History in perspective in Ana Maria Moix's Vals negro.
Each of the novel's six chapters--chronological vignettes of the life of the Austro-Hungarian Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria (a.k.a. Sissi)-is focalized with indirect free-style narrations that suggest six different Rashomonian first-person points of view. The variety of these perspectives is expanded even further through the inclusion of seemingly endless opinions about Sissi, ranging from official reports, newspaper articles, eye-witness accounts, legends, rumors and innuendo. As Alice R. Clemente states, the "narrative voice cedes its perspective to a series of witnesses" (329) who distort Sissi's life and history through the lens of their own particular reality. Moix's novel is a study in cubistic perspectivism which considers how the empress's husband, in-laws, servants, subjects, and friends might interpret (or misinterpret) her liberal political beliefs and her tendencies toward lesbianism, anorexia and clinical depression.
Since the narrators--particularly the male narrators--do not under stand their subject, and Sissi herself is practically silenced (1) readers are offered only fragmentary and contradictory glimpses of the empress. The desire for understanding is thwarted, the promise of in-depth comprehension, denied.
Certain chapters particularly foreground the unreliability of the narrators and the unknowns/unknowables which preclude true understanding; because of space considerations, I will limit my comments in this paper to the prologue and first two chapters. The prologue--the only chapter which does not follow the chronological order of the rest of the book--begins at the end, describing Sissi's assassination at the hands of an Italian anarchist in 1898. As the only chapter with a third-person omniscient narrator, it may appear, at first, to offer a more neutral, "truthful" biographical history than that found in the personalized perspectives of other chapters' narrative voices, but the prologue's beautiful, poetic descriptiveness belies the idea of journalistic impartiality. Sissi--dressed in perpetual mourning after the suicide of her son Rudolph, the only male heir to the throne--is called "La Dama Negra." Her encounter with "La Dama Blanca," the apparition who always warned her of the upcoming deaths of family members and who now greets her as the embodiment of Death, is described in "quasi-lyrical, legendary" (Clemente 329) terms.
Still, the prologue begins with the cold efficiency of a newspaper article, clarifying historical space and time: "Una dama blanca y otra negra coincidieron en los muelles de la ciudad de Ginebra la manana del 10 de septiembre de 1898" (7). It continues as if it were a police report: the second paragraph contains a twelve-line-long parenthetical list of every person who was present at the moment the empress was attacked. This roster of witnesses is so static that it suggests a tableau; the only noteworthy action--the stabbing of a stiletto into the empress's heart has yet to be disclosed to the reader.
In spite of the prologue's precision, there is a pretense of great mysteriousness, since the narrator avoids naming both the empress and the crime perpetrated against her. But this "mystery" will be mitigated by the knowledge that most readers bring to the novel. Thus, for example, although La Dama Negra's real name is not revealed until page sixteen, the use of Sissi's preferred pseudonym, "condesa Hohenembs" (8), and references to "la extravagante viajera" (10), "[l]a ilustre dama" (12) and, finally, "el real cadaver" (15), "la ahora difunta" (15), or "la dama muerta" (15) will not create any difficulties in comprehension for a reader with even the most basic knowledge of the subject of the novel. In fact, a simple glance at the blurb on the back cover would be enough to define the protagonist as: "Princesa de Baviera, ultima emperatriz consorte de Austria-Hungria, anorexica, republicana, lectora de poetas, frecuentadora de dementes, bohemios y revolucionarios, Sissi."
Furthermore, many readers will approach the novel with the a priori knowledge of Sissi's famous assassination, if not from their history books, than through the Romy Schneider movies which celebrated the legend of Sissi's life and death. The publication of Moix's novel just four years prior to the centennial of Sissi's death makes it even more likely that contemporary readers would have heard something about her in the news. (2) Thus the deathly implications of the mysterious "escena" (7) which takes place with La Dama Blanca may be more readily apparent to the reader than to the confused protagonist. Similarly, when one witness "se echo a llorar y dijo haber tenido siempre el presentimiento de que, tarde o temprano, sucederia lo que acababa de ocurrir" (8), readers will have no difficulty in surmising that "lo que acababa de ocurrir" was the assassination, even though it has not yet been mentioned in the text.
Throughout the prologue, the authority of the omniscient narrator who presumably recounts historical fact is undermined by the numerous witnesses' contradictory opinions. They agree that "todo ocurrio tan deprisa que no tuvieron tiempo de darse cuenta de nada" (8), but this does not impede them from broadcasting their contradictory beliefs. Discrepancies arise between what the witnesses perceive ("un supuesto ladron" (7)) and reality (the assassin), between precise historical facts ("[e]l vapor de linea de las 13,40 en direccion a Montreux" (7)) and misinformation or emotional outbursts. The prologue takes on the appearance of a whodunit with its heinous crime and the witnesses' unreliable reports introduced by phrases such as "hay quien asegura" (7), "hubo quienes dijeron" (8), or "[s]e decia que [...]" (8).
In addition to confusion, the prologue highlights silence and a lack of information. For example, while dozens of people witnessed the attack on Sissi, they failed to comprehend its severity and allowed the boat that was carrying the fatally wounded empress to set sail. After Sissi fainted and the wound on her chest was discovered, "nadie pronuncio palabra" (14). The empress failed to recognize La Dama Blanca who foretold her death and remained unaware that the assassin had chosen her name from the newspaper when his preferred victim--Enrique de Orleans--failed to appear as scheduled. The narrator insists on Sissi's lack of knowledge through a series of negations such as: "no tenia noticia," "[t]ampoco sabia," "ignoraba, ademas," and "desconocia tambien" (11). A more general ignorance is emphasized in statements like "ni el dueno del Beau Rivage ni nadie, en Ginebra ni en ningun lugar del mundo [...], nadie habia visto nunca a la Dama Blanca" (8).
After the assassination, continued ignorance was assured since pertinent information generally "no salio en los periodicos" (17). Even when important news was published, the newspapers remained unread. For example, it was reported that the assassin eventually committed suicide in jail, but "ni el dueno del hotel Beau Rivage ni el capitan de vapor de linea [...] lo leerian en las cronicas de sucesos de los periodicos" (17). Even in those cases when the newspapers were read, silence was still maintained. The emperor, for instance, learned of the assassin's suicide, but "con nadie la comentaria" (18). Throughout the prologue, ignorance and silence continue; knowledge is not shared.
In Chapter One, the lack of knowledge stems more directly from the narrator's inability to apprehend and convey historically accurate information. Chapter One takes place in 1848, fifty years before the prologue and six years prior to Sissi's marriage, on the day her future husband, Francisco Jose, is crowned emperor. It sets the stage for life in the court over which Sissi will eventually nominally reign. Sissi's presence is merely foreshadowed in this chapter to the extent that it is clear that the new emperor must soon fulfill his duty to find a wife to bear children for the throne. The narrator knows nothing about the emperor's future bride: "Quien sabe con quien se casara Francisco Jose. Quien sabe quien sera la nueva emperatriz de Austria" (43). Of course readers do know, thus again undermining the supposed mystery of the novel and the narrator's presumed authority as the conveyer of historical fact.
The focalizing narrator of this chapter is Sissi's future father-in-law, the archduke Francisco Carlos, who is so lazy and mentally incapacitated that his own wife believes him unable to assume the responsibilities of the throne. Francisco Carlos readily agrees to abdicate in favor of his son, Sissi's future husband; he understands that renouncing the title of emperor spares him such tiresome duties of state as "intentando memorizar los cambios sufridos en el mapa de Europa" (37). Sissi's future father-in-law is, then, mentally incapable of being a reliable narrator; in fact, the slightest attempt to understand what is occurring around him exhausts him to such an extent that he decides that everything "le importa un bledo" (41). His account is gap-filled since, as with his throne, he simply abdicates narratorial responsibility.
In this way, Chapter One foregrounds the unreliability of narration and the difficulties in discovering the "truth." The first line begins: "En Viena, aunque parezca mentira [...]" (19) and continues to recount incompatible versions of historical fact. The emperor and his ministers are described as uninformed while the reader is privy to ideas that "ni al emperador ni a sus ministros se les ha ocurrido pensar" (19) and that "nadie sospechaba" (20). Reported facts are "fragmentados, confusos, incluso contradictorios" (22). The reader is offered information that is simply what "la imaginacion popular fantaseara" (22) or hypothetical suppositions: "Quiza, quiza le hubiera gustado. Aunque no esta muy seguro. Se trata de una posibilidad" (27).
But this chapter has an outside narrator with knowledge about future events which the focal narrator, Sissi's father-in-law, cannot know (nor would he choose to know these facts, even if he had the opportunity, since he blithely believes that "[l]o que deba ser, sera" (43)). The outside narrator flaunts his anachronistic knowledge through winking asides addressed to the reader such as: "si asi ocurre--y asi ocurrira" (40). Thus, while the reader is generally only allowed access to the first narrator's unsatisfactory understanding of events, there are times when the reader is privy to knowledge of the future and discovers, for example, that the narrator only has "once anos de vida" (41) remaining.
While the first chapter merely sets the stage for Sissi's eventual appearance, she is central to Chapter Two, which consists of varied accounts of the royal wedding written by the secretary to the secretary of the Belgian ambassador. This thrice-removed account of the sixteenyearold Sissi's wedding foregrounds the second secretary's thought processes as he selects the information to include in his numerous reports, written in the forged words and penmanship of the Belgian ambassador. This chapter displays the biases and misinformation inherent in any historical account as the second secretary slants his reports according to the likes and needs of his various audiences, which range from a general newspaper reader to both the mistress and the mother of the ambassador. The secretary to the secretary to the ambassador composes "largos parrafos en distintas hojas que, posteriormente, decidiria a quien correspondia dirigir [...] atendiendo a los intereses de cada cual" (52).
The second secretary bases many of his "facts" on information plagiarized from "[un] monton de recortes de prensa" (51), on rumors culled from his boss's lover (the royal hairdresser), and on "los chismorreos de salon" (80). His writing process brings to mind the children's game of "Telephone" where information--which is whispered from one person to the next--becomes progressively more corrupt from the original. The second secretary's reliability is placed into further question by his exhaustion (he stays up all night to finish his reports) and by his consumption of an entire bottle of absinthe: "como en el [caso] de todos los grandes escritores, la noche y la botella llegan juntas a su fin" (84).
The second secretary is a self-conscious narrator who brags that one of his sentences is "afortunada" (47) and another "una pequena obra maestra" (58). He believes his style displays his "extraordinaria facilidad" for writing (49), although he admits to a certain "precipitacion estilistica" (51) since he must compose his reports in a hurry. When he realizes that a particular paragraph might be too long, he muses that "si el habia perdido unas horas de su vida enterandose de asuntos que nada le importaban [...] justo era que los funcionarios de la cancilleria [...] perdieran unos minutos de la suya leyendo su cronica" (77).
The secretary of the secretary is unconcerned by the misinformation that often slips into his reports; he doubts, for example, "entre esforzarse por recordar el nombre del personaje palaciego al que iba a citar o inventarselo, ya que, a fin de cuentas [...] nadie en la cancilleria de Bruselas lo conocia" (64). He fears that he may have "caido en alguna que otra inexactitud" (65) when he reported that one of the princesses had lost her voice, but claims that it does not matter: "lo cierto es que algo perdio: voz o diente, ?que mas daba?, ?en que podia perjudicarla el error?" (65).
The admitted inaccuracies in his reports do not concern him since he understands that "en la cancilleria nadie leia los periodicos" (51). On the other hand, he knows that anything he writes to the ambassador's mother will be immediately leaked throughout the Belgian court: "eso era precisamente lo que el embajador queria (que su madre difundiera a los cuatro helados vientos de la imperterrita corte belga los secretos que le pedia guardar)" (57). Thus, in contrast to what one might expect, the information reported in the newspapers is effectively silenced, but any secrets revealed to the ambassador's mother will immediately become common knowledge. The second secretary understands the power of gossip since "todo el mundo cre[e] lo que todo el mundo dice" (65).
The second secretary puts on various masks as he addresses the ambassador's friends and family. Like Cyrano, he composes love letters to his boss's mistress, an actress he himself greatly admires. He attempts to impress her with a letter where, in the forged handwriting and style of the ambassador, he brags about himself in the third person. In this letter, he cites "[e]l talento realmente insustituible del secretario del secretario de esta Embajada. Un hombre [...] del que el pueblo belga, el gobierno, la corona y Su Majestad el rey Leopoldo se sentiran orgullosos algun no muy lejano dia, ya que a sus extraordinarias dotes para la carrera diplomatica ha sumado el cielo las del divino don de la poesia" (68-69). He is "orgulloso de su astucia" (69) for devising this ventriloquial method of tooting his own horn. His chameleonic style changes abruptly when he writes--again, as if he were the ambassador--to the ambassador's mother, insisting on his filial love and devotion: "?Lo adivinas, maman? ?Imaginas que delicada cuestion se lleva entre manos tu hijo, ese hijo que tanto te quiere y siempre te cuenta, a ti la primera, las novedades mas sorprendentes de Europa [...]?" (57).
This chapter about words, language and truth successfully juxtaposes the second secretary's wordiness with the reticence of the new empress Sissi who "apenas habla" (69). While she is harshly criticized for many different breaches of court protocol, it is her silence that incurs the greatest wrath since the members of her court are not allowed to begin a conversation in her presence. Her decision not to speak is accompanied by a corresponding lack of action, including her refusal to consummate her marriage for three days. Sissi's silent but persistent negation of her marriage is a statement in and of itself, but her resistance is overcome and her mute protest is ridiculed in the court.
In contrast with Sissi's willful wordlessness, the royal servants spread hurtful rumors about their new empress. One of the emperor's advisors "se habia ido de la lengua" (71), informing the entire court that the new bride was still a virgin. Thus, Sissi was forced to suffer "las sonrisitas de las damas" (71) and overhear jokes about the "'resistente virginidad de las campesinas bavaras'" (71). Another servant proclaims that the empress refuses to open her mouth "para no ensenar la mala dentadura que Dios le ha dado, y para evitar que se descubra su escaso conocimiento de la lengua francesa" (81). Like almost all questions of historical fact in this novel, the possible truth of the servants' gossip remains unclear. In any case, the servants' cruel chattiness makes Sissi's stoic silence appear all the more admirable as she stubbornly refuses to justify or explain her behavior and motivations.
But Sissi's silence throughout the novel leaves the reader--like Sissi's contemporaries--uncertain as to whether they truly understand her. Attempting to find the "real" Sissi beneath the near deluge of fragmentary perspectives, the reader is reduced--like the narrators--to studying her from an outside perspective, trying to "read" her based on rumor, hearsay, mere glimpses. Each reader will form an opinion, create her own personalized version of Sissi's "reality" based on both the perceived "facts" and the reader's own biases or preconceived notions. The reader will simply create one more perspective, the last voice among the chorus of voices which attempt to contain and define the empress.
By emphasizing the varied "truths" of many narrative perspectives, Vals negro implicitly questions the possibility of acquiring understanding or knowledge. Historical truth is seen as nothing more than a beautiful illusion, and those who set out in search of it perform their own beautiful but ultimately fruitless vals negro, circling endlessly, hypnotically, and going nowhere except around in circles.
Caso, Angeles. Elisabeth de Austria-Hungria. Barcelona: Planeta, 1993.
--. Elisabeth de Austria-Hungria: Album privado. 3a ed. Barcelona: Planeta, 1998. Clemente, Alice R. "Ana Maria Moix. Vals negro." World Literature Today. Spring 1995. 329-30.
Fabre, Jaume. "Sissi, lejos de Romy Schneider." El Periodico: Cultura. 15 junio 1994. 1. Moix, Ana Maria. Vals negro. Barcelona: Lumen, 1994.
(1) In real life, on the other hand, Sissi was an obsessive writer. There are numerous examples of Sissi's poems in Angeles Caso's study, Elisabeth de Austria-Hungria: Album privado.
(2) Angeles Caso's similarly fictionalized biography, Elisabeth, emperatriz de AustriaHungria, was published at the same time as Vals negro, thus leading to their inevitable comparison. Caso's novel is written as if it were Sissi's diary; thus, in contrast to the virtual silence of Moix's Sissi, Caso's Sissi is seen entirely from her own perspective. As Jaume Fabre has pointed out, there is a disadvantage to the diary format: "uno no puede contar su propia muerte, y la obra se pierde ese momento sublime que si ha podido recrear, y con gran acierto Ana Maria Moix" (1). Caso explains Sissi's murder in a brief afterword; Fabre chides: "Un dramon sin sublime muerte final. Ningun buen guionista habria cometido un error semejante" (1).
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