Hella S. Haasse is one of the stars of Dutch literature. She will be turning 92 next month and with a career that long it isn't surprising she has quite a long bibliography by now. Haasse has won a number of prestigious awards for her work and is one of the most widely translated Dutch authors. I know of English, German, French and Spanish translations of this particular work and there may be more. In English it is published as The Scarlet City, which is a literal translation of the Dutch title. First published in 1952, it is one of her early works. Like many of her novels it has a historical theme.
De scharlaken stad is set in 16th century Rome. Italy is involved in a series conflicts known as the Italian Wars. Hopelessly divided Italy has become a battlefield in a conflict that will involve most of the major European powers at some point. The book is set in the 1520s, a period of time when the French King and Habsburg Emperor are battling for influence in Italy. The situation is further destabilized by a series of popes wielding their worldly power for political and territorial gain. In short Italy is a mess.
The late 15th and early 16th century is also the period when the various members of the house of Borgia are at their most influential. Widely known for their crimes and perversities the Borgia family became the symbol of corruption in Rome. A reputation that long outlived the most prominent members of the house. The main character of this novel is a man known to historians as the infans Romanus, Giovanni Borgia. He is presumed to be an illegitimate child of Lucrezia Borgia but we don't know for sure. And neither does he, the novels is a desperate quest to solve the riddle of his parentage.
Rarely have I read a book where the opening paragraph made such an impression on me. I won't bother you with a quote in Dutch, I don't feel competent to translate it, so there really isn't a point to supplying it. Suffice to say it is brilliant. In that one paragraph the main character describes the effects his family name has on his contemporaries in Italy. In that one paragraph the author pours all the negative emotions the main character associates with the name Borgia. It's a very powerful, effective bit of writing.
The novel itself is a complex one. Haasse tells her tale using multiple points of view, mostly historical characters, who relate the history of Italy up to the sack of Rome in 1527. The narrative frequently overlaps and some events are seen from several points of view. The intricate politics of the situation are described in detail at some point, making it hard for those not familiar with this piece of history to follow the story. A lot of the characters have a way of, very eloquently, rambling on about the woes that befall Italy. These characters include some of the most notable of Rome's inhabitants at the time. There are chapters comprised of parts of the correspondence between Niccolò Machiavelli and Franseco Guicardini as well as chapters seen from the point of view of Michelangelo. Quite a few popes, noblemen, generals and other historical figures make an appearance in the book, impressing on the reader just how complicated Italian politics were at the time.
A day after finishing this novel I am still undecided about whether or not I like it. Haasse's knowledge about the period is impressive, the style of her writing is fine (if slightly dated but what can you expect after half a century?) but I still felt is was a very impenetrable book. At times Giovanni's quest to find out who his parents are resurfaces frequently in the book, but given the alternatives he is presented with I wouldn't have blamed him for not wanting to find out at all. Each of the candidates seems to have played their own dubious part in the history of the Italian Wars. The riddle is consuming Giovanni though, in fact, it gets in his way when he tries to find his place in the world. Instead of choosing an identity or making himself into something, he is constantly distracted by this mystery. Like the history of the Italian Wars, Giovanni's quest is a depressing one.
All in all I found this book a hard nut to crack. I very much enjoyed Haasse's style but at the same time I wonder if the way she presents the story isn't making it a lot more complicated than it has to be. I read Het Woud der Verwachtingen, another historical novel by Haasse set in France during the Hundred Year War several years ago. It was first published in 1949, a few years before this book, and for some reason it seemed a lot more accessible to me. Even if it does incorporate as much historical detail as De scharlaken stad. Goivanni is an intriguing character and Haasse certainly captures the period very well but for some reason those two components don't blend into one novel in my head. Still, if you like a challenging historical novel, this might not be a bad choice at all.
Title: De Scharlaken Stad
Author: Hella S. Haasse
Publisher: Rainbow Pockets
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 1952