- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2006

IN LUCIA’S EYES

By Arthur Japin

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Knopf, $24, 235 pages

REVIEWED BY MERLE RUBIN

Although his name became a byword for seduction on a grand scale, the 18th-century Italian historian, diplomat, adventurer and autobiographer Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) does not seem to have enjoyed as many literary reincarnations as his legendary Spanish counterpart, Don Juan.

But Casanova’s colorful, posthumously published memoirs, written in French and translated into a variety of languages, have ensured his lasting fame nonetheless. And now they have inspired Dutch writer Arthur Japin to create a novel told through the eyes, no, not of Casanova, but of the woman he describes in his memoirs as his first love: the enchanting young servant girl Lucia, who, he claims, carelessly betrayed him.

“In Lucia’s Eyes” is the second book by this remarkably talented and interesting author, who turned to writing after working many years as a singer and actor on stage, screen and television. Half a decade ago, Mr. Japin made his literary debut with “The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi,” an intriguing historical novel based on the lives of a pair of West African Ashanti princes sent to Europe for their education.

Ambitious and accomplished as that book was, Mr. Japin’s new novel is in many ways even more impressive. To start with, Lucia is a far more appealing and sympathetic narrator, a heroine who truly captures and holds onto our hearts. But it’s also the compelling suspense of the narrative, the energy and elegance of the writing (David Colmer’s fluent translation is a fine specimen of English prose in itself), and the aesthetic unity of the whole enterprise that make this novel such a satisfying work of the storyteller’s art.

Taking as his starting point Casanova’s account, first of falling for the lovely young Lucia in the Italian countryside, then of encountering her 16 years later in an Amsterdam gaming house, a coarse, hardened-looking prostitute, Mr. Japin not only fills in the blanks, but in doing so, comes up with a very different scenario that invests Lucia’s life and character with an entirely different meaning. Her story, as he generously and convincingly reconstructs it, provides an eye-opening glimpse into 18th century Europe and a poignant portrait of a woman struggling to make her way in it.

Far from being faithless, Lucia, as depicted here, is a paragon of altruistic devotion. Having fallen as deeply in love with young Giacomo Casanova as he has with her, the teenaged Lucia, stricken with smallpox while awaiting his return from a trip, is horrified to discover that her face has been transformed by hideous scars. Knowing that her fiance is hoping to make his way in the grand city of Venice, where, she’s been told, looks and appearance are of paramount importance, Lucia makes the painful decision to sacrifice her happiness for his:

“If he chose to accept me despite my disfigurement,” she reasons, “we could marry. I would be by my love for the rest of my life. This course, however, would require him to relinquish his ambitions. Our marriage would preclude any manner of career. This would be an unhappy fate for him, and in turn, his unhappiness would be my torment … . To follow my heart now would be the ruin of us both.

“To defy emotion and free him to pursue his dreams: This was the other possibility. I would be wretchedly unhappy without him, but no more unhappy than to attend him in his misery. I could at least console myself with the knowledge of his happiness. He might mourn me for a while, but if he could be given to believe that I had betrayed him, his sorrow would at least be brief.”

Lucia presents her story in the context of the tension between the old, intuitive way of living, based on feelings and the relatively “new” Enlightenment way, based on reason. Thanks to her naturalistic upbringing as a servant on a country estate, she embraces her first experience of love with an ingenuous, unabashed enthusiasm that wins Giacomo’s heart. Groomed for entry into a higher social sphere by her kindly mistress, who engages a tutor for her, Lucia also comes to love learning, as she reads the works of Diderot and other reigning philosophes.

Philosophy — or the ability to abstract her mind from her excruciating bodily sufferings — proves a mainstay during her illness, and guides her decision to renounce her true love. When she leaves home, she is first fortunate enough to find employment in an enlightened household where they preach that “the days of masters and servants were numbered … and … the world would soon be divided instead into the learned and the ignorant, the ultimate inequality, tolerable because anyone could it erase it through study.”

Lucia’s subsequent employer, Zelide, a free-spirited intellectual lady mad about scientific experiments, believes nonetheless in the superiority of heart over head: “Reason,” she tells Lucia, “is but the shell of consciousness, beneath which emotion is far more knowing. Only in our hearts, where no one can judge us fools, do we dare to trust and know everything without words.” When Zelide falls ill, she seeks out all kinds of quackery in the desperate hope of warding off death.

Oddly, as Lucia notes, intelligent people can be even more gullible than the ignorant in this respect: “… the advance of science in this century,” she reflects, “has torn many souls apart from within. Here the simpleminded — and I was certainly once one of them — trusting only to what they feel, are at some advantage … . They respond to these things impulsively, as they have for generations … . The new discoveries, however, contradict these emotions; even the existence of God no longer seems a certainty. Those who immerse themselves in these revelations have grown confused. They have their doubts, but do not yet dare put all their trust in reason, unable to abandon their faith entirely, even as it abandons them.”

Although the reader may initially be inclined to wonder if Mr. Japin hasn’t set off on a course of simplistically exaggerating the contrast between the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason (surely the Middle Ages were full of people able to calculate to their own advantage, let alone such master logicians as Aquinas and Roger Bacon), his novel actually provides a surprisingly subtle portrait of the historical period in which it is set.

He also favors us with a thoughtfully researched account of 18th-century Amsterdam: the ambience of its neighborhoods, the manners and mores of its citizens, its correctional facilities, or “spin-houses,” where onlookers mock (and sometimes throw things at) prisoners, and, of course, its prostitutes, from lowly streetwalkers to elegant escorts.

Best of all, “In Lucia’s Eyes” tells an absorbing story. Lucia and her lost-and-found swain are superbly matched lovers and sparring partners, playing an all-too-meaningful game in which she, rather than he, once again must make another life-altering decision.

Unlike Don Juan and other “heartless” libertines, Casanova took pride in his candor and consideration as a lover, boasting that no woman was ever sorry she succumbed to him.

But will Lucia allow his rationalistic approach to love to be the last word? The suspense we feel as we watch it all unfold comes not only from our engagement with these vivaciously evoked characters, but from our perennial interest in the never outdated question of whether or not there is indeed such a thing as true love.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic living in Pasadena, Calif.

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