If someone were to tell me there was a new novel in translation from a much-lauded Italian author, I’d probably be as game for it as the next nerdy lit-phile with a shelf of splendid but still unread books towering precariously on a nearby nightstand. But, if that same someone were to add, by the way, the novel is about political upheaval, partisan treachery, and ground-breaking law changes made to a city system in extreme duress, I’d just as well continue in the eye-gouging malaise of a CNN viewer.
Yet, Andrea Camilleri’s The Revolution of the Moon beats the odds, rendering a fascinating story built on a true historical moment and managing to sell me a political novel in a time when I’m the least likely to read anything political.
When the elephantine Viceroy don Angel de Guzmàn, marquis of Castel de Roderigo, slumps silently and deathly during a session of the Holy Royal Council, the void his grotesque body leaves in the structure of the Council is pronounced. This happens in the first few pages, a scene which then slides deliciously forward, setting into motion the crux of the novel: how the late don Angel’s newlywed wife Donna Eleonora di Mora becomes Viceroy in his stead––“the only woman in the world at the time to rise to so high a political and administrative office.” This last sentiment is pulled from Camilleri’s postscript, where it is shared that The Revolution of the Moon originates from the factual, though often footnote-relegated, chronicles of the Spanish viceroys of Sicily, when the real widow doña Eleonora di Mora succeeded her late husband as the first female to hold such a powerful political position.
From this historical aperture, Camilleri spins a novel webbed in law changes and Council decisions, as Donna Eleonora undoes the whole of the grifting, glutted, corrupt landscape of Grand Captains, Councillors, and Bishops.
Donna Eleonora crossed the great hall before the spell-bound eyes of all present, stopped in front of the empty throne of the king, bowed her head, stepped aside, gracefully ascended the three steps, sat down on the thronelet, adjusted her dress, then slowly raised the black veil, uncovering her face.
It was as though there had suddenly appeared, in the darkness of the hall, a point of light brighter than the sun so dazzling that it brought tears to one’s eyes.
“You must all give me el signo de vuestra obediencia.”
There too is a particularly interesting and applause-worthy feature of Stephen Sartarelli’s translation, where emphasis is often placed on embedded bilingual dialogue without subtitle or express definition. Some are easily recognized—“I would like to know la situación actual del public treasury and how much dinero there is personally available to the viceroy”—while others are left more palpably difficult, such as this short conversation between Donna Eleonora and the protonotary:
“No está de acuerdo?”
“With all due respect, no.”
“No está de acuerdo sobre el subsidio o sobre la procedura?”
While this technique can occasionally bind a reader for a moment or two, the embedded language is always contextualized and also serves to give the reader an eerily parallel experience to the men who surround Donna Eleonora, ranking political figures who, although familiar with her language, often can’t understand her ways and are left swimming in her careful and calculated decisions.
And there, in the ever-wise and gentle governing decrees of Donna Eleonora’s reign, is the heart of the novel. When she takes power as viceroy, the city of Palermo has just recovered from years of famine and disease that left an implacable mark on the city.
. . . little by little the carnage ceased. But the consequences lasted a long time, in the form of orphaned boys and girls of all ages who had nothing to eat and resorted to stealing and alms-begging; widows and girls who had nothing to sell but their bodies; and continuous acts of violence and rampant corruption common to all.
But in 1677 Palermo, Donna Eleonora is fighting so much more than their history:
. . . if a man hadn’t been able to resolve them, certainly a woman couldn’t either.
Since, in fact, it was well-known that a woman was worth far less than a man. And sometimes even less than a good animal.
And if, by chance, she should get it into her head that she was worth more, she must be put back in her place at once.
The fight here is not just political, but gendered, illuminating the power and intelligence of this woman, her fortitude and resilience in the face of such degradation. Donna Eleonora creates, in the single cycle of the moon, a new world where overburdened fathers are given recompense, bread prices are halved to feed the hungry, all guilds enjoy equal support, and orphaned and prostituted women are lifted from the gutter and placed in caring and incorruptible establishments. Even in the face of unspeakable acts between bishops and young boys, Donna Eleonora does not hesitate:
“But now you’ve got me wondering whether this isn’t all a maneuver whose ultimate purpose is to absolve the bishop of the accusations.”
“As long as I am here, that will never happen,” donna Eleonora said firmly.
Camilleri is the bestselling author of the Inspector Montalbano series, and fans of his other novels already in translation will find the familiar tenets of investigation and mystery, murder and deceit in the pages of The Revolution of the Moon, yet there is so much more. Based on a truly captivating moment in history, Camilleri shows us how a woman triumphed over remarkable obstacles and, in the face of ceaseless scrutiny, how she proved to the world that she was as an unwavering as the brightest moon.