Review: Saturn – Jacek Dehnel

saturnSaturn by Polish author Jacek Dehnel is a historical novel based on the life of Spanish artist Francisco Goya.  The shocking cover illustration shows one of Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings” depicting Saturn devouring one of his sons.  When Goya was in his seventies, he painted the Black Paintings directly onto the walls of his house and they reflect the pessimistic and bitter outlook which he developed towards the end of his life.

In 2003, art professor Juan José Junquera published a book suggesting that the Black Paintings were not in fact painted by Goya but rather by his son Javier.  The book was received with scepticism if not anger by other Goya experts, but Junquera’s theories are not implausible (a summary of them can be found on Wikipedia here).

Jacek Dehnel has written a fictionalised account of the last years of the lives of Goya, Javier and Javier’s son Mariano, working on the basis that Javier did indeed paint the Black Paintings, and it makes for a fascinating read.  The book interweaves first person diary-style accounts from each of the three men; the embittered Francisco, the other-worldly and confused Javier and the scheming Mariano.  As the book progresses a very credible story builds up which includes Javier beginning to paint the first few of these 14 paintings.

Before I go any further, let me mention that this is another book translated from the Polish by award-winning translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones who was responsible for the translation of the four books by Pawel Huelle which have been reviewed on this website.  I admire the way she has achieved a very different style for this book when compared with the more Polish-sounding voices in Pawel Huelle’s work.  Antonia tells me that the Jacek Dehnel’s text was peppered with 18th-century Spanish words disguised as Polish which gave her quite a challenge.  Fortunately she had access to Jacek’s research books which provided the background she needed to create her translation.

To get back to the book, Jackek Dehnel shows that the relationship between the three men, father, son and grandson, is deeply flawed.  Francisco seems to have taken a dislike to his son from the start.  Javier did not want to paint with his father and he reacted badly to Francisco’s outbursts of anger and his erratic lifestyle.  Francisco writes of his son,

He drew like a woman.  For he grew more and more like a woman altogther . . . he just crept about the house with his nose eternally in a book, pale and unhealthy . . . he always sat on a mule or a horse like a sack, nor would he go to the bullfight – he avoided me, hid in corners.

Francisco on the other hand was a riotous, philandering, boastful man who saw every woman as a potential conquest, even trying to seduce Javier’s young wife soon after Javier brought her to live in the family home.  When the book opens, Francisco has achieved considerable success and the family is wealthy, living in some style.  The house is full of expensive art materials, many of them toxic, and as we read the alternating voices of the Francisco and Javier we gain an impression of an artistic chaos which does nobody any good, but which provides fertile ground for a sort of tortured creativity which goes some way to explaining the choice of the themes of the Black Paintings.

The book includes black and white reproductions of the fourteen paintings with a brief “ekphrasis” of each one (I had to look up ekphrasis – apparently it is a graphic, often dramatic description of a work of art).  These are done rather well.

“Grey beard to the waist, hunched shoulders, but Evil is whispering in his ear; put on a pilgrim’s cloak, take a cane in your twisted hands and on the road, on the road you go!  He cannot hear a thing, not the rain, nor a shout, nor the hooting of an owl, but as if out of spite, he can hear those whispered instigations.

“It wasn’t meant to be like this: old age was meant to bring wisdom not delusions.  It was meant to be the evening, when you open your eyes from half-sleep and see the truth in all its force and painfulness, having cast off foolish illusions and juvenile hopes. Meanwhile it brings as much deception as youth, or maybe even more, for youth still has some chance of achieving something. Old age only strives towards the damp earth in the depths of the grave”. 

This struck me as a very unusual book and Jacek Dehnel creates a quite believable scenario based on the Goya family and their unhappy home-life.  Obviously the book is wholly fictional but from the glossary of other books it is clear that the author has based his work on extensive research and long immersion in the paintings of Goya.  I was reminded slightly of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring which also tries to tell the story behind the paintings of a great artist.

I have been to the Prado art gallery in Madrid where all the Black Paintings can be seen and they make a very unusual exhibit which left me wondering what they were about.  I think it would have been really useful to have read this book before I saw the paintings because even if the theories proposed in it were incorrect, the portrayal of Francisco and his family would have helped explain how the painting came about and what they signified.

This book seems to have been passed over by most reviewers but I believe it’s a very significant publication which will be of immense value to anyone with an interest in Goya; the “fictionalisation” should not detract from the fact that it’s a very well-researched book which relied on a wide range of sources resulting in a very believable picture of Francisco Goya and his family.

14 thoughts on “Review: Saturn – Jacek Dehnel

  1. This sounds excellent. I was fascinated by the Goyas in the Prado too, and I love books about artists (such as Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland which I’ve reviewed on my blog). I reckon I’d love this book!


    • Hi Lisa – I’ll read your article on Luncheon of the Boating Party . I rather like this sort of thing. The Prado is a great place to visit isn’t it.


  2. My goodness, how could you have these paintings staring at you from the walls of your house on a daily basis?! They are most disturbing, and when I first saw them I thought they were illustrations from Dante’s Inferno for Hell is what they depict to me.


    • Bellezza – well, I think you’d have to be a little disturbed to even paint them! They look quite good in the art gallery though. Thanks for visiting


  3. I *loved* the Prado. We bought our tickets in advance in Australia so we didn’t waste any time in queues but still our day wasn’t long enough. I wrote a bit about it on my travel blog ( but now I wish I’d made a bit more of an effort and written a lot more.
    Ah well, I’ll just have to go back again!


    • Lisa – it’s very interesting to browse your travel blog. You have been very diligent in writing so much for posterity. No doubt future visitors to those places stumble across them via Google and learn some useful tips before they go.


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