Saturn is a brilliant novel, full of knotty issues and combining several forms of story-telling. At the basic level it is a modern biographical novel about the life and work of Francisco Goya. At the same time, an equally important character in the story is a person whom the modern world has never heard about, the great painter’s only son, Javier. From a certain point a third male figure appears on the scene as well, Javier’s son and Francisco’s grandson Mariano. So literary invention is the dominant factor in Saturn, loosely linked to facts that can be found in the available biographies of Goya and studies of his era. The next conventional element is the family novel, revolving around an Oedipal bond and the drama of failed paternity. Saturn is also the universal tale of an artist, occasionally shifting into an essay about art. The book includes a number of literary descriptions of paintings which interrupt the narrative, on the one hand acting as a counterpoint, while on the other providing comment on the events occurring within the story. All these conventional elements and concentrations of meaning converge on a single point – they all emerge from an attempt to understand Goya’s most mysterious works, the series of frescoes known as the Black Paintings. As he explains in the afterword, Jacek Dehnel has assumed that the real author of these works was Goya’s son, Javier, who after his father’s death encoded his family history into the Black Paintings and found a way to express his extremely difficult relationship with his monster of a father – a despot, lecher and habitual liar. In other words, in the pictorial images presented in these paintings, such as Saturn Devouring One of His Children, Javier himself is meant to be that child. Why he has been “devoured” by his powerful, despotic father is not at all clear. The writer conducts an inquiry into this case. One of the most interesting leads is the discovery that Goya had a stormy homosexual affair. Perhaps it is that his unsuccessful son, a depressive who isolates himself from life’s amusements, does not allow the artist to break fully with his homo-erotic identity. This is just one of many hypotheses. There are plenty of riddles of this kind here, and Dehnel does not offer any straightforward thoughts or diagnoses: the family hell at the artist’s home is not presented in any way as the price paid for artistic fulfilment. The portrait of Goya, as a genius and a monster, is far from unambiguous, which should perhaps be seen as the greatest merit of this novel.
- Dariusz Nowacki
I came into the world on Disappointment Street. Only when I was eight or ten years old did I hear, while hiding in the pantry, our cook telling the knife grinder where that name came from: long ago four handsome majos were chasing a beautiful girl, running down our street, right here, just under the windows of our house, which wasn’t even standing yet, past the front of the shop selling perfumes and gold pendants which hadn’t opened yet and where old Don Feliciano wasn’t working yet because he hadn’t even been born yet; and this girl came running, oh how she ran, and those majos were chasing after her, oh how they chased her, until they caught her; and in their ardour they tore off whole pieces of her clothing, ripped off her mantilla and the shawl she held across her face – and then they stood rooted to the spot, for there beneath the silks and satins they saw putrid flesh, the skull of a corpse coated in dry skin, the yellow teeth grinning. As they scattered in all directions, in seconds the body had turned to dust, all the ribbons and flounces too, and from then on the place was known as Disappointment Street. So said the cook, holding her sides – as I saw through the keyhole in the pantry door – brawny, ruddy, illuminated by a stream of sparks, as the knife grinder, who didn’t know the story because he came from somewhere outside Madrid, set a succession of knives and scissors to his spinning stone, nodding and muttering between one rasp of metal and the next. But my father – even if he didn’t actually say it, didn’t actually spit it out with the other insults he hurled at me – always believed, I am utterly convinced of this, that the street was so named because I, Javier, was born in a house that stood on it, in a small upstairs chamber within the apartment of portraitist and deputy director of the Santa Bárbara Royal Tapestry Workshop, soon to be royal painter, Francisco Goya y Lucientes.
When Javier was born, still on Calle de Desengaño, the older children were no longer alive; neither the first born, Antonio, nor Eusebio, nor little Vincente, nor Francisco, nor Hermengilda; not even her name could help Maria de Pilar, the name by which we commended her to the care of our Lady of Saragossa. I never told Javier this – for in those days I tried not to pamper the children, but to bring up my son to be a real man, not like now, when my heart has gone soft and I have been made into a teary old pantaloon, deaf as a post to boot, which is a great help in bearing the children’s shrieks – and so: I never told Javier this, but when La Pepa gave birth to him and was lying in bed, exhausted, strands of black hair stuck to her sweating brow as the light falling from the window cast a great stain across it, as if of lead white, I rushed into the city and cried to all whom I knew and all whom I did not that there was no finer sight in Madrid than this boy. After him we went on trying, fearing that he too would not stay with us for long; my dear departed wife, Josefa Bayeu, or simply La Pepa, if she were not dressing, was lying in bed – either in labour, or, if she had miscarried, with yet another haemorrhage. Once I even tried to count up, and it had happened twenty times. But, unfortunately, only Javier survived. Unfortunately only, and unfortunately Javier.
Life’s good to him over there, in France. They tell me everything here. There he sits, a widower far from his wife’s grave, satisfied, the old fox, the well-fed badger, the grizzled grouse, painting trite inanities, miniatures on ivory, doing nice little drawings; Leocadia makes him food, takes care of him and cuts his apples into quarters, in person, because he doesn’t like the taste of the ones from the serving girl, and then gives herself to anyone who happens along – there’s no lack of opportunity in Bordeaux; apparently lately it’s some German, who doesn’t even know she isn’t as weiss as she looks. Rosario, sorry, I mean Little Ladybird – he never calls her anything but “Little Ladybird” – sits beside him and they “create together”. In a single flourish he draws something – not necessarily an image that is suitable for a little girl of her age, even if she is the daughter of a harlot and has seen a thing or two – and she crudely tries to repeat it. A curved line where it should be straight, a straight line where it should be curved, but above all a boring line. Boring, monotonous, charmless. Then the old man takes another sheet and – I can just see it, I can see it – muttering something incomprehensible to himself, just as he always has done, and if not always, then at least since he went deaf, in a single gesture turns a piece of paper into a banknote: a witch flying with a skipping rope, an old cuckold and his young wifelet (it never occurs to him that he’s portraying himself), or a condemned man being garrotted; in short, a perfect drawing, for which I’d at once have several buyers. And he gives it to that little brat. Blinking, fidgeting beside him on her chair, smiling now and then, she sticks out her little lizard tongue, surely inherited from her mother, and “shades it in”, in other words she scrawls her dull strokes all over the folds of cloth, pieces of background, and clouds of hair, while the old man says “lighter”, “darker”, “lighter”. And so, eagerly working away in league with each other, they change banknotes into scribbles of no better use than as rolling paper for tobacco.
Life’s good to me over here in France, but it’s bad to me here in old age. When the sunlight is strong – though not as strong as in Madrid – I can see better, and then I get down to some painting. I no longer have the strength for large canvases, I can only just move in any case. There’s a young fellow here who escaped from Spain, de Brugada; he spends a lot of time with us and takes me for walks, and has even learned how to talk to me – not as before, when he wrote on scraps of paper that I found hard to decipher, but using his hands, according to Father Bonet’s system. The day before yesterday I told him off for waving his paws about, as if he wanted to tell the whole neighbourhood that not only can old Goya hardly drag his pins along, but he’s also deaf, deaf, deaf as a post, deaf as a stone, a brush, a doorknob, deaf as a bundle of old rags that moves by black magic. I must stink of piss, for I have an ailing bladder, but I can’t smell it myself, I haven’t my old sense of smell that could sniff out a juicy quim coming down the street... I can just see how others grimace when I come too near, but as they don’t want to cause me grief they hide their scowls, which is even more humiliating. I wear three pairs of spectacles. Three pairs of spectacles on one big snout. Not the biggest one at that. My sight is failing me, and so are my hands. I am lacking in everything – except willpower.