Sunday, August 31, 2008

In the company of the courtesan

-Sarah Dunant

A very well written and vivid book. It recreates history in an extremely charming style. You almost hear the splash of the waters of Venice as the oars hit against them. You feel the moist breeze, the crowded streets, their din and clamor, a city bustling with activity. Sarah Dunant very beautifully brings to life 16th century Venice in her gripping novel In the company of the courtesan.

Your guide through 16th century Rome (for some time) and Venice (for most part of the book) is a dwarf- Bucino. Bucino is a courtesan’s dwarf. A very realistically drawn character, Bucino takes you across the streets of Rome after the sack of 1527. He introduces you to cardinals, artists, poets, the ordinary no bodies and provides perspective to history. The perspective of an out cast dwarf who has on his own merits earned a reputable position for himself. Though his countenance resembles that of a rat or a dog or even a devil, he is much appreciated for his wit and talent.

This novel brings history much closer to you. You not only learn about the various happenings but also feel them and that too from various perceptions. It deals with many issues and operates on various levels, such as the conditions of the Jews, their problems, their apprehensions and desires, how they were ghettoised and exploited, how fear of the unknown led to their reality being misconstrued and misunderstood. You also see the position of single working women in the form Fiametta Biancini and La Draga, one a courtesan and the other a doctor or a healer. Also the various prejudices attached to these outcasts including Bucino.

Both, Fiametta and La Draga are spirited women who endeavour to survive independently in the most tumultuous of times. We see Fiammetta braving against the sack of Rome. She faces the invaders with panache, wit and nerve. Along with her dwarf she moves towards Venice and endeavours to reestablishes herself. With lots of cunning and pains Bucino and Fiammetta reestablish themselves. La Draga is also an extremely well drawn character. She is immensely talented and is a very good physician. But in order to make a living she presents herself as a blind cripple when in actuality she is a beautiful girl with sound vision. When she heals people in this attire or gives them potions there is a certain amount of mysticism attached to her and so people tend to believe in her powers to heal. However, she is misunderstood for a witch and is also condemned to death for witchcraft. Thus, we also encounter the gaols of Venice and conditions of prisoners then.

The book which attempts to re create history goes beyond that aim. For the characters are not mere caricatures of historical personages. They feel, they emote, they are real and they exist in Dunant’s fictional world as much as in history. Towards the end the narrative slips into the Stream of Consciousness mode. You feel with Bucino, the fear, the agony, the pain, the confusion, of discovering love and friendship amidst long standing misconceptions, then encountering a long forgotten betrayal, followed by immense fury and anger, and then having to face the guilt of destroying the life of one’s saviour and love.

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