Carmen Boullosa: De un salto descabalga la reina (Cleopatra Dismounts)
As the English title shows, this is a novel about Cleopatra but, as it is written by Carmen Boullosa, it is not going to be your standard biographical novel. It is going to be both post-modern and feminist and, indeed it is. Mark Anthony, Cleopatra’s lover and fellow military leader, fighting Octavian, does not always come out well nor, indeed, does Octavian.
The novel opens by giving us the conventional explanation of how it came into being. Diomedes is Cleopatra’s faithful servant. We know him from Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra, who took him from Plutarch’s life of Anthony. In this book, he spends three years after the death of Cleopatra (she and Mark Anthony committed suicide a year after being defeated at the Battle of Actium) writing an account of what happened. (There is no historical basis for Diomedes’ commentary.). The narrator at this point is a man who has been hired as his assistant but has spent three years doing nothing, as Diomedes gave him no orders. However, after Diomedes dies, he then copies what Diomedes had written. This is what we are reading. It takes the form of both Diomedes’ commentary, as a witness to what Cleopatra did and what happened to her, as well as what she has dictated to him. She knows full well that everything that she has left behind will be destroyed by the Romans and that the Romans will, as inevitably happens to historical losers, give her a bad press. Both, of course, happened. Indeed, Boullosa mentions, in her afterword, that many of her sources – Roman writers – were highly critical of Cleopatra and that, as a result, she has somewhat embellished the accounts. Indeed, her Diomedes admits that what he has attributed to Cleopatra may not be entirely accurate but, he feels, is along the lines of what she might have said and done.
The story begins and ends with the end. Mark Anthony has stabbed himself as a result of his defeat but has not killed himself. He is taken to Cleopatra who, having blamed him for the defeat and condemned him, now tries to comfort him and even restore him. She is locked in her tower but surrounded by Octavian’s men, with no possibility of escape. She ruminates on her life, her reign and her relationship with men, primarily with Mark Anthony, though also with others, including, of course, Julius Caesar.
Her story is told in haphazard fashion. However, Boullosa gives us several scenes from her life. We see her as an ambitious young woman, when her family – the Ptolemaic house – was in chaos, her father usurped and disputes with her family. She and her father were in Rome but she managed to escape from Rome, unbeknown to her father and others and made her way back to Egypt. She even managed to trick the Cilician pirates to help her instead of ransoming her. Later episodes include her relations with her brother, whom, in Egyptian fashion, she married but whom she despised for his feebleness and a not entirely historically accurate alliance she made with the Amazons, giving Boullosa an opportunity to show how the women were tougher and superior to the men.
Of course, she spends much of the book on two subjects. The first is her relationship with Mark Anthony. This is clearly a love-hate relationship. She describes in some detail the passion they had for one another. Diomedes, for example, accompanies them to a beach and, ignoring him, they go skinny-dipping and then have sex on the beach, with Diomedes watching and getting excited, too. This sexual passion will appear throughout the book. However, there are periods when the hate is to the fore. For example, when he leaves her and goes off to marry Octavia, Octavian’s sister (which he does primarily for political reasons), she is not surprisingly furious but, when he reappears a few years later, all is forgiven. Her relationship with other men, particularly Julius Caesar, is mentioned but, in this book, it is her passion for Mark Anthony that predominates.
The second issue is her hatred of the Romans. This appears throughout the book and, indeed, ends the book: Romans will dominate, reason will be in control, a cruel sort of reason, stained in men’s blood. Throughout the book she claims that her Greek ancestry makes her superior to the Romans but that the Romans consider themselves superior to the Egyptians.
This is an exhilarating, colourful and exuberant novel. Boullosa makes it clear where her sympathies lie and also makes it clear that this is not a strictly accurate historical biography. We have an unreliable narrator and embellishments to the historical novel. Boullosa is giving us a novel and a post-modern, feminist novel at that and, as always with her novels, it is thoroughly enjoyable, great fun but makes a point.
First published by Editorial Debate in 2002
First published in English in 2003 by Grove Press