The Castrato: Joyce Pool

★★

When I saw that this book was available for advance review, I jumped on it immediately. In theory, this story of a young castrato studying in Florence in the twilight years of the Medici dynasty couldn’t have been further up my street if it had tried. The protagonist is even offered the lead in a Scarlatti setting of Arminio! I looked forward to being immersed in the sensual splendour of Florence circa 1698, rich with art and texture and music, but alas that didn’t happen. In fact, the book turned out to be such a slog that I doubt I’d have finished it if I didn’t have to review it. More unfortunately, I suspect that the real problem here is that of the translator, not the author.

The Castrato is the translation into English of a Dutch historical novel first published in 2013. The author, Joyce Pool, has written extensively for the young adult market, at which this novel is also aimed, and I suspect that if I had been able to read the Dutch version I would have found it a far more successful piece of work. Indeed, the Dutch original was shortlisted for a literary prize in 2013. Unfortunately, the English translation renders it a clumsy piece of work, full of inappropriate modernisms, awkward dialogue and contextually inappropriate use of Italian. I don’t know who is responsible for this, but they have done Pool no favours, adding further issues to a book that has some integral problems of its own.

When we first meet Angelo Montegne, he’s twelve years old and lives in Fiesole with his father, a tanner, his aunt Ignatia and his sister Mariana. Most of Angelo’s time is spent helping his father in their shop, but he is also a core member of the church choir, where his beautiful voice has drawn the attention of the master. When tempted with the chance to sing solo for the Pope, who will visit Fiesole later in the year, Angelo auditions in front of an audience of distinguished visitors. Among them are two teachers from the conservatorio in Florence. When Angelo’s family circumstances change for the worse, these teachers are there to offer him a way out: come to Florence, they say; live comfortably; study singing. What they don’t tell him is that his agreement will mean an irrevocable sacrifice on his part, which will secure his lovely voice forever but also strip away his chances ever to have a wife and children. As Angelo progresses in his studies, he discovers that the life of a castrato can lead to unimaginable luxury – but is he prepared to make the necessary further sacrifices? Should he follow wealth and submit to the advances of the effeminate Ferdinando de’ Medici, or follow his heart and succumb to the charms of the effervescent Rosa, daughter of the composer Alessandro Scarlatti?

Indulge me with some pedantry for a moment. This book may be ‘young adult’ but that doesn’t mean it can’t be accurate. Ferdinando de’ Medici is constantly referred to as ‘Prince De Medici’, when if anything he should be addressed as ‘Prince Ferdinando’. There’s no contextual information about this ‘prince’ and you could easily come away from this book imagining that the Medici were the monarchs of Florence rather than Grand Dukes. Ferdinando was merely the heir of the Grand Duke, with the courtesy title of Grand Prince. We don’t get any sense of the family around him, nor of the strangely intense character of Florentine culture in these years, which was captured so disturbingly in Secrecy. Ferdinando’s genuine and deep knowledge of music is given lip-service with the presence of Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the pianoforte, but really comes across as little more than a front to get handsome young men into his bed. Yes, there was that too – in real life he had a liaison with a Venetian castrato – but in the book this complex character is reduced to little more than a two-dimensional lecher, the debauched man trying to lure our hero away from his wholesome girlfriend. Some of the names don’t quite ring true (surely it should be Ignazia rather than Ignatia; Giuseppe rather than Josepho?). And everyone constantly refers to the castrati as ‘sopranists’ whereas in fact I think the polite term at the time was ‘virtuosi’.

But it’s not just my pedantry (which may in any case be mistaken). The characterisation is shallow and, even in the later stages, the characters too frequently behave like children rather than the adults they would have been by the standards of the time. The translator has introduced modern slang, which grates horribly: ‘okay’ and ‘mate’ make regular appearances and one of the castrati boasts that ‘we can sing the pants off them’, which isn’t just modernised but Americanised (can you imagine Caffarelli saying that?). I’m not saying that historical fiction has to be written in Shakespearean English, but I’m a firm believer that even lively writing has to be true to the spirit of its historical period, unless it’s actually trying to be comic or anachronistic. Beyond the fact of them being castrati, the pupils at this conservatorio sound like modern schoolboys. Punctuation is erratic and occasionally entirely absent within a sentence: the book could have done with another very good editor. As I said above, there’s little sense of historical place or context, beyond the Etruscan theatre in Fiesole and the Arno in Florence (as a place for people to throw themselves into). Where is the richness of the liturgical calendar, the grandeur of the Duomo and all the personality of Baroque Italy? And finally, who is this novel actually written for? The publisher’s guide suggests it’s aimed at ages 15-18, but while the content is inappropriate for younger readers, the book’s style is far too childlike for its target age group. At fifteen I was already a committed Anne Rice fan and nowadays readers will have been through The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, or whatever series is the flavour of the moment, presenting a dark, emotionally intense and gritty world. By contrast, The Castrato is extremely naive – bordering on coy – for a novel that’s essentially about young men having their testicles cut off.

For example, let’s focus for a moment on the challenges of finding words for part of the male body. Those of a sensitive nature should skip this paragraph. In an effort to avoid the word ‘penis’ (it’s occasionally necessary) the translator takes refuge in some truly schoolroom slang that made me wince. ‘Pecker’ is already bad but I can just about accept it; but has anyone really used the word ‘willie’ [sic] since they were eight years old and giggling in the corner of the playground? It’s just painful. Once again I find myself wondering why we can’t just call a spade a spade – or, failing a spade, a ‘prick’ or a suitably robust Anglo-Saxon alternative? Perhaps the translator felt that the word ‘cock’ would scare the horses, but if readers aren’t ready for that at the age of fifteen, they presumably won’t be ready for scenes of masturbation or attempted gay ravishment either. Just a thought. And if they are, for heaven’s sake, they should just go straight on to Anne Rice.

And that’s the elephant in the corner of the room. Anyone who writes a novel about castrati in this period has to be aware of the hugely influential Cry to Heaven – or, if they aren’t, that suggests they haven’t done any reading around the subject. For many of us, that book was our introduction to the castrati, and I don’t think there’s any point in tackling this theme unless you’re confident that you have something to say which is sufficiently original and different. Pool’s book unfortunately feels like a watered down version, rather than drawing on the robust, challenging and subversive qualities which have characterised some of the very good young adult fiction I’ve read – and which would be so appropriate for this topic. In contrast, Rice’s novel is melodramatic, sensitive, erotic, rich with Venetian sensuality, woven through with the love of music and stuffed with purple prose: it suits the subject perfectly, and I’m afraid that The Castrato doesn’t quite cut it (no pun intended).

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review

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