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.

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