Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: The Fan-maker's Inquisition:A Novel of Marquis de Sade by Rikki Ducornet

First published:- 1999

Republished by:-Dzanc Books, Open Road Media

Star rating:-

For the past few weeks the subject of responsible use of freedom of expression and speech has dominated our public discourse. And this is not in the context of Charlie Hebdo. A group of Indian stand up comics had collaborated on a live 'roast' of two Bollywood actors (the very first of its kind in India) and posted the video on youtube - a performance peppered with sexual innuendos and a mind-boggling amount of profanity. The video went viral within minutes, inspired twitter hashtags, gave netizens a few good laughs, and 'offended' the usual suspects. A few days later, probably following the diktats issued by self-appointed guardians of Indian culture and values, the video was removed from youtube and criminal cases registered against the participants in this venture for 'obscenity'. 

Miscreants who vandalize churches, demolish mosques, rape women or launch into vitriolic diatribes against a specific religious community are allowed to function within the legal framework of the state but citizens who take to the streets to protest against the aforementioned atrocities are either water-cannoned or arrested with astonishing swiftness. Now it seems stand up comics, who are trying to inject some novelty into our painfully predictable entertainment industry which churns out lame potboilers by the dozen month after month, have secured a spot for themselves in the list of 'enemies of the state'. Law enforcement has its priorities right. 

Far fetched a parallel as it may seem, Rikki Ducornet's richly imaginative, Bohemian novel harps on the same double standards of moral policing. You can dismiss that glaring'erotica' label (not that I have any problems with this tag), dive in without hesitation and let Ducornet overwhelm your senses with her gossamer fine prose and her evocation of a turbulent Paris during the years of the Revolution. If you are looking for titillation and descriptions of sadomasochistic practices ala Sade, then let me forewarn you, the transgressions alluded to in Sade's monologues are not as frightfully repulsive as one might expect them to be. The only erotic similies I came across are of the following kind - 

..although the apple was as wrinkled and bruised as the clitoris of an old whore...

The plot weaves its way in and out of an imaginary Gabrielle, a fan-maker famous for her pornographic etchings and illustrations, and her patron Sade's points of view, stringing together their correspondence through letters during the time both were incarcerated for heresy by the Comité de surveillance while also including a parallel, semi-fictional narrative of the Catholic Church's barbaric suppression of indigenous pagan practices of Mayan people in the Yucatan peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition. Aside from all this there are various fascinating tidbits on Sade's upbringing and stories within stories which are aimed at highlighting the importance of unfettered freedom of thought.

A book is a private thing, citizen; it belongs to the one who writes it and to the one who reads it. Like the mind itself, a book is a private space. Within that space, anything is possible. The greatest evil and the greatest good.

The portions containing Sade's letters have him refuting the allegations levelled against him by the Comité by claiming most of what was regarded blasphemous in his work was simply the product of his virile imagination and that no sex act was ever performed without consent. The Marquis alternately laments the loss of his friend and confidante, Gabrielle and her lesbian lover Olympe de Gouges (an actual feminist figure from the Revolution) both of whom were put to death by the Comité, and chastises the hypocrisy of the Revolution which was systematically destroying the ideals of a civilized society in the name of upholding them.

Once the Revolution has gorged on the citizens of France and returned to her den to sleep for a century or two, what will happen to the triumvirate she whelped: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity-that vast heresy! That near impossibility! That acute necessity!

If you, like me, had not spared a thought for the infamous Parisian libertine till now then do pick up Ducornet's spirited defense of Sadeian ideology of unshackling one's life and art from hypocritical moral constraints. There's a good chance she may arouse your curiosity enough to want to take a peek into Sade's world of amoral creativity. In Gabrielle's own words - 

Sade offers a mirror. I dare you to have the courage to gaze into it.


Review also published on  Goodreads and Amazon.

**Thanks to Netgalley and Open Road Media for an advance reader's copy**

   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png

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