Thursday, September 29, 2011

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

(In which hope outlives death.)

***
To begin with, there was only sleep, a great, deep well of it, our bodies greedy for the oblivion that comes with safety. . . I think sometimes now about that sleep, for I have never felt anything like it before or after; it had such sweetness that I might be tempted to trade Paradise for the promise of such profound forgetfulness. But we were not ready to die, and on the morning of the third day, I wake to spears of light through broken shutters and a stabbing hunger in my gut. I thought of our kitchen in Rome; its roasted fish, its skin crisp and bubbling from the oven, the thick taste of capon stuffed with rosemary and garlic, and the way the warm honey oozed from [the cook’s] almond cakes, so that you almost had to eat the tips of your fingers to be satisfied. . .

– page 44
Such were the thoughts that filled the mind of a courtesan’s dwarf, Bucino, on their first days in Venice, after they escaped death’s claw at the second sacking of Rome. He travels to Venice together with his bald lady Fiammetta Bianchini who, like him, is bloodied and penniless and whose stomach is empty of food but not of precious gems they had to swallow in order to salvage. And in that great and prosperous city, they work so hard to bring back the fortunes that they lost in the other city, with Fiammetta as the charming courtesan and Bucino the clever pimp. But the way to the lost fortune is not to be taken without the help of an old caretaker, an old friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again from Rome and a blind and crippled healer. All of whom are actually threats as much as they are succors.

With
In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant once again shows her magic with descriptive details akin to The Birth of Venus that it is almost impossible for a reader not to be enslaved by the charm of the characters and places in this unforgettable historical novel. If one finds himself/herself salivating over the picture of a sumptuous meal created retrospectively, then the conflicts due to complicated human relationships can appear as truthful as real life.

Being a story about a woman whose morals and virtues were already sold as part of a training scheme to become successful in the business of male desires, it is noteworthy that the novel speaks of trust, friendship, camaraderie and most astonishingly, love, all throughout. It reminds us how easily friendships can crumble at the sight of jealousy and mischief, how lives were wiped away by lies and deceit. But in the end, the most valuable lesson lies in not what it is seen, but felt.


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In the Company of the Courtesan
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