Thursday, June 28, 2018

What is a good historical novel

Battle of Borodino, by Louis-François Lejeune
In the previous post I mentioned War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy as a paradigmatic example of a good historical novel. In my opinion, the three golden rules for good historical novels are the following:
1.      The main characters are fictitious: In the case of War and Peace those characters are Pierre, Natasha, Prince André and their relatives, friends and spouses.
2.      The real historical characters are secondary: In War and Peace the historical characters are Napoleon, Alexander I of Russia and General Kutuzov. These characters act in the novel exactly as they did in reality. Regarding them, facts are not invented, they are interpreted.
3.      The lives of both groups of characters are intertwined perfectly.

Garden of monsters at Bomarzo
In contrast, consider another famous historical novel: Bomarzo, by the Argentine writer Manuel Mujica Láinez. It is very well written and presents an excellent picture of the Italian Renaissance, but does not meet the golden rules. The main character and narrator, the Duke of Bomarzo, really existed. By presenting him as a monster of evil, something not proven by historical data, the author commits, in my opinion, something not very far from a libel. Since the publication of this book, the Duke of Bomarzo, who was practically unknown for the public, has become a famous character, endowed with the characteristics the novel assigns to him, which are not at all flattering and which perhaps don’t conform to reality.
I’m going to take the liberty of mentioning my own works. I am the author of eight historical novels, plus a couple of science fiction novels that can be classified as historical, as they introduce journeys in time to the past. I will name a few:
·      In my prehistoric novel The Water of Life I had full freedom. As it takes place in an indeterminate time and place, prior to written history, there are no real characters in the book.
·         The Heirloom of KingScorpion takes place just before the reign of Manes, first pharaoh of the first dynasty in Ancient Egypt. The main character is the pharaoh himself, who is practically unknown in history, even more so at his age in the book, so I had to invent almost everything.
·         The ruby of the Ganges, which won the Lazarillo Award. It takes place during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in British India. This novel complies with the golden rules, for the main characters (Svapiti and the two children, plus the ruby itself) are invented, while real characters (like the maharani of Khansi) play a secondary role.
·         Beyond the black hole, a science fiction novel whose main character (a drug-addict teen-ager) falls in a black hole and is transported to the nineteenth century, where mixing with people with very different culture helps him to overcome his limitations. This novel also complies with the golden rules, as all the real characters (such as Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill) play secondary roles.
·    Although this book is not translated into English, I will mention the first novel in my Roman-Hispanic trilogy: The Seal of Aeolus. This novel also follows the golden rules. The main characters, Flavius Aeolius and Zenobia (or Zabbai) are invented, the same as other characters around them. A few historical people also take part in the story, such as Emperor Marcus Aurelius, his "brother" and co-emperor Lucius Verus, and the legate Avidius Casius, but they are secondary and do exactly what they did in history. Even the words pronounced by Marcus Aurelius are really his own words, for I took them from his book Meditations.

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Manuel Alfonseca

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