The Washington Post
Hunger's Brides: A Novel of the Baroqueby Paul Anderson, Poul Anderson
On a frigid winter's night, a man escapes from an apartment in which a young woman lies bleeding. In his hands he clutches a box he has found there. He is Donald Gregory, a once-respected college professor and serial adulterer, whose last affair has left his career in ruins. She is Beulah Limosneros, one of his students and for a brief time his lover. She had
On a frigid winter's night, a man escapes from an apartment in which a young woman lies bleeding. In his hands he clutches a box he has found there. He is Donald Gregory, a once-respected college professor and serial adulterer, whose last affair has left his career in ruins. She is Beulah Limosneros, one of his students and for a brief time his lover. She had disappeared into Mexico two years earlier, following her obsession with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was born in 1648, entered a convent at age nineteen, and became the greatest poet of her time, only to die of plague in 1695. As a police investigation closes in around Gregory, he examines the box's contents, fearful of incriminating evidence Beulah may have against himtranslated poems of Sor Juana, a travel journal, research notes on the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the Inquisition, diary entries concerning him, and a strange manuscript about Sor Juana. Based on the life of one of literature's most compelling figures, Paul Anderson's astonishing debut unveils a great poet's withdrawal from the world who at the height of her creative powers signs a vow of contrition in her own blood.
The Washington Post
- Da Capo Books
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When the documents that have become this book came into my hands, my first thought was not of evening the score. I felt panic — and removed a manuscript about to implicate me in the carnage in that room. But as I began to see what a very small part I played in her story, dread and agitation gave way to relief. Then, to a certain indignation.
Beulah Limosneros had been a brilliantly accomplished protégée of mine, even as she spent her every spare moment researching the great seventeenth-century Mexican poet Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–1695). That Beulah became obsessed with Sor Juana is understandable. Of all the giants of world literature, her story is among the most captivating. A child prodigy who taught herself to read at three, she went from a farm in the wilds of Old Mexico to the very pinnacle of Spanish literature, emerging as the last great poet of its golden age. As a teenager she dazzled the New World’s most sumptuous court and lived as an intimate of its vice-queen. Proto-feminist and slave owner, theologian and musical theorist, fabled beauty and nun — for twenty-five years she championed, against the unrelenting attacks of Church patriarchs, a woman’s right to a life of the mind. Sor Juana defended also a nun’s right to compose exquisitely sensuous and lucid poetry. And in doing so herself, she repeatedly defied her confessor, the Chief Censor for the Holy Inquisition. Her writing career unfolds between the mystery of a sudden flight from palace to cloister and the enigma of a final spiritual testament signed in blood.
A worthy research subject. But during Beulah’s time with me,her notes, historical oddments and lyrical fabrications concerning Sor Juana came to look less and less like scholarship until, at the end, the work was more like a lurid cross between novel of ideas and tell-all biography. In this, my part was not so small. Now, with nothing but time on my hands, I’ve decided to edit and emend her unfinished manuscript. I’ve done it to set the record straight, perhaps to right a few wrongs.
At the outset, though, my intent had been to set her little pearl in such a way as to reveal all its eccentricities. Even she thought of it as baroque. Taking my cue from Beulah’s own early work, I settled on the format of literary biography, finding this suited to my own, more modest, talents. I’ve extended the story’s reach, however, to embrace not just Sor Juana but Beulah too. I have used every resource at my disposal and many that should not have been: Beulah’s diary, her dream record, her diet journals.
And of course there was the manuscript itself: a mangy stack of papers of assorted sizes and colours, dog-eared, stained and spattered. Scripts ranging from scrawl to type to childlike printing that ignored the lines. Napkins, gas bills and manila envelopes. Clean white sheets started fresh in a full and fluid hand become by page’s end a pinched and graphic twitching from which I could decipher only the occasional letter. The typed pages, a total of 457, were not necessarily the easiest: Beulah’s hand would sometimes slip from ASDF to SDFG or even from JKL; to YUIO. I could read certain passages only by decoding painstakingly, letter by letter.
Overall, I’ve felt compelled to temper the wildness of her tone and the extremism of her conclusions, to bridge the gaps in her research and to abridge her lyrical flights. To draw just the occasional line between truth and fantasy. And then, to find an ending. The task has not been without its challenges, and not without its diversions. Yet my attempts to recreate myself with these materials would never have seen the light of day were it not for what I have found here. It is a sort of true-crime story, a document for an insatiable time.
But now I wonder if all this feels too impersonal. Perhaps knowing where it ends, with Beulah on her way to a sanatorium. Yes, a more intimate start.
Here, meanwhile, my own drama begins, with me making sense of retirement at forty-two. I’m sure I feel as many retirees do. We are like poets in exile on unfashionable islands. We are the tiny emperor appealing to history. We are the last living alchemist.
Getting up from the desk, I raise the blinds and stand a moment staring into the west. A sea of stone heaves up before these windows, a slab of Cambrian time. From the pilings beneath my feet, a wide trough slopes away deep and slow, then out to the Rockies’ massive cresting. Most days I see a rib cage there, upthrust, transected by a glacial blade. It carves clean to the bone, laying bare a jagged spine of peaks that arches south along the broken curvature of the earth. This, it seems, is to be my consolation: to rediscover a landscape once lost to me. Days I spend walking the foothills above Cochrane, twenty-six miles from Calgary. My nights I spend quietly, in a vast, vaulted affair of varnished logs and endless windows euphemistically called a cabin by the former colleague who has lent it to me. My retreat stands like a cathedral on the last high tableland before the foothills. Below, a patchwork of leafless poplar, and thick spruce spilling in soft folds to the valley floor. The Bow snakes flat and white among the bluffs. Beneath the thinning ice the river quickens. The end of winter comes late up here.
I look out the north window at a pumpjack nodding away like a relentless rocking horse, while in the distance the wheels of justice grind slow and inhumanly fine. From where I now stand I see them — yoked, as Sor Juana might say, to the blind circlings of an ass.
So. A beginning.
Donald J. Gregory, Ph.D.
May 9, 1995
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Paul Anderson left Canada in his early twenties and spent fifteen years travelling in Asia, studying in Europe, teaching in Latin America, and logging 25,000 miles of coastal and ocean sailing. Hunger’s Brides, his first novel, has been a labour of twelve years. In 1996, Alberta’s One Yellow Rabbit company toured a dramatic reading adapted from the manuscript by the author, and performed in the convent where Sor Juana died. Anderson lives in Calgary.
From the Hardcover edition.
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NO FOR EVERYONE! 1360 PAGES, including acknowledgements, and filled with poetry, prose, musings, and meanderings of/about a Baroque Mexican nun who in 1695 was apparently considered, by some, to be the world’s premier English-language literary star. Also, included, herein, are long discourses on a whole gamut of philosophical and theological issues that had this reader thinking a reader had to be an academic, genuinely interested in this subject matter, to make it to the ending of the book. If I found the juxtaposed contemporary tale of a promiscuous professor’s affair with a research student a bit easier to follow, none of it was enough, in the end, to have left me feeling my time had been well spent in reading this one through.