In 1997 Dario Fo, the great Italian playwright, comedian and poet, who sadly passed away last month, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on account of his magnificent skills as a playwright. His first novel, La figlia del papa, was written in 2014, and translated into English by Antony Shugaar as The Pope’s Daughter in 2015. The work is very readable, but ultimately, in my opinion, somewhat unsatisfying.
The novel covers the life of Lucrezia Borgia, up until the death of her father Pope Julius II in 1513, some six years before her own death. Lucrezia is a fascinating character to examine: during her lifetime, she equally received the highest adulation and accusations of the deepest immorality. As Fo mentions in his introduction to the novel, there have been a great many artistic depictions of the lady in question, most recently in the TV series The Borgias — to add another one to their number is a gesture of high confidence on his part. Fo claims that our interest in her era is driven by the amorality and ruthlessness of its people, mentioning the alleged murder of Gian Galeazzo of Milan as an example; the Borgias form part of this horrifying and fascinating tableau. Perhaps he is right, in part: the Devil has the best stories, as he has the best tunes. This, however, is not the impression one gets from the narrative itself. Fo’s treatment of Lucrezia is very flattering, and he dismisses out of hand as unfounded most of the rumours which have dogged her for the last five centuries. This is an interesting portrayal of her, drawn very clearly and skilfully, but for me, it is too one-dimensional.
Fo’s writing is inconsistent and peculiar. At times The Pope’s Daughter reads like a novel – as one might expect, really, given that its cover bears the legend ‘A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia’. However, it is frequently quite theatrical: long passages of dialogue are interrupted by brief flashes of exposition which seem like fleshed-out stage directions. At other points, however, the work reads like a popular history, a faux-cynical John Julius Norwich. This reading is helped by the sparse footnotes which occasionally intrude into the bottom margin of the page. As much as I enjoy all three things — novels, plays and histories– the juxtaposition of styles jarred. Fo seemed to be falling back on his skills as a playwright and on his historical research when trying to advance the narrative. It could be argued that he is trying to mix these together experimentally, but personally I doubt it: if so, I feel he would have deliberately marked the different styles more formally. As it stands, the reader is chaotically thrown from one style to another.
The novel’s style is very informal. This may be the translator’s decision, but I doubt it: Fo is likely to have used this style deliberately, to give a sense of immediacy and connection with the characters. Often, this works very well. The introduction to the young Rodrigo Borgia is breathtaking. One killer line from him comes when he is sent to govern a recalcitrant city: ’He’ll be tried and convicted straightaway. Do you like the word ‘straightaway’? Well, you can expect to hear it again many times while I’m here’. At times, however, Fo appears to over-play the casualness to the point where it is false and excessive. It is not true to the historical setting he is trying to depict. The work’s anachronisms and inaccuracies feel more clumsy than deliberate. Fo, for instance, refers to “the Arabian Nights”, a collection unknown in Europe until the early 18th century; claims that Machiavelli dedicated Il Principe to Cesare Borgia, not Lorenzo de’Medici; and has her father refer to Lucrezia in dialogue with a potential husband as coming to the altar with a ‘nabob’s dowry’, while the word ‘nabob’ did not come into European languages until a century after the period of the novel. Fo is probably doing this to question how valid his, or any, interpretation of historical events can be, but for my taste, this interrupts the flow of the novel too much.
This being said, there are some thought-provoking observations. For instance, Fo doubts that Lucrezia and the syphilitic Francesco Gonzaga were lovers, pointing out that neither she, nor the children born to her after the start of her friendship with Francesco, are recorded as being afflicted with that disease. Fo may, of course, be toying with us here. There is a note on the frontispiece, saying ‘This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictionally’. When I first saw this, I assumed that it was a rather over-the-top (and, frankly, annoying) attempt to shield the publisher from legal difficulties, perhaps something Europa Editions puts in all of their publications. On re-thinking, however, I’m tempted to see this as a joke on Fo’s part, questioning whether we can really know the past as well as the book would have us believe.
The novel’s illustrations are an interesting and enjoyable feature: Pop Art reworkings of Renaissance portraits, painted by Fo himself. They are striking, and fix an image – Fo’s image – of the characters in the novel in the reader’s head. They complement the novel as a reworking of history for Fo’s own artistic purposes.
Ultimately, though, for me The Pope’s Daughter missed out on being an excellent novel by some margin. His manner of questioning of our ability to know the truth of historical events, while in some places done quite well, seemed clumsy in others, and ultimately, did not seem to lead to any conclusions. Perhaps the tale would have been more convincing in the format in which Fo is most experienced, as a play, where its engaging characterizations, pace and wit could have been better displayed.
‘The Pope’s Daughter’ is published by Europa Editions, RRP £10.99.