Sprung From the Nunnery 

In a fascinating new historical novel, a woman exchanges her heavenly lover for a human one

In a fascinating new historical novel, a woman exchanges her heavenly lover for a human one

The Divine Husband

By Francisco Goldman (Atlantic Monthly Press, 465 pp., $24)

Franciso Goldman's The Divine Husband is a historical epic that encompasses North, Central and South America and presents them as seamlessly interconnected regions with overlapping populations and intricately interwoven economies, not as solitary states defensively protecting narrow market interests and fabricated national identities. In this novel, the notion of a fluid national identity is also a metaphor for the instability of the individual: Just as countries can simultaneously inhabit several different epochs and embrace the full continuum of human yearning from the profane to the sacred, so too can people pass from one personality to the next with a single gesture, like changing one's name.

It's delightful to discover that Goldman's new novel sparkles with life—with passions, fears, loves, ambitions, jokes, songs, poetry, art—a far cry from the cramped dreariness of The Ordinary Seaman (1997), his sophomore effort after 1992's The Night of the White Chickens. In The Ordinary Seaman, a ship from Central America docks in New York, hoping to unload its cargo and return home right away, but runs into trouble with United States authorities and so must stay at the pier, unmoving, its impoverished and hungry crew condemned to tight spaces and uncertain futures as six months pass without change. Readers may sympathize with the crew's psychological trauma, but they're damn sure not going to have any fun.

When The Divine Husband begins, Goldman returns to confined spaces, this time a convent school in Central America in the 19th century. Readers of The Ordinary Seaman will be forgiven for a bit of panic at the prospect of getting trapped inside the Convent of Nuestra Señora de Belén for the next 450 pages. But quickly Goldman moves to another setting in the future, spending just enough time in the nunnery to introduce the main characters, childhood friends María de las Nieves Moran and Francisca "Paquita" Aparacio. He sustains the brisk pace and hopscotching temporal pattern throughout the novel, never bogging down into Seaman's squalor, thank God, even when his characters are trapped in bad marriages or dead-end desk jobs.

The opening line of The Divine Husband has action and plot: "When María de las Nieves Moran crossed from convent school to cloister to become a nun, it was to prevent Paquita Aparacio, her beloved childhood companion, from marrying the man both girls called 'El Anticristo.'" María, the child nun, makes Paquita pledge to remain a virgin until María herself loses her virginity. Safely "married" to Jesus, her virginity assured, María believes she has saved her friend. But El Anticristo, a powerful military leader and hero of the recent war, is not deterred by girlish oaths. In short order Paquita becomes his bride and then, when El Anticristo ascends to the presidency, La Primera Dama of the unnamed republic. María remains in the cloister as long as she can, but finally that institution cannot survive the president's "Liberal" reforms, so she is thrown into the streets at age 17 to make her own way in the world.

Immediately the story flashes forward eight years. Paquita and María de las Nieves are sailing aboard the Golden Rose to California; from there they plan to take a train to New York and Paquita's Fifth Avenue mansion. After so many years separated, the old friends finally have time to catch up on each other's stories. María wants to hear from Paquita herself if the legends of tortures and executions at the presidential palace are true, while Paquita quizzes María about her rumored affair with Cuban rebel and poet, José Martí, who many believe is the father of María's 7-year-old daughter, Mathilde. Though María won't divulge Mathilde's paternity, this book-end structure allows Goldman to move among various times and places to tell María's story in a leisurely fashion. There is plenty of conflict and suspense, failed romances and genuine heroics, but the novel's deepest pleasures come from savoring the subtle characterizations and surprising cultural insights that highlight each episode.

The title, a reference to a nun's spiritual marriage to Jesus, aptly captures the novel's melding of the earthly and the divine. María aches for love in human form, but she also seeks metaphysical truth and guidance. In the convent she struggles to maintain the expected degree of self-abnegation, getting in trouble with her superiors when they discover her pressing wool into her nostrils to trigger a sneeze for its arousing frisson. But in the outside world she continues to admire the nuns' devotion and discipline. Most of all she wants to receive a message from God that will give her life meaning and direction. Her trip aboard the Golden Rose provides opportunity for such meditations: "It was a delight, a complete privilege, to be on a ship at sea. But shouldn't she be able to derive some lasting lesson from so much beauty and surprise?—an insight into the universe corresponding with something good and necessary inside herself?"

María's desire for an earthly husband, in part to compensate for the divine one she had to abandon, occupies a large part of the story. She begins to have suitors after she takes a job as a clerk and translator for the British Legation; the first who come calling, however, do not excite her imagination. One of the British diplomats, with the Kiplingesque name Wellesley Bludyar, makes overtures, but he "looked so much like a colorless, nearly albino, tall but plumpish blue-eyed Chinaman that ... he really was known around the city as El Gringo Chingo." Next comes Mack Chinchilla, an earnest and ambitious Indio-American who has been fascinated by María since he heard stories about her in New York, where Paquita's father runs his coffee trading business. María, whose father was Irish-American and whose mother was a native of Central America, thinks Mack's Indio coloring clashes with his Yankee accent and aggressiveness, but nothing she does dissuades Mack from believing that one day he will win his "ideal love."

Neither Wellesley nor Mack, however, causes a blip on her consciousness once José Martí arrives in town. Martí is based on the historical figure who fired the cause of Cuban independence while inflaming the hearts of young women wherever he went. During the year he spends in Central America, he teaches a writing course for women, engages in several friendships with them that may violate the bounds of chastity, and falls in love at least once, an impossible romance that inspires a famous poem, "La Niña de Guatemala." Is María the object of Martí's "fugitive" love? True to the incomplete historical record, Goldman leaves the question unanswered, but, whatever their relationship, María's encounters with the man who would become a national hero inspires her for the rest of her long life.

Alongside the accounts of María's romantic intrigues, Goldman's novel documents the 19th century's movement toward economic globalism. For any modern reader who thinks world trade began with the fall of Communism and the rise of the Internet, this book is a necessary curative. Immigrants move, or are forcibly relocated, to take jobs in emerging industries; European and American entrepreneurs scour the globe searching for natural resources and cheap labor; nations leverage economic influence to effect change in native civil rights. In Goldman's world, no one thinks twice about getting an umbrella repaired by a Polish Jew who learned his trade in Manchester and now plies it in Central America. There is a growing awareness that technology is shrinking the world, as Mack enthuses to María and her servant: "The telegraph and the modern newspaper have made the world so much smaller. It is as if the world is now one great city. Señoritas, the newspaper makes us all citizens of the country called progress."

With increased commerce and immigration comes the racial hybridization of the Americas, so that no racial term—not "Spanish" or "Indio" or "mestizo" or "Hebrew"—has any steady meaning; for Goldman, all racial judgments are necessarily prejudiced and irrational. He avoids getting too preachy, however, and his novel speeds though the narrative water with the high-powered assurance of a luxury liner. No more floundering below decks in the claustrophobic environs of The Ordinary Seaman, Goldman has discovered a style that fits his manifold talents and, in this ambitious saga that spans a century of the Western Hemisphere, a story that piques his imagination. The Golden Rose eventually reaches California, and María's secrets are ultimately revealed, but when readers reach the end many will choose to flip back to page one and take the cruise again.

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