Recently I was discussing with someone what makes good historical fiction. The kind of historical novels I love most are those that build stories out of footnotes in history to give you a different perspective on a particular time period. There are often little intriguing details you come across in historical accounts which obviously have larger stories to tell. It provides such a tempting jumping off point for an author to fictionally fill in the gaps within history books. Pursuing the question of why these gaps exist is itself an interesting question that can also be explored in the telling. So it’s not surprising that Andrea Camilleri was intrigued by the fact that the widow donna Eleanora became the viceroy of Sicily in 1677 for only twenty seven days after her husband’s death and how there are only a few references to the radical progressive reforms she tried to enact in that short time. He’s built out of this a wonderfully gripping, comic and fascinating tale of a cunning woman who took a position of great power and her struggles amidst the reigning corrupt patriarchy of the time.
Camilleri mostly focuses on the perspectives of the male officials of the court rather than Eleanora herself. For the majority of the novel she exists in the background as a spectral figure and is even described as hovering. It’s as if, like the moon, she rises as a powerful presence in the night to illuminate the reigning darkness. The cycle of the moon lasts exactly as long as Eleanora held her position as viceroy – hence the novel’s title “The Revolution of the Moon.” The way in which we read about the lives of these corrupt officials scrambling to shore up their power and maintain their wealth/positions amidst Eleanora’s changes makes much of this novel satirical in tone. It’s a comedy that exposes the arrogance and pettiness of these princes, rich merchants and members of the clergy who are suddenly put into a tailspin as they might finally be persecuted. But, like the best satire, this tone of narration comes from a place of real anger as Camilleri depicts the way these men’s actions exploit the working class and abuse vulnerable women and children.
The plot intriguingly follows the difficulties in persecuting these entitled men and a great tension arises as to whether they will slyly evade punishment before Eleanora is removed from power. It was also interesting learning about how the governing of Sicily functioned at this time of history. There was a complicated arrangement by which the king of Spain ruled over the country, but never had direct involvement in its politics which were all handled by viceroy. That viceroy’s position was also partly controlled by the pope. It meant that Eleanora had to be very careful negotiating between the powers, the influential patriarchy and the will of the Sicilian people. Camilleri depicts the strategies of the opposing sides like a tense game where each is trying to outwit the other. It’s amazing Eleanora was able to enact humanitarian changes and weed out some of the blatantly corrupt as she did in such a relatively short time period! I can’t help thinking her story is somewhat reminiscent of that of Lady Jane Grey who almost a century later would rule as Queen of England for only nine days. It’s a sad fact that many progressive women in history who would have made excellent leaders were swiftly removed from office by ruling powers more interested in maintaining the status quo.
Last month I started reading Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” but I was put off by what felt like an overriding misogynistic humour throughout many of the stories. (I made a whole video here asking how we ought to read problematic classics.) Part of what made me love reading “The Revolution of the Moon” so much was the way Camilleri similarly depicted the cruel reality for many women and working class at this time of history and how their subjugation was tied in with the laws of the nation. I felt Boccaccio made their downtrodden condition into the basis for humour without exploring these characters’ humanity. But Camilleri shows the plight of the disenfranchised and how many were eager for social change. He also makes the arrogant patriarchy into the butt of the joke rather than those who are their victims. It makes this novel into an inspiring, heartrending and thoroughly enjoyable read.