The final novel from Cuban writer Benítez-Rojo (1931-2005) is a grand historical work about the kind of woman history often ignores.
As a medical student in 19th-century France, Henriette Faber disguised herself as a man. Eventually, she entered Napoleon’s army as a surgeon. Though she aspired to saving lives, she eventually became a criminal, guilty of perjury, "sexual deviance" (according to the mores of the time, anyway), and plenty more, banned from all other Spanish territories. Benítez-Rojo embodies this woman, a spiritual sister of Defoe’s Moll Flanders. What drove her from potential heroism into destitution? To answer this question, the novel moves from New York to Paris, from New Orleans to Cuba, spanning the globe and including situations of sweeping romance (this is the kind of story Ophüls or Visconti would’ve made a film of in the 1950s) but always remaining anchored to Henriette’s thoughtful first-person narration—sometimes too thoughtful. The prose here is dense and purposefully old-fashioned; it’s the kind of book where sentences begin, “It was said that….” This is a big novel and a slow-going one, measured in its pace even in its more emotional moments. For example, the first section follows Henriette’s marriage to Robert—a relationship that the movie posters would describe as “tumultuous” even though the reader rarely senses Henriette or the author getting worked up; this book is often distant by design. Nevertheless, Benítez-Rojo has a knack for simile—a street “looks like a long black cat," and an unwanted visitor is “like a mortar shell”—and rarely has a historical person been so fully inhabited since Yourcenar told the story of Hadrian. Eventually, the novel morphs into metatext: “I believe that all writing has a utilitarian purpose,” the narrator says, trying to write her story. And often, the matter of embodying another person’s consciousness is useful enough.
A sweeping, if flawed, historical novel.