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Carmen Boullosa: El Velázquez de París [The Velazquez of Paris]

I remain mystified why so few of Carmen Boullosa’s novels have been translated into English. This is a case in point. Like all her novels, it is lively, well written, highly imaginative and original and both great fun as well as a serious read. Moreover, like all of her novels, while the title does give away some of what is going to happen, the opening part of the novel does not and, inevitably, it follows a quite unpredictable path. She (Boullosa herself) starts off in Paris in 2001. But she is not happy. It is spring and the weather is still miserable, particularly compared to Mexico City. Her love life is not going well. Moreover, she compares it to when she came to Paris in 1978. On that occasion, she was twenty-four, in love and was writing a lot of poetry. More particularly there was a bright light that shone all over Paris, making it much more attractive than the gloomy weather of 2001. The second time she sees this light, she is sitting in El Retiro in Madrid, with Roberto Bolaño. Bolaño is telling her about his problems – his love life and, in particular, his poor health,which will eventually kill him. The third time she is in New York with her lover – things had been going badly but now they are better. It is a beautiful warm day and they are watching the office workers eat their lunch outside. She thinks that the light is the outward manifestation of her happiness. None of this has anything to do with the rest of the book but it is a lovely way to start off a novel.

Back in Paris in 2001, the main theme of the novel starts. This time she is alone in the café when she sees an old man with two young and very attractive women, who are, she assumes, Eastern European. Their French is very poor. Her immediate reaction is that he is a dirty old man. (The Mexican slang word for this is rabo verde. Verde means green, while rabo is the Spanish for tail but, as in other languages, e.g. French, it is also the slang word for penis.) She overhears them talking and he is telling them about Velázquez. Of course, they have not heard of him and one of them – Boullosa designates her as the more intelligent one – asks if he means like Andy Warhol. The old man is shocked by the comparison. He goes on to tell them about Velázquez’ painting of the expulsion of the Moriscos which was, apparently, lost in 1734 when the Alcázar burned down. The painting is believed to have been burned in the fire but, it seems, it was not and this old man now has it. He is very pleased with himself. The young women are totally indifferent.

The old man goes on to tell the tale of the burning of the Alcázar. It seems that the fire burned for a long time but there was complete disorganisation in the palace. Many of the main doors were locked and the key-holders not to be found. Velázquez had painted the painting when he was young, following a competition organised by King Philip IV, on the expulsion of the Moriscos (the Moriscos were the descendants of the Muslims who lived in Spain and later converted to Christianity. Many, though not all, were expelled to North Africa.) The old man describes the painting. Though we only have a rough idea of what it looked like, we do have paintings on the topic by other painters (see the Arauco site and the Spanish Wikipedia site as well as this blog showing Velázquez’s sketches for the painting – text in Spanish in all cases). In particular, it is claimed that all of the individuals – and there were many – painted in the picture were specific, known individuals. The old man gives considerable details on the origin of the painting.

How did the painting escape the fire? Boullosa, of course, tells us. When the fire started, many of the staff were asleep and did not wake till later. One of these was Mají, a twelve-year old, Morisco, son of a servant in the palace. When he finally awoke and knew what was going on, he knew what he had to do. His first thought was to save the Velázquez, but not because of any great love of art. Indeed, most of the paintings were of no interest to him. Portraits of king and queens and paintings of gods and goddesses left him totally unmoved but the Velázquez was special because one of the women who could be seen in the painting was his grandmother’s grandmother. He quickly cut the painting out of the frame and fled the scene. He did not really know where he was going, not least because he he had barely left the Alcázar ever in his life. He fears that he is being pursued but manages to get away. Eventually, he meets a gypsy, Isabella, and she takes him in. It s through her that the painting is passed on, though the story is fairly complicated.

It is a thoroughly enjoyable story, original, witty, never letting up the pace as well as, at least for me, illuminating a piece of history of which I was completely ignorant. Using herself as the narrator and main character work well for Boullosa, not least her meeting with Bolaño and, later, with Jean Echenoz, the two of them in a café, when she thinks she catches a glimpse of the old man but loses him. It could have just been a straightforward telling of the imagined rescue and subsequent life of the painting but Boullosa, throwing in her usual post-modernist touch and her feminist approach, makes it much more. It is sad that it has not been translated.

Publishing history

First published by Ediciones Siruela in 2007
No English translation