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Divine Husband (Goldman) - Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions
1. Francisco Goldman has written an extensively researched historical novel full of real-life details that intermingle with invented ones. There are the historical documents and events-José Martí's writings, Cesar Romero's television appearance claiming Martí as his grandfather, the hagiography of Sor María de Agreda, the espionage plot involving Dr. Slam, and the broad outlines of the life of the real Francisca Aparicio. And there are Goldman's inventions: José Martí's spoken dialogue, the Pinkerton report, the Batman episode, and María de las Nieves. What was your reaction to Goldman's richly textured novel?

2. Goldman has called the historical novel "pure humbug.... it's ridiculous to pretend you're actually giving a realistic depiction of how things were. To me the past is pure fiction." In what sense is the past "pure fiction"? Why is fiction even relevant to an exploration of history? What can fiction do that "pure" history cannot?

3. In The Divine Husband the narrator strives to uncover the paternity of Mathilde, with a particular eye to José Martí. To what extent would you call this question of paternity the novel's subject? Or would you describe Goldman's subject in wholly other terms?

4. According to the narrator, an "historic vow" (p. 6) made by two thirteen-year-old convent girls "influence[s] the history of that small Central American republic" (p. 3). What is Goldman suggesting about the place of women and domestic concerns in history? Who in the novel makes history?

5. How did you feel about the novel's portrayal of José Martí? Though he is its most historically important character, and his significance hovers over the novel, he gets very little time to speak and act for himself. In fact, Goldman had researched José Martí extensively enough to write a book simply on him, but arguably it is María de las Nieves who provides the book its center of gravity. What does Goldman's choice suggest about his subject? What did it say to you about the knowability of great historical heroes? About the concerns Goldman was interested in engaging in his novel?

6. On the first page Goldman proposes an analogy: "what if love, earthly or divine, is to history as air is to a rubber balloon?" (p. 3). How important is this idea in the novel? And how important is love in The Divine Husband? How does love affect history, not only our personal histories but also our political histories?

7. Convents fall under the ultimate critique—elimination—within the course of the novel (although more than secular ideology drives their closure). The convent is often portrayed as a harsh, unyielding environment that suppresses young women, body and soul. How does Goldman depict the cloistered religious life, so censured by the modern age?

8. Why does María de las Nieves rebel against the convent? What did her obsession with sneezing, and her wool allergy, represent? What might it mean that she has a quasi-religious vision, and that her wool allergy returns at the baths at Don Ky's, when she does not yet know she is pregnant?

9. José Martí tells María de las Nieves, "You represent the new American intelligence, María de las Nieves. You will be a mother of our new America" (p. 217). What do you take these words to mean? What idea of the "new America" surfaces in the book?

10. How does the book use María de las Nieves as a personification of our tendency to "keep secrets" in order to idealize great historical figures—as was certainly the case among those who were close to José Martí? How do you interpret María de las Nieves's story of trilocation during the conception of Carlos Lopez, and her evolution into one of the very scholars responsible for Martí's idealized image?

11. What is the place of revolutionary movements in the novel? Of violence? How would you characterize Goldman's depiction of El Anticristo? Of Paquita? How does the novel handle the question of Paquita's guilt by association?

12.The Divine Husband is full of religions of all different sorts. Catholicism predominates, but native animism, shamanism, Judaism, and the Popol Vuh are all alluded to. After Mack Chinchilla leaves La Pequeña Paris, he even participates in the War of the Caves with a shaman who has created his own blend of several of these faiths. What is the place of religion in the novel? How does Goldman portray religion in the modern world?

13. Goldman creates a vivid sense of the exploding possibilities of capitalism and industry in The Divine Husband, for example, the Jewish florists who set up shop in La Pequena Paris and the coffee-importing firm for which Mack Chinchilla works in New York. What is the role of work in the novel? How do the nineteenth-century changes Goldman describes-the secularization of governments, increases in international trade-influence the nature of work? How does the novel illuminate the relationship between the United States and its neighbors to the south?

14. The novel takes place in an era when international travel, while possible, was extremely arduous. Yet there are many adventurers in the book seeking a better life by traveling to countries with greater opportunity—for example, Don José, the Nahon brothers, the shipload of Italians, Sor Gertrudis, and Mack Chinchilla. What are each of these characters seeking, in spite of the hardship of travel? How is Paquita and María de las Nieves's journey to New York of a different type than these other journeys?

15. La Pequeña Paris, in the novel, is a cosmopolitan metropolis, peopled with Indians, Spaniards, Spanish-Indian mestizos, North Americans, Europeans, tearaways from the Jewish Diaspora, even a random family of what we might today call German hippies. There are also several characters who change their names—Mack Chinchilla and Don José Przyzpyz, for example. What do you think about the way Goldman handles ethnicity in the book?

16. When speaking about the structure of The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman paraphrased Flaubert: "The right structure only comes along when the illusion of the subject becomes an obsession." Goldman went on to say that you "follow the story that's emerging, and eventually, in a very slow motion kaleidoscope, the form begins to take place." As a reader, what was your experience of the book's movement through time? How might a more linear structure have changed the experience of the book and even its meaning?

17. Francisco Goldman has said the following about The Divine Husband: "I wanted to write an antirealism, as opposed to, say, even a magic realism. I was dreaming of going hunting for that strange beast of a novel that's like none we've ever seen before." What do you think he meant? Is The Divine Husband a "strange beast"? Is it antirealistic? How is it distinct from the magic realism of a writer like Gabriel Garcia Marquez? How would you describe the mystical bi-location in the novel-as magic realism, antirealism, or something else?

18. Finally, the title The Divine Husband accrues considerable complexity by the end of the book. It refers in a literal sense to Jesus Christ, the Divine husband that nuns are "married" to. But in the book, María de las Nieves renounces the divine husband she is promised to and goes back out into el Siglo, the world. Who, in the universe of the novel, is María de las Nieves's real "divine husband"? Does the novel have a definition of true love? Did its final romantic resolution satisfy you?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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