Sunday, December 31, 2017

Catalina: A Romance, by Somerset Maugham. Doubleday& Co, 1948

Catalina is a 15 year old Spanish girl living in the time of the Inquisition. One day she is laying on the steps of the cathedral, crying because she cannot walk- one of her legs is permanently injured- to see the triumphant entry into the city of two of its favored sons. Of Don Juan de Valero’s three sons, two are famous- one a bishop, the other a warrior in the pay of the king. The third is a humble baker, who stayed to take care of his parents, raise a loving family, and help the poor. Suddenly a woman appears behind her, who asks her what is wrong. Catalina expresses her woe over her leg, including the fact that her inability to walk has caused her beloved to dump her in favor of another girl, one capable of the demanding physical labor of surviving and raising a family in those times. The woman tells her that she can be healed by the son of Don Juan de Valero who has served God the best, and vanishes. Obviously, the woman has to have been the Virgin Mary.

A good section of the book is devoted to describing the lives of the three sons, especially the Bishop. He has lived a life of extreme devotion, wearing a hair shirt and whipping himself for his sins. He is obviously the first choice for healing Catalina. After Catalina is healed, the head of the convent in town wants her to become a nun, feeling that the presence of a living miracle will add fame to the convent- and money in its coffers as pilgrims arrive. But Catalina has other ideas…

And here the story falls apart to me. The first part is a satire of the institutions of the medieval church and caste system, and I enjoyed it. But after Catalina is cured, we leave that frame of mind and end up in “Don Quixote”! Literally- Catalina and her small band of entertainers run into a group of actors from somewhere in Cervantes novel and spend a good bit of time with them. Now, that section of “Don Quixote” was pretty senseless to me, and it doesn’t improve in “Catalina”. So, the first half or more of this novel is witty and good; the last part just seems to fill up space (when I read “Don Quixote”, I wondered if Cervantes had been paid by the word). Three and a half stars. 

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