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Miklós Szentkuthy: Eszkoriál [Escorial]

The third book in Miklós Szentkuthy’s St Orpheus Breviary ten book series is primarily, as the title indicates, set in Spain. However, as is usual with the books in this series, we start off with the story of a saint. The saint du jour is Francis Borgia, 4th Duke of Gandía. His title and the fact that he was Borgia (yes, he was related to those Borgias) does not make him an obvious candidate for canonisation but, just under a hundred years after his death, Pope Clement X did canonise him.

He was the great-grandson of Rodrigo de Borja who later became Pope Alexander VI. Rodrigo had four children by Vannozza dei Cattanei (they were not, of course, married), of which two were famous: Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. Giovanni, the youngest and the grandfather of Francis was murdered when he was twenty-four (at which time, he was already the father of two children, with a third on the way). His murderer was never found but it was believed that it was the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

On his mother’s side, Francis was the grandson of King Ferdinand II of Aragon. His great-granddaughter was Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II of England.

In the two previous novels in this series, his stories of the saint are relatively serious and straightforward, certainly compared to the rest of the book, and are not directly connected to the rest of the book, in that the saint does not appear again. He takes a different approach here. Francis Borgia is not only the saint he writes about but is also the main character of the rest of the book. Moreover, the introduction is not conventional biography.

A few highlights from this first part including his preaching at the age of ten, his chasing after a woman who looks like Eszter Vincze (a page to Pope Sylvester II), having his bed hoisted up to the cathedral vault (by, amongst others, his wife and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) so that he could kiss the pictures of Christ, the death of his wife, which leads him to take the vice-regal crown (he was Viceroy of Catalonia), place it on her head and then kiss her dead body all over, an offer to become Pope and his habit of drinking with peasants.

It does not get any more straightforward in the main part. Trivial matters like historical accuracy and chronology are virtually irrelevant for Szentkuthy. Indeed, he deliberately distorts them. We start off the main part when Francis is with his great-aunt, Lucrezia Borgia. He seems to be a young man, yet he was not nine years old when she died. No matter. It all starts off with her falling asleep in the bath, having a vision of the Virgin Mary and menstruating in the bath, with the resultant blood enhancing her vision. She comments that she feels Francis will be a saint. His laconic response is to say that he can take care of his own sainthood.

Francis seems to be close to Charles V (which is historically accurate). However, Charles is ten years older than Francis and he is the Holy Roman Emperor, commanding huge swathes of territory, yet Francis seems to treat him as a younger brother. Charles was married to Isabella of Portugal and Francis is fond of her (historically accurate) but also sexually attracted her. Though Isabella does not take him into her arms, she certainly does not rebuff him. She does, however, marry him off to a friend who is lonely, Leonor de Castro Mello y Meneses.

Szentkuthy charges off again, with an exegesis of the Book of Tobit given by the Bishop of Zaragoza to Francis and a visit to practitioners of the cult of Asmodeus (all the Queens of Spain apparently follow it), where he learns that men have two natural instincts, a yearning for superstition and an innate scepticism.

Isabella dies in childbirth. As this is Szentkuthy, this is not a conventional birth and death. Indeed, if it were not for the fact that it is a sad tale, it would be quite funny. Isabella will not allow doctors into her room, so holes are made into the ceiling for them to watch her. The archbishop is not concerned with the physical well-being of either mother or child but only the immortal soul of the child. As soon as it is born, he grabs it and rushes to the chapel to have it baptised before it dies. As we know historically and as another witness cited by Szentkuthy states, the child was still-born but this does not seem to have bothered the archbishop who pretends it is alive.

Francis is so upset by Isabella’s death that he plans to go to China. He asks for information on China and is given a book which recounts the story of Wang Li, the elderly mistress of the great Luang, who has decided to get rid of her and marry her off to someone else but then has a change of heart and plans to marry her. Wang Li is revered by the people, so much so that there are temples in her name. We follow the wedding preparations but also the local politics with Mongols, a king called Atlantis who may or may not be from Atlantis and dignitaries from India. it is all very complicated and, if the characters are based on known Chinese legendary or historical characters, I can find no reference to them. This story lasts for nearly a hundred pages and, when he has read it, Francis’ comment is Haven’t you got a book on Chinese philosophy?

Back in Spain, Francis is appointed to head the Jesuits but, before accepting, he challenges some of their views such as the idea that they are the sole guardians of the truth. He is also critical of Spain, saying that it is concerned solely with abstraction and not reality.

Francis is charged with accompanying the body of Isabella to its final resting place, as Charles is too distraught to do so. We know this happened in reality but, inevitably, some of the events Szentkuthy describes may not be historically accurate. These include the coffin being attacked by locals who think that the plague that has infested them came from the coffin and the coffin being kidnapped by Arabs and redeemed by Francis only for a high ransom.

Francis’ next problem is dealing with the French, including being propositioned by Renée, wife of Francis’ cousin Ercole and daughter of Louis XII and negotiating with Charles IX over a possible crusade while the Huguenot wars were taking place.

This summary only gives an overview of the complications Szentkuthy presents us with, as we follow Francis’ detailed life. It is chaotic, unhistorical, and great fun, if you can keep up with all his tangents and ideas. Clearly, he does not have a great respect for Spain or, at least for Spain of that era, though does respect Francis Borgia. Is the point to damn Spain and the Spanish, Catholic outlook on the world or is it simply to romp around an aspect of European history, using this history for him to throw out ideas? The straightforward answer is probably a bit of both.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1940 by Hunnia Nyomda
No English translation
First published in French by Phébus in 1993
Translated by Georges Kassaï et Robert Sctrick