Zsuzsa Kapecz: Mutus Liber (Silent Book) Historical novel, 540 pages (Hungary 2006)
Mutus Liber is a “backstage baroque” novel. The story takes place in Vienna in the eighteenth century, at the imperial residence, during the reign of Maria Theresa. The novel tells of the events of three years during which Isabella of Parma was the wife of the future emperor, Joseph II. We read of gambling in which Maria Theresa, mother of sixteen, also took part; excesses in which Emperor Francis, Maria’s husband, was the most prominent; secret societies; black magic; intrigues around the marriages of the royal children; artistic forgeries; orgies; alchemy; secret love letters….
The novel chips away at the traditional image of one the greatest icons of the Habsburg monarchy, Maria Theresa; for previously, all novels and biographies about her have followed the same “party line”: adulation with some mild criticism of her machinations in marrying off her daughters. In Silent Book we read for the first time the truth about the marriage between Isabella of Parma and Crown Prince Joseph. Moreover, the lesbian relationship between Isabella of Parma and Princess Marie Christine (called Mimi) is mentioned for the first time.
The Seven-Years’ War is slowly drawing to a close. Austria is fighting doggedly against the Prussians, under Frederick the Great. The treasury is empty, and hunger and cholera are raging throughout the monarchy.
The populace are dispirited. Prussia’s victory looms ever closer. The queen, burdened by the war, puts her energy into marrying off her eldest son, Joseph, as quickly as possible in order to ensure a male heir to the Habsburg dynasty.
Most of the characters in the novel are historical figures. The only invented persons are Nicolas Roehmer, Madame Lesinsky, Perella Henselin, Aurora Lugin, Misha Lugin, and Zarah Koreff.
1759: The bride originally planned for Crown Prince Joseph, Princess Maria-Luisa of Naples, is exchanged, on the suggestion of Chancellor Kaunitz, for Princess Isabella of Parma, who had actually been intended for Joseph’s brother Charles, on the assumption that Princess Isabella was better suited to Joseph. The queen arranges for her son to exchange letters with Isabella. Joseph believes his bride to be a hysterical monster, one with whom it would be nothing but a waste of time to attempt to flirt. Therefore he assigns the job of correspondence to his private secretary, Nicolas Roehmer.
Roehmer becomes ever more accustomed to the role of suitor, and develops a great affection for his master’s betrothed.
Meanwhile, Joseph goes about seeking amusement with his close friend General Lacy. They visit a bordello. In one of the more exclusive establishments, Joseph and his brother Charles unexpectedly meet. The situation is delicate, for the brothers are not fond of each other. Joseph is envious of Charles on account of his unaffected ways and popularity, while Charles is tired of his exceedingly moralistic and reserved brother.
Roehmer does more than write letters in the name of his master. He listens, he spies, he takes note of everything.
1760: In summer, Isabella journeys with her retinue to Vienna. Joseph is more interested in politics than marriage. He is worried, because Frederick the Great has been winning one battle after another. To Joseph, the meeting with Isabella comes at an inconvenient time. Nonetheless, when he does meet her, he is astonished at how attractive and educated she is. He falls in love with her. Charles is disappointed that his intended has been taken away from him, for he is also in love with her. Despite Joseph’s assiduous courtship of Isabella, the princess is more interested in a relationship with Joseph’s sister, Marie Christine, called Mimi. The two have been exchanging letters for a year already, and an intimate friendship has developed between them.
Roehmer continues his espionage even as Joseph, on his wedding night, makes his way to Isabella’s bedchamber.
Queen Maria Theresa and her son Joseph are happy at the news that Isabella has become pregnant. She sends her daughter, Maria Anna, to a convent, since she cannot obtain a match for her commensurate with her social station. Mimi and Isabella travel with Maria Anna. Joseph vainly attempts to dissuade his pregnant wife from taking the journey in the bumpy carriage. Isabella has a miscarriage and returns home an invalid. Mimi takes care of her. The two friends keep a secret diary, their relationship now more than a simple friendship.
Charles slips into her apartment. The two women do not notice that he leaves with their diary. But Charles has been observed by Roehmer, who has facilitated the secret exchange of letters between Isabella and Mimi. Roehmer has also been reading these letters. He observes that Charles is blackmailing Isabella with the purloined diary, saying that he will return the diary only when his sister-in-law consents to become his lover. He threatens to give the diary to the queen. Isabella fears the despotic Maria Theresa, of whom even the queen’s husband is in terror.
1761: The Austrian armies are losing ever more ground to the Prussians. Emperor Francis wishes to make peace with Frederick the Great as quickly as possible. Maria Theresa, however, will have none of it. She has a sentimental attachment to Silesia and she despises the “Prussian rogues.”
Isabella is pregnant again at last. Charles knows that he might be the father, and this weighs on his conscience. There is an outbreak of smallpox. Charles becomes ill. Mimi cannot recover the compromising diary from him. Charles dies. He leaves a bundle of books to Roehmer, for which at first Roehmer has no explanation.
1762: The infant Maria Theresa, daughter of Joseph and Isabella, is born. Isabella wants to name her Mimi, but Joseph is opposed. The queen betroths Mimi to Duke Albert von Sachsen-Teschen. As a result, Isabella has another stillbirth.
Roehmer makes the acquaintance of privy councilor Perella Henselin, the title “privy councilor” being an honorific for the head of the imperial wardrobe and treasury.
In March, it becomes known that Isabella is again expecting a child. She is jealous of Albert, who frequently corresponds with Mimi. Isabella is unhappy that her one-year-old daughter has been taken away from her. On the order of Maria Theresa, the child is raised away from the view of the outside world. Isabella can see her child only infrequently. She begs Joseph to intervene, but he achieves nothing with his mother. Isabella is sick of her marriage, and in her isolation and loneliness, she writes a novel and confides in her diary.
Roehmer now understands what sort of books Karl had bequeathed him: forbidden works and the renowned Mutus Liber, the silent book of the alchemists.
During an afternoon coffee party given by Madame Henselin, he makes his way to the cellars, where black magic is being conducted. He finally becomes aware of the complex relations among certain residents of the imperial palace.
Frederick the Great is victorious. Silesia and K?odzko have been conquered by Prussia. The peace talks begin.
1763: In November, Albert arrives in Vienna. There is a great ball, but Isabella is not permitted to dance, for she is in full pregnancy. Smallpox is again raging. Isabella is ill, and she gives birth prematurely. Her second daughter lives but a few hours. All are terrified of the smallpox, and self-sacrificially, Joseph cares for his wife.
Since Isabella cannot visit Mimi, she gives Joseph a bag to be given to her. This bag contains her diaries and letters. Isabella dies. Joseph passes the bag on to his sister and asks her in the future to remain away from Vienna.
Roehmer is expecting a reward for his services. But Joseph dismisses him, for his secretary knows too much.
In old age, Roehmer becomes a writer. His magnum opus is his memoirs, which he writes in the style of the Mutus Liber. But one day, Roehmer becomes satiated with writing. He decides to consign his book to the flames. Or has he perhaps changed his mind?
Extracts from Reviews:
This carefully researched novel by Zsuzsa Kapecz is a gripping delight to read (Exit) .
Mutus Liber is a novel that contains almost everything. It can even be read as a crime novel
On every page one encounters cultural-historical gems, with a generous portion of everyday life
This is an excellent book, because the language is beautiful. Zsuzsa Kapecz has written an easy-to-read, charming novel filled with secrets and riddles, some with no solution
Kritiken / Reviews:
Élet es Irodalom (HU)
<-- Zsuzsa Kapecz