Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Lieutenant Nun coverCatalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun is a quite extraordinary little book. It is, as the subtitle indicates, the "Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World." Or as Catalina herself summarizes her own story, when she ultimately reveals her identity to the Bishop of Huamanga sometime around 1619:
The truth is this: that I am a woman, that I was born in such and such a place, the daughter of this man and this woman, that at a certain age I as placed in a certain convent with a certain aunt, that I was raised there and took the veil and became a novice, and that when I was about to profess my final vows, I left the convent for such and such a reason, went to such and such a place, undressed myself and dressed myself up again, cut my hair traveled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instant, at the feet of Your Eminence. (64)
This sentence also gives a sense of the tone of the book: breezy, even when recounting killings, maimings, and the wreaking of havoc. Details are distributed around the text in what appears to be a fairly arbitrary manner: we are often told how many monasteries a given city contains, and how many leagues it is from the next city; we may or may not, however, learn the precise reasons for a killing or a maiming or what exactly provokes our heroine to pack up her bags once again and move on in her adventures.

Catalina skips over some episodes and lingers over others for no obvious reason; she hardly seems to care about a reader's desire to know more about the "this, that, and the other thing" (47) that she so casually invokes. She certainly has no desire to court the crowds that gather around her once her story becomes public. However extraordinary her tale is, she wants to treat it as absolutely matter-of-fact.

Yet it is extraordinary, not least because Erauso is indeed both lieutenant and nun in roughly equal measure. It is not that she transforms from one to the other, rather that she is constantly switching between the two.

On one level, for instance, the narrative is remarkably unified as it tells the tale of Catalina's spiritual progress. She begins as a novice, sent to a Basque convent at the age of four, and she ends up in Rome where she meets the Pope (Urban VIII) and chats to cardinals. En route, moreover, she is in and out of convents and churches. Indeed, at just about every opportunity we find her running back to the church.

But on another level, that of Catalina the picaresque rogue and ne'er-do-well, the narrative is equally unified. For she turns to the church for protection so frequently simply because she is endlessly getting into trouble of one sort or another. More than once she is condemned to death, for instance, for some murder or another. Sometimes she is guilty, sometimes not; it matters little. Either way, through some trick (or the help of a passing fellow Basque) she makes her way to the local cathedral and holes up there for a while until she can sneak away once more and resume her wayward rough-and-tumble life.

Hence there is a little coda to the story. In the book's final and shortest chapter, after Catalina's meeting with the church hierarchy in Rome and after a nice little joke which feels like the punchline to the book as one long shaggy-dog story, she leaves Rome for Naples. And here, down by the docks, still dressed as a man but known to be a woman, she is dressed by a couple of prostitutes who are chatting up their potential tricks. "Señora Catalina," they shout out, apparently flirtatiously, "where are you going, all by your lonesome?" (80)

Catalina de ErausoResponding to this combination of provocation and invitation from the prostitutes, this woman who has long lived as a man replies as... well, either as lieutenant or as nun, or perhaps as both. "My dear harlots," she says, "I have come to deliver one hundred to your pretty little necks, and a hundred gashes with this blade to the fool who would defend your honor." Michele Stepto argues that this is a "parody of masculinist culture," which is surely right. It is also a threat to re-impose normative morality upon a pair of wayward women. And it is a curiously ambivalent response ("my dear harlots") to an entreaty which itself is ambivalently coded as either heterosexual or homosexual (indeed, no doubt both). To the painted ladies of Naples, this Basque cross-dresser throws back a performance that they are unsure how to read or answer.

No wonder that, in what is the book's rather abrupt final sentence, we are told that "the women fell dead silent, and then they hurried off" (80). A similar silence is perhaps also our best response to this narrative that demands to be read but whose author is strangely blasé about her (or his?) readers.

No comments: