history feels entirely credible and in line with the typical biography of a young woman belonging to French high society, if not nobility in the 1920s. I read an English translation by Dolores DeLuise and Maria do Carmo de Vasconcelos that really seems to capture the spirit of the original Portuguese novella as well as its strong lyricism. For me the read was a treat.

The literary quality of Monique by Luísa Coelho took me quite by surprise because modern-day sequels to writings of famous, usually long deceased authors only seldom stand comparison with the original. This slim volume, however, gave me great pleasure although – to my regret – it was a rather quick one, too, all things considered. In fact, I finished the novella in just one go on a quiet afternoon. Nonetheless, it gave me a taste for reading also the reverse of the medal so-to-speak, i.e. Alexis’s story as Marguerite Yourcenar told it in 1929. I expect that the latter novel bears certain resemblance with other literary works of the time surrounding homosexuals and artists like Death in Venice by Thomas Mann to name just one. It’s true that Monique by Luísa Coelho may not be equal to any of these, but it’s definitely a worthwhile read and therefore I gladly recommend it.

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