Divine Husband (Goldman)

The Divine Husband
Francisco Goldman, 2004
468 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780802142214

The Divine Husband tells the story of Maria de las Nieves Moran, daughter of an Irish-American father and a Central American mother, whose brief career as a nun is terminated when a rapacious general closes the convents—in part to reach her beautiful, aristocratic best friend Paquita, hidden away from him in the cloister.

Maria de las Nieves makes her own way in the secular world, surrounded by an unforgettable cast of characters striving for love or success in late-nineteenth-century Central America and New York: Jose Marti, the poet and hero of nineteenth-century Cuban independence and the first man Maria de las Nieves loves; Mack Chinchilla, the Yankee-Indio entrepreneur intent on winning her hand; a stuffy British diplomat setting up a political impostor plot; and Mathilde, the daughter whose birth—perhaps fathered by one of these men—ruins María de las Nieves’s reputation and launches her on a journey to a new future in New York.

This is a joyfully imagined novel of ideas and a broad, beautifully achieved canvas populated by sassily adorable Indian girls, wandering Jewish coffee farmers, the founder of the rubber-balloon industry, and one of Latin America’s greatest and most complex men, of whom it paints an unprecedented and rich portrait. The Divine Husband is an extraordinarily inventive, poetic engagement with the meaning of literature and the writing of history. It is a rich, thrilling accomplishment that is destined to be a literary event. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Education— Hobart College; University of Michigan;
   New School for Social Research
Awards—Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction; TR Fyvel
   Freedom of Expression Book Award; Guggenheim Fellow-
Currently—lives in Mexico City, Mexico and New York

Francisco Goldman is an American novelist, journalist, and Allen K. Smith Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Trinity College. He is workshop director at Fundacion Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano (FNPI), the journalism school for Latin-America created by Gabriel García Márquez. Goldman is also known as Francisco Goldman Molina, "Frank" and "Paco".

Goldman was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a Guatemalan Catholic mother and Jewish-American father. He attended Hobart College, the University of Michigan and the New School for Social Research Seminar College, and studied translation at New York University. He has taught at Columbia University in the MFA program; Brooklyn College; the Institute of New Journalism (founded by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) in Cartagena, Colombia; Mendez Pelayo Summer Institute in Santander, Spain; the North American Institute in Barcelona, Spain. He has been a resident of UCross Foundation. Francisco Goldman was awarded the Mary Ellen von der Heyden fellowship for Fiction and was spring 2010 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

His first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens (1992), won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and his second, The Ordinary Seaman (1997), was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was short-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

In November 2007, he acted as guest-fiction editor for Guernica Magazine. "The Ordinary Seaman" was named one of the 100 Best American Books of the Century by The Hungry Mind Review. He was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998 and of a New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship in 2000-2001. His books have been translated and published in a total of eleven languages worldwide. In the 1980s, he covered the wars in Central America as a contributing editor to Harper's magazine.

Goldman's 2007 book The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? is a nonfiction account of the assassination of Guatemalan Catholic Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, a crime perpetrated by the Guatemalan military. The book, an expansion on what began as an article in The New Yorker represents the culmination of years of journalistic investigation. It was a New York Times Notable Book, and a Best Book of the Year at Washington Post Book World, The Economist, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and New York Daily News. While the book has been widely acclaimed, to some degree a predictable disinformation campaign of exactly the kind described in the book itself has been waged against it. A new afterword in the paperback edition, rebuts them. The book is the winner of the 2008 TR Fyvel Freedom of Expression Book Award from the Index on Censorship and of the 2008 Duke University-WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America) Human Rights Book Prize. It was shortlisted for the 2008 Golden Dagger Award in non-fiction and for the inaugural Warwick Prize for Writing.

In 2007 Goldman published his novel, The Divine Husband and, in 2011, Say Her Name, the account of his wife's accidental death.

Goldman's wife, Aura Estrada, died in a bodysurfing accident in Mexico in 2007, which he documents in his 2011 memoir, Say Her Name. He has also established a prize in her honor, The Aura Estrada Prize, to be given every two years to a female writer, 35 or under, who writes in Spanish and lives in the USA or Mexico. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
As in Francisco Goldman's previous two novels—especially his more recent, the intermittently stunning Ordinary Seaman—the characters in The Divine Husband are driven by various kinds of illusions, and like Quixote, they recognize them as illusions, yet persist in rebuilding them when they break apart. Far from being crazy, their idealism is tarnished by their sanity.
Lee Siegel - The New York Times

That Goldman's book largely succeeds in spite of this familiar material remains a testament to its author's deep imagination, stylistic verve and psychological acuity.
Michael Dirda - The Washington Post

From shards of literary and historical evidence, Goldman’s novel re-creates an interlude in the life of José Martí, the great Cuban patriot and poet. In 1877, the young Martí, exiled from Cuba for anti-Spanish activities, grew curious about the recent liberal revolution in Guatemala and took a job teaching at a women’s college there. In many ways, the novel is built around Martí’s 1891 collection “Versos Sencillos,” one poem of which has led scholars to speculate that Martí fathered an illegitimate child in Guatemala. Goldman’s Martí is indeed wildly popular with his female students, one of whom, a former novice in a convent abolished by the liberals, is able, through prayer and intense meditation, to transport herself from one place to another—an ability that provides an apt metaphor for Goldman’s sense of both a country at a cultural crossroads and an exotic lost world.
The New Yorker

There exists a level of writing, very rare, that takes your breath away.... Love is the touchstone of Goldman's hefty, sagacious third novel, one that took him seven years to write-love religious and secular, of poetry, of nation. The Divine Husband is an alchemist's brew of history, fiction and legend.... The soul of the sweeping plot, however, is José Martí, the driven, charismatic poet and revolutionary who is the fire behind Cuba's insurgence against Spanish rule.... Vagaries of desire propel the book forward, with its dangerous journeys dedicated to the beloved, its doomed passions and tender reconciliations.... While reading this latest work, I wondered about the identity of the narrator who guides us through complex political situations...as well as through beautifully rendered personal moments. Ultimately, it is Goldman's ability to create a multifaceted world, part indefatigable research and part invention, that infuses the persona of the storyteller. His title is a poem, a query, in itself. Who or what constitutes a divine husband? Within these pages, some find the answer in faith, others in a poet-hero, still others in home and country, or in the embrace of long-sought kinship. Their journeys make for a uniquely ambitious and enlightening read.
Houston Chronicle - Lisa Jennifer Selzman

The Guatemalan-American Goldman has used the often violent modern history of Central America as the backdrop of his two previous novels. His latest plunges back to the 19th century, telling the story of a woman who might have borne an illegitimate child of the great Cuban poet, Jose Marti. First a nun, then a translator for the British ambassador, Maria de las Nieves Moran is involved with four men, one of whom is Jose Marti. Unfortunately, Marti never transcends his wooden theatricality as "the poet" in Goldman's narrative. Much more interesting are Maria's three other suitors, especially Maria's true love, a mysterious boy whom the ambassador has plucked out of obscurity and wants to make the king of the Mosquitoes, an Indian tribe on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Certain sequences (a journey to the interior of the republic, the romance between Maria and the "king" of the Mosquitos, etc.) are beautifully written. The narrative, however, loses his sense of what is central and what is peripheral. The novel suffers from too much clutter and the obsession with Marti, a bothersome McGuffin in an otherwise independently interesting story. Though a respectable entry in the author's growing oeuvre, this doesn't pack the narrative punch of Goldman's first two novels.
Publishers Weekly

Cuban poet and revolutionary Jose Marti (1853-95) spent a little over a year in Guatemala; from that biographical nugget, Goldman fabricates a complex tale set in late 19th-century Central America (the exact country is never specified). Maria de las Nieves and Paquita Aparisio grow up together as novitiates in a convent; they later pollute their upbringing, Paquita by marrying the country's ruthless dictator and Maria by having two children out of wedlock. One of the characters with whom Maria comes into close contact is Marti himself, the suspected father of Mathilde, her firstborn. The avowed purpose of this novel is, in fact, to determine who Mathilde's father is, though this is not divulged until page 400. Though the historical framework is basically sound, Goldman missed a golden opportunity to play up the Marti "man of action" connection, since the legendary Cuban hero appears far too seldom to satisfy the reader's curiosity. Even that probably wouldn't have been enough, however, to save the stilted prose; the narration reads like a stodgy treatise or a digressive journal. Not recommended. —Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., Dublin, OH.
Library Journal

Goldman returns to 19th-century Central America to trace the life and loves of a half-Indian, half-Irish near-nun who falls for Jose Marti. Sexier-than-pretty Mar'a de las Nieves Moran entered one of the many convents in her nameless little Central American homeland not for love of God but for love of her bosom friend Paquita. It's a long story (densely written, it's muy long), but nubile, adolescent, and beautiful Paquita had become the romantic object of the much older El Anticristo, anticlerical leader of the current Liberal rebel forces. Paquita had promised not to lose her virginity until Mar'a de las Nieves had lost hers, so the latter's vows should have put Paquita out of circulation forever. Not so. When El Anticristo, without too much trouble or bloodshed, seizes the country's helm, Paquita becomes the first lady and Mar'a de las Nieves, whose misunderstood sacrifice has netted little save a severe allergy for wool, is out of a job. El Anticristo and his Liberal government have disbanded the monasteries and convents, driving the career nuns into hiding and the novices back into the world. Multilingual Mar'a de las Nieves cashes in her small inheritance to buy a little house and become a functionary in the English embassy, where she becomes the object of numerous crushes. She, however, has eyes only for Cuban revolutionary poet Jose Marti, who has eyes for just about anything in a skirt in general and the beautiful daughter of the deposed president in particular, his Mexican fiancee notwithstanding. Too bad she can't see her way to loving ambitious autodidact and fellow Indio Marco Aurelio ("Mack") Chinchilla until they've both gone through more perils and upheavals than Candide and Cunegonde. Everybody winds up in New York. Informative, chatty, wry, often amusing, but not enough so that readers won't be checking their watches. Or calendars.
Kirkus Reviews

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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