Michelle Lovric is a novelist, journalist and anthologist, with particular interests in Venice, art and the history of medicine. The plot of her latest novel, The Book of Human Skin, revolves around a portrait of a supposedly dead nun in Peru and the murderous potential of powdered smallpox scabs. In it she also explores holy anorexia and a very unusual form of bibliomania. A.N. Wilson wrote of the book: 'It's years since I enjoyed a novel this much - or felt such strong envy of an author for having the breadth and richness of imagination to create such a world.' Michelle's novels are always set at least partially in Venice. Her third novel, The Remedy, a mystery set against the background of 18th-century quack medicine, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her novels for children, The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium, feature the Venetian nobleman Baiamonte Tiepolo as their villain. Michelle has been active in a campaign to mark the 700th anniversary of Baiamonte's conspiracy to kill Doge Pietro Gradenigo on June 15th 1310. Below she discusses Flora Tristan's Peregrinations of a Pariah.
Michelle Lovric on Peregrinations of a Pariah by Flora Tristan
When I first visited the convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, I experienced one of those dizzying moments when you realize you've no choice but to write a novel about a place. My first question to our guide was: 'Has anyone ever set a book here before?'
Her answer surprised me: 'Flora Tristan.'
Now the Flora Tristan I knew was a French feminist and socialist, the grandmother of Paul Gauguin. She'd railed against the slavery of marriage, the iniquity of the workers' lot, and even the scandalous poverty in 18th-century London.
What I did not know until that moment was that Flora Tristan was half-Peruvian.
Flora Tristan was born in 1803, daughter of Mariano Tristán y Moscoso and a Frenchwoman. But the marriage was never 'regularized'. In 1833, destitute and bitterly separated from a husband who eventually tried to murder her, Flora set off for Peru to claim her inheritance.
She'd not bargained for the wily tactics of her uncle, Pío de Tristán, who kept her waiting months in Arequipa, only to tell her that neither he, nor the law, would ever regard her as her father's legitimate heir. She returned to Paris virtually empty-handed, except for her voluminous travel journal. That was published in 1838 as Pérégrinations d’une paria and sold well enough to subsidize her feverish attempts to raise the consciousness of French workers until her early death from typhoid in 1844.
Peregrinations of a Pariah is the kind of book that you want to throw against a wall - so self-dramatizing is the writer's tone when describing the travails of her journey and the emotional suffering of one cursed with a uniquely tender sensibility. The very title blazes Flora's self-regarding self-pity, which reminds one of the tone of the letters of her contemporary, George Sand, whose notoriety she appeared to aspire to, and certainly achieved for a brief period. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two women disapproved of one another's methods to further the feminist cause. Sand mostly chose to write up her case for divorce and emancipation in novels, while Flora preferred autobiography and frank journalism, which naturally led to much demonization in conservative quarters.)
In Peregrinations, the pariahed Flora rarely shifts from her hectoring tone, decrying the vulgarity of Arequipa's religious festivals, the 'detestable' food, the lack of intellectual pursuits in the town and the national character: 'in Peru... nothing is esteemed more than duplicity'. The only things she liked in Arequipa, it seems, were the cakes cooked by the nuns and the beautiful convent of Santa Catalina, where she took refuge during one of the battles of the Peruvian civil war.
But, maddening as it is, Peregrinations is also the kind of book you pick up again, shame-faced, and continue to read, compulsively.
Now I'd already decided to set a novel in Venice and Arequipa when I picked up the Peregrinations for the first time. I was able to mine both magnificent and tiny period details from Flora's accounts of her journey - only 25 years after the one made by my Venetian characters, Marcella and Minguillo Fasan. In Peregrinations I also found the tale of a nun named Dominga Gutiérrez Cossío, whose real-life escape from an Arequipan convent in 1831 consisted of more preposterous machinations than anything I could have invented. An obscure historical event like this is the kind of thing we historical novelists dine upon greedily. It gives us licence: it proves that the unthinkable is not always impossible.
In fact, Flora was not quite accurate or candid in her account. Dominga, a cousin of hers, fled from Santa Teresa. But Flora claimed Dominga was incarcerated at the very severe convent of Santa Rosa. This is possibly because Flora visited Santa Rosa herself and was empowered to write feelingly of its horrors. The nuns there slept in black-curtained tombs, suffered under a snobbish regime and were allowed to speak only to say: 'Sister, we must die' - to which the ritual response was: 'Sister, death is our deliverance.'
I borrowed some of Dominga's daring escape plan for the climax of my plot. But I also dug deep roots for it – roots that went all the way back to a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. Flora's cousin Dominga was a feisty, rather spoilt Arequipan princess. My Marcella is the most fragile character in The Book of Human Skin. Yet I required her to follow in Dominga's footsteps to carry out the hardest physical task of any of my characters, and to face the most horrifying sight.
Dominga was not my only gift from Flora. I already knew from my visit and research that the Santa Catalina nuns lived in luxury, dined on roast guinea-pig, loved the music of Rossini and often brought as many as eight personal slaves with them to the convent. But Flora also experienced and described in brilliant detail one of Arequipa's ferocious earthquakes, visited the foundling hospital and gives us a reproving eyewitness account of the intricacies and stupidities of Peru's civil war.
And I'll always be grateful to Flora for her loaded description of the llama. Drawing sorry comparisons with the lot of European wives, she praises the dignity of the beast: 'of all the animals to have had dealings with man, it is the only one he has never been able to debase'. A llama, she explains, will make itself useful only if asked politely. If maltreated, a llama will lie down in the street, weep and wilfully expire in 45 minutes. 'Happy creatures,' observes Flora, 'who seem to accept life only on condition that it be sweet!'
I do not wish to be unfair to Flora. Even while Peregrinations was in process, she was maturing as a human being. The self-indulgence of autobiography was soon renounced as she became a tireless and selfless campaigner for workers' rights. I am quite sure that she never stopped irritating people, but Flora had evolved into a person who irritated on behalf of the oppressed, a thorn in the side of the smug, a person who used her gifts of eloquence and energy to draw attention not to herself but to the plight of others.
As a writer, however, I was happy to catch her just before that, as the flawed Flora provided more fertile ground for research and inspiration than her saintly alter ego.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]