Poor Maria, alone and afraid
In a foreign land, without mommy or daddy
Is nervous around her fiancé
And can think only of needing to pee.
King Alfonso, meanwhile,
On the whole a right-seeming sort,
Has plenty of worldly memories on file
Before entering into a settled-down court.
But settling is not to be, on this May 31,
When a strange and driven man can make it all go burst.
I first heard about Robert Pagani’s short novel/novella The Princess, the King and the Anarchist from Michelle Bailat-Jones’s excellent review in The Quarterly Conversation and was immediately taken with everything about it. Bailat-Jones characterizes the book as a “historical fairytale,” whose “claim is based on the idea that every history has an unrecorded element, the part of the moment that can never be precisely known.”
[L]et’s get inside the event, let’s imagine, as Pagani has, what exactly the king and queen were thinking about in that long carriage ride leading up to the tragic bombing. Let’s also pretend that Morral didn’t vanish immediately after throwing his bouquet, but snuck himself inside the palace. And finally, let’s explore what effect the trauma had on the psychology of Spain’s new King and Queen.
Also, as outlined in the introduction and mentioned by Bailat-Jones:
On the surface, Pagani’s novel is meant to be funny, and in this it is thoroughly successful, but it also touches a very serious subject in the way it manages to draw attention to one of the great myths of a monarchical system—that a king and a queen are superhuman and immortal.
I am lifting so much wholesale because it’s hard for me to add more to the subject: the book does all this, and well. It’s also quite funny. But something was missing. As it turns out, members of Bailat-Jones’s book club were not so fond of the book either. But I think in a different way. I liked it—it just felt…thin, somehow.
A possibly crackpot theory: there is not a single Post-It Flag in my copy of the book, although I was engaged enough with it to finish it in a single evening (pretty much a single sitting, as I recall). Nothing really hit me at the time hard enough to get me to flag it—was something missing on the sentence, level, paragraph level, scene level? Or was I just being a bad reader all around?
One thing I did not like, however, was the ending. I think that may be where the book ultimately lost me; there was a choice between “light and good” and “light and just-okay” up to that point, and I had to go with the latter. It just “didn’t work for me,” suspension-of-disbelief-wise.
(Bailat-Jones mentions the quality of Helen Marx’s English translation, and I admit not having realized it was translated from French until I bought it; I would have opted for the original, unfortunately.)