This brief first novel by a Swiss dramatist, translated from the French by its publisher before her death last year, anchors itself in a real-life event. In 1906, the young Spanish king, Alfonso XIII and his British bride were on their way back to the palace from their wedding in the cathedral when an anarchist threw a bomb at their carriage. Intended to kill them both, it left them uninjured but spattered with the blood of people and horses around them who were not so lucky.
This is the centerpiece of “The Princess, the Anarchist and the King,” but the author has chosen to embroider - and in fact to alter - the story to a remarkable degree. So much so that it renders the work not only of interest in itself, but also significant as an example of the perils of historical fiction and even as a dipstick into the culture of France today, since it was shortlisted for a distinguished award for first novels there.
Unless one has read the original text, it is, of course, impossible to judge how accurate or skillful the translation, but this one certainly reads with an admirable fluidity and grace. It is somewhat surprising that the author did not translate it himself, since he was an interpreter at the United Nations; and that is certainly a lost opportunity, for translations by an author himself can be opportunities for everything from subtle refinements to actual reworkings.
But Helen Marx’s rendering of Robert Pagani’s French gives one a real feeling for his style, as well as the content. The former is a trifle overheated, but this is at least somewhat appropriate to the horrific event at the center of the novel. It is the content that gives pause, in all sorts of ways.
There is nothing wrong with historical fiction per se. At its best, it can provide an opportunity for a truly imaginative re-creation of an event that might seem all too stark in history books and encyclopedias. But it’s better if the author does not take too many liberties with the known facts: To work properly, it needs to be sufficiently grounded in reality to resonate, particularly if you are using the names of real people. Most important of all, how people behave and act have to be at least remotely possible or credible.
Which brings us immediately to a problem with this novel. Although Alfonso gets to keep his real name, for some reason, Mr. Pagani has decided that his bride is called Maria in Spanish because her name was Mary back home. And of course, she is not a princess, either, with all due respect to the title, but a queen, since the book opens with them already married.
In fact, her name was Victoria Eugenia Julia Ena, always known as Ena, although her official title was Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, and the frontispiece of the novel showing her arrival at the cathedral gives her names correctly. And this is only the beginning: imaginary cousins, a mother absent from her wedding when she was most definitely there to see her daughter married, a father dead in combat when he died of fever, one could go on and on, so myriad and risible are these embroiderings and errors.
Insignificant, perhaps, in themselves, but not when everything hangs on real events. And what is the point of an “Introduction” that simply parrots these boo-boos, rather than putting the necessary corrective lenses on them?
Alternative histories are very big in France these days, and it might indeed be fruitful to speculate what would have happened to the Spanish monarchy and indeed to Spain if this assassin had succeeded in his dastardly task. But this novel milks the real situation while piling improbability upon improbability as ludicrous garlands.
Is it even remotely credible that Maria not only encounters the assassin (who in fact “committed suicide” in captivity within days) in the palace grounds, but has him deflower her to save her husband the trouble (not that he appreciates her lack of virginity - a rare touch of the believable amid so much that is ludicrous) before stabbing him to death? Give me a break.
Bad enough also that the narrative dwells in a puerile and obnoxious manner on bodily functions, from the bride’s urgent need to urinate to her husband’s all-too-evident priapic state, but it doesn’t even make the most of the predictable but nonetheless appropriate leitmotiv of blood repeatedly and heavy-handedly worked into the text.
Why concentrate on hymeneal blood when the real-life tragedy of this blighted couple - what seemed to confirm all the ill-omened portents of that disastrous wedding day - was rooted in blood in a most terrible way? Although unmentioned here in favor of a lot of generalized blather about coming world wars (from which Spain was, along with only a few others on the European continent, spared), the great tragedy of Alfonso and Ena’s marriage was that she was a carrier of hemophilia and that two of their sons were afflicted by it. It was this terrible fact that ruined their marriage, and so the fundamental questioned posed by this novel is, why fantasize when the reality is so much more horrendous than the silly product of this author’s paltry imaginative flight?
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.