Translation, Foreword & Notes by Laura Kanost
Reviewed by Karen Langley
The female form is often idealised in art and media, from classical sculptures through paintings and in more modern times with fashion photography and the general objectification of women. It takes a brave woman to take on those stereotypes and play with them, which is what Peruvian author Aurora Cáceres does in this fascinating novella.
Cáceres was an intriguing and mercurial woman; the daughter of a Peruvian president, she travelled widely in the Americas and Europe, writing novels, essays, short stories and memoirs, as well as founding a number of feminist and cultural organisations. Married briefly to a famous Guatemalan author, Enrique Gómez Carrillo, she mixed with many artists working in the modernista movement (in which she and Carrillo could be included). Blending Romanticism and Symbolism (amongst other things) modernista work was highly stylised, dealing with inner passions, visions, harmonies and rhythms and going on to have great influence in the Hispanic world. However, Cáceres was a rarity in the movement, and according to the useful notes and introduction that support the book, this was a literary culture which silenced women.
“A Dead Rose”, originally published in 1914, tells in elliptical, often lush prose the story of Laura, a rich young widow, and the course of her illness. In remarkably frank fashion for its time, the book relates her visits to her gynaecologist, her response to her ailment, her decisions as to how to deal with it, and her eventual fate. After visiting a number of doctors, and suffering the humiliations of physical examination by strangers, she finally is treated by Dr. Castel; with whom she initiates a passionate affair. Both parties are caught up in a whirlwind of emotion, but both have different ideas about how the disease should be dealt with.
However, there is much more going on in this book apart from the surface-level narrative of disease and passions. Cáceres is actually taking on a movement that prized female beauty above all; and Laura regards her physical appeal as vitally important, and indeed is idealized by her lover. However, there is also a strong emotional link between the two and the book seems to suggest that a total communion between two people depends on both the physical and the emotional. Science and medicine are venerated but in the end rejected; Laura eventually symbolically destroys the idealised female body by choosing to reject surgery, leaving herself externally untouched whilst internally decaying. That disjuncture is returned to again and again, as if Cáceres is reminding us that the surface level of image is false and the real person is what lies under.
Cáceres was also breaking taboos by dealing with the subject that she does, namely a gynaecological disorder. Laura is suffering from fibroids, a complaint that nowadays would be treated promptly and usually would cause minimal issues; however, at the turn of the 20th century, with more primitive medical procedures, the option for Laura is surgery which would destroy the image she has of herself. Laura prefers love and ignorance and death against an operation, what she sees as physical defilement and the consequent loss of love, enjoining her lover to remember her as perfect. Time and again in the narrative both Laura and Dr. Castel brood and muse on her figure and what it represents, as she almost becomes an allegory for heavenly beauty. Passion and perfection are more important than real, human life and love.
For a short work, “A Dead Rose” takes on some remarkably complex ideas, and its frankness of subject matter is quite ground-breaking. Some of the trysts between Laura and the doctor take place in his consulting room, which must have shocked readers of the time; and in addressing the embarrassment that a modest woman must have felt in the simple act of undressing in front of a strange man, Cáceres reminds us of the restrictions surrounding women and how difficult it must have been to actually deal emotionally with seeking treatment for this kind of issue. The surgeries of the doctors who Laura initially visits are bleak and dirty, to be contrasted against the pristine rooms of Dr. Castel and again there is the juxtaposition of beauty and decay.
As a story in itself, “A Dead Rose” works well, relating the emotional entanglement, the physical issues and the final fate of Laura. However, the subtext to the story is obviously crucial and I did wonder a little if Cáceres had managed to get her point across; if she was trying to say that the idealization of women is damaging and that the physical form is actually less important that what is under the surface, I’m not sure she entirely succeeded. Laura still suffers the ultimate fate to retain her beauty, but I would have liked to see perhaps Cáceres give her heroine an alternative future where she was not so defined by her looks but instead allowed to rely on her mind and the intelligence she so obviously displays in her relationship with Dr. Castel.
This is a minor criticism, however, because “A Dead Rose” is such a pioneering novel. Multi-layered, evocative, frank and revealing, it most definitely deserves to be rediscovered. This Stockcero edition is translated by Dr. Laura Kanost, who also provides notes and a scholarly introduction, which gives marvellous background and context for the novel, and goes into much more depth than I can here. “A Dead Rose” is a ground-breaking feminist work; in allowing her heroine to embrace and control her own sexuality and physical needs, Cáceres was most definitely ahead of her time!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is very thankful that medicine has moved on somewhat.
Aurora Cáceres, A Dead Rose (Stockcero, 2018). ISBN 9781934768952, 106pp, paperback.
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