Eva Jana Siroka, Maddalena (Semele Books, 2005)

Most of the time, I get ideas for books to review for Green Man from the shelves of the bookstores we visit frequently. Sometimes I buy the books; sometimes we are successful in obtaining them from the publishers. Maddalena is the first book a publisher has ever asked me to review for Green Man. I suppose I should be flattered. . . .

I routinely visit both publishers' and authors' Web sites when I write reviews. The Semele Books Web site is pretty straightforward, listing just two books, both by the same author. The 'about' page explains that the company came into existence in 2004 as a division of WordTek Document Services, a firm that specializes in technical editing and writing. The name Semele refers to the mortal mother of the Greek god Dionysus, whom he resurrected after Zeus incinerated her. The principal of both WordTek and Semele, Dr. Glenn MacEwen, is a retired computer science professor.

Born in Bratislava, the capital of what is now Slovakia, author Eva Jana Siroka has lived in the U.S. and Canada for most of the last forty years. A self-identified independent artist and art historian, she has taught at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, the very institution from which Dr. MacEwen retired, suggesting that they may have met there. Siroka's very tasteful Web site includes a gallery of photos of her magnificent garden, obviously taken in high summer. Her site refers to Maddalena almost as much as the Semele Books Web site does.

Maddalena takes place in and around Rome in the 1560s. The plot revolves around three primary characters. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese was a real historical person, who lived from 1520 to 1589. Immortalized in one of Titian's oil portraits, it appears that Farnese had a long and distinguished career in the church and was responsible for the construction or restoration of a number of buildings, including a church, a monastery, and a family residence. Siroka's Farnese has ambitions for the papal throne once held by his grandfather. The younger Farnese is overly fond of wine, rich food, and women. His sexual fuse is so short that, in one early scene, Siroka portrays him having an orgasm ('he spilled his seed down his thighs') while stroking the breasts of a nude statue of Venus. Oh, gross.

Bartolomeo (Bartholomaeus) Spranger is another real historical person, a Flemish painter remembered for his nudes done in what's known as the 'late Mannerist style'. Born in Antwerp in 1546, Spranger spent ten years living and working in Italy, starting in 1567. In the novel, Berti Spranger is a young man who comes to Rome to seek his fortune. He is soon in the employ of Cardinal Farnese and eventually joins the painting staff of Pope Pius V. A devout Catholic, he is the most understandable and sympathetic of the main characters, although his appeal starts to dissipate as the novel unfolds and his lust increases.

The third main character, Maddalena, is entirely a product of the author's imagination. We first encounter her on her 25th birthday as Rebecca, the unmarried daughter of a Jewish apothecary selling flowers out of a cart in one of Rome's outdoor markets. An old woman working at a nearby cart reads her so-called 'horoscope' (actually a Tarot reading, not an astrological chart) and warns her that her future contains great power and great danger. She meets Cardinal Farnese not long after, when he becomes ill from overindulgence complicated by a spider's bite and she brings him healing concoctions. Although he is Catholic, a Cardinal and old enough to be her father, they fall in love at first sight and soon after (less than a fifth of the way into the narrative) are in his bedroom having hot sex. (Did I mention that he has Titian's 'Penitent Magdalen' on the wall behind his bed? Go look that one up!) After a night of romping, he offers her a meal of pork, cheese and oysters. Oh, dear. He immediately sends her off to a convent for six months of intensive conversion training, from which she returns with a new name, Maddalena, and a new faith. He sets her up in a house, from which she practices those forms of medicine available to a woman in this time and serves as the guardian for Farnese's young son (by another woman) Don Alfonso.

Does it sound to you as if I had trouble with this plot and with these characters? You've got that right! I also found some sequencing problems within individual scenes and a few typographical errors that a careful editor should have caught. I struggled to read the first half of Maddalena before I gave it up. I'm sure it doesn't help that I am not steeped in the culture and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and am not comfortable referring to anyone as 'Him'. The last novel I read in which a major character held a relatively high Church office was an English translation of Leopoldo Alas's La Regenta, originally published in Spanish in 1885. That character was Canon Fermin de Pas, who enjoys power and prestige in the community through his appointments as vicar-general and canon theologian. Don Fermin de Pas indulges in the vice of greed and suffers mightily from the vice of lust, which he feels toward Dona Anna Ozores, a beautiful and devout young woman married to a much older man. One of the dynamic tensions driving the complex plot of this long novel -- and keeping the reader engaged in it -- is Don Fermin's efforts to controls his feelings for his beloved parishioner. I found Alas's treatment of a very similar theme much more to my liking.

One of Maddalena's major 'selling points' is its illustrations done by the author. Indeed, the publisher spared no expense on these. Printed in full color on glossy coated stock, they are pen-and-ink drawings with watercolor wash. The promotional material describes them as 'stunning'. Perhaps they are to some other observer. They reminded me of the artwork I did when I was in my early teens, the last time I really did any drawing. I found them amateurish.

According to the dust jacket, Maddalena is Book One of the Golden Tripolis Trilogy. I asked Dr. MacEwen what the other two books would be about. He explained that Siroka's original manuscript ran to over one thousand pages, so parts of it will become the second book in the trilogy, which follows the Flemish painter Berti Spranger to the Prague courts of the Emperor Rudolf II, a member of the infamous Hapsburg family. The third book in the trilogy will be about Christina, a Protestant Swedish queen who abdicated her throne, converted to Catholicism and became the mistress of yet another Cardinal. One begins to detect some common themes here. . . .

Although you are not very likely to come across Maddalena in your local bookstore, it is quite easily available from the usual on-line sources. If you liked The Da Vinci Code, this one may work for you, too.

[Donna Bird]