Published:  12:00 AM, 19 March 2017

Machiavelli runs up against the Borgias

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant, Publisher - Random House in February 28, 2017
Jay Parini explores the clear and sharp steps of a politician-diplomat-philosopher, which have uncovered in the novel

In her latest novel, Sarah Dunant returns to the Borgias, that flamboyant family of 15th-century clerics and cutthroats, a larger-than-life clan that includes Pope Alexander VI, also known as Rodrigo; his son Cesare, a reluctant cardinal turned conqueror; and the infamous Lucrezia, whose reputation Dunant has done much to restore.

In Dunant's view, Lucrezia isn't nearly as bad as, say, Victor Hugo or Alexander Dumas led us to believe - or Donizetti in his opera. And historians now agree, having dismissed as gossip the notion of Lucrezia as a murderer with a love of poison.

To a degree, 'In the Name of the Family' has less excitement than its predecessor, 'Blood and Beauty,' in which Dunant followed the rise of Rodrigo as pontiff, describing his galvanic lust for attention, for women, for power, and his willingness to make use of his helpless daughter, who becomes a pawn in his machinations, forced to marry men who would advance her father's worldly kingdom.

To compensate, Dunant has added another character, Niccolò Machiavelli, author of 'The Prince,' who provides us, at the outset, with a snapshot of the Italy of his time, a boot whose surface has been "discolored by the vicissitudes of history."

This is a reminder that the action will take place centuries before unification, that the Italy of the period is still a loose collection of city-states, each with its own internal tensions, its own rivals and potential invaders. In the midst of all this, the Borgias have risen, a family with a talent for conquest - just the sort of people to captivate Machiavelli, the master of expediency. It's material that, in the hands of a gifted storyteller like Dunant, will captivate readers.

Dunant has written best-selling novels in the past. And in both her thrillers and her historical novels, she occasionally leans on the sort of ready-made language that merely carries this sort of story along. One gets any number of overly familiar descriptions, as when admirers of the pope "hang on his every word" or a bishop's expression "is one of stone."

Elsewhere, a government official "throws up his hands in frustration" and a duke's feelings are "shrouded in cold clouds of secrecy." But more often than not, Dunant surprises us with fresh and inventive imagery, as when, near the end, we see the ailing pope in his bedchamber in late summer:

"He has a cramp in his left leg, his gut is grumbling and his farts are a long way from the scent of orange blossom. The sounds and smells of old men: Such things had been repugnant to him when he was young and he feels no differently now. He heaves himself over onto his other side, his stomach collapsing like a small landslip next to him."
Machiavelli comes to the Borgias as a diplomatic envoy, bathing in the glow of Cesare's ambitions and ruses. After meeting him, Machiavelli writes back to his superiors in Florence:

"This lord is truly splendid and magnificent." Indeed, "he arrives in one place before it is known that he left another." Not surprisingly, Machiavelli's Florentine handlers find his swooning less than helpful. "Less 'opinion,'?" they demand. "More facts." The character of Machiavelli is appealing, and I wished to see more of him.

 But Dunant wants to tell us everything she knows about the Borgias and their enemies, and she has an enviable command of this complex political scene, with its shifting alliances and subtle betrayals. It's a world of "plots and counterplots, layer upon layer of deception, lurid tales of traitors hewn in half or tied back-to-back to chairs, blaming each other and sobbing for mercy as the garrote tightens around their throats." Needless to say, "treachery is a disease of the age." As in previous novels like "Sacred Hearts," Dunant has a special gift for attending to her female characters.

 This is obvious in the picture of Lucrezia that emerges as the pope's daughter navigates the diplomatic entanglements wrought by her father and brother. Now she must deal with the prospect of a new husband, her third. Hardly a thing of beauty, Alfonso d'Este - heir to the Duchy of Ferrara - has "a heavy nose and thick lips," and his massive hands are "mottled purple, like the surface of rotting meat."

 The narrative sits up and preens whenever Lucrezia enters, and it's a pleasure to watch her deal with a trying father-in-law, an unappealing husband and visits from her overbearing brother, whom the old duke describes as an "unscrupulous, ungodly, uncouth, whoring, warring bastard son of a Spanish interloper." And that's his nicer side.

This capacious if highly conventional historical novel glides on to its own dissolution as the lives of Rodrigo and Cesare unravel, the strings binding their empire loosen, their minds fray, their bodies weaken. Only Lucrezia seems to flourish, although we learn about this somewhat after-the-fact in the epilogue, narrated by Machiavelli in later life.

There may be more history in this novel than fiction, which lessens the emotional impact of an otherwise satisfying tale, impressive in its sweep and mastery of detail. I only wish that Dunant had managed to bring all her characters to life as ably as she has Lucrezia, who is perhaps the one indelible figure inhabiting this story.


The reviewer is a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College
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