In a “perfect” novel, you wouldn’t notice narration. The perspective provided by the text would be so clear, so seamless, that the reader would have complete comprehension of the characters and plot. Of course, there is no “perfect” novel. Authors are constrained by language and struggle with the perspective of the narrator in their storytelling. In I Am Venus, Bárbara Mujica attempts to break free of those narrative constraints. I cannot say that I thought the experiment was totally successful, but I do appreciate the desire for enhanced perspective without multiple narrators that the author was striving to achieve.
The story starts with a prologue, in which the mysterious model for Diego Velásquez’s “The Toilette of Venus” describes the secret conditions that accompanied creation of the painting. Now in Britain’s National Gallery, “Venus” is the painter’s only extant nude, because the strict conservatism of the Catholic Church in Spain forbade painters from depicting illicit scenes. It caused a sensation when it was eventually found in the collection of a Spanish noble, but Velásquez managed to avoid prosecution because of the mythological subject matter: by adding Cupid holding a mirror, the painter went from pornographer to classicist under the Inquisitorial logic of the time.
The story focuses more on the life of Velásquez and his family than on the painting of Venus, however. This was where the peculiarities of the narration became apparent – and frankly distracting. The narration changed from first person to third person when the narrator was describing things about which she had no direct knowledge. However, it became clear that the first person narrator was also describing herself in the third person, as though she is looking on at her own life in an objective way – subjecting herself to the artist’s gaze, in a way. The choice is interesting, of course, because Velásquez famously used mirrors in both “The Toilette of Venus” and “Las Meninas” to work beyond the limiting borders of a flat canvas, giving it a 3-dimensional quality. And in “Las Meninas,” the artist boldly inserted himself into a portrait of the royal family, turning the painter himself into a subject. Perhaps that's what Mujica was trying to recreate with her fictitious author.
I liked the subject matter of this book very much. I knew next to nothing about Velásquez and the court of Felipe IV before I read it, so I really enjoyed learning about the history of post-Armada Spain. I was especially curious about the life of the painter after having the chance to see his Baroque masterpiece, “Las Meninas,” in the Prado a few years ago. I’d seen a hundred depictions of it, but seeing it in person was absolutely inspiring – it’s both beautiful and playful at the same time. So I was grateful for Mujica’s ability to bring the great master to life.
I was less satisfied by the character development in the book, however. I never got to love any of the main characters. This is especially odd considering who the mysterious model turns out to be in the end, but I don’t want to go into details. Suffice it to say that when I got to the end I felt like the narration choice made even less sense in retrospect. But maybe that’s just me. I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, so you can read other opinions of the book by following the links here. I received a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion. Thanks, as always, to Lisa for including me on the tour.