The Anatomist is based on the story of the 16th century Italian scientist, Mateo Colombo, who discovered the role of the ‘Amor Veneris’ – the clitoris – in female pleasure. Yes, I am talking about ladybits in this week’s post, having decided to throw caution to the Bromley winds and go Marginally Kinky. Perhaps some of you saw the signs with the Almost Marginally Kinky tree-hugging in the last post. There is talk that I am on the road to ruin.
In Andahazi’s retelling, Colombo’s quest for this knowledge begins with his efforts to seduce the elusive Venetian courtesan, Mona Sofia, and ends with him being put on trial by the Inquisition who believe his ‘satanic discovery’ merits a jolly good stake-burning. And to think I have been wooed with a pint of pale ale and the promise that we can watch back-episodes of Time Team when we get home. Oh, it’s enough to make you weep, it really is.
The Anatomist is fantastically readable, and not merely because of the naughty bits (which I naturally skimmed through at speed, being all about the literature, and a lady) and the short chapter structure which darts between the viewpoints of different characters (including the sinister crow lurking among the university rooftops, waiting for a chance to peck at the discarded medical cadavers).
I enjoyed delving into the fascinating world of the medical men of yore, body snatchers et al, and its clash with the Church and its Father Ted-ish ‘down with this sort of thing’ refrain:
To what calamities would Christianity not be subjected if the female object of sin were to fall into the hands of the hosts of Satan?…What would become of the profitable business of prostitution if any poor hunchback might obtain the love of the most expensive of courtesans?…And, worst of all, what would happen if the daughters of Eve were to discover that, between their legs, they carried the keys to both Heaven and Hell?
As evocative, but less enjoyable due to the subject matter, was the backdrop of 16th century prostitution, which was all glamour when focused on the extravagance of celebrated courtesans (much like the ladies we encountered in Scarlet Women), but all grimness when this focus moved to stories of stolen babies and what I slowly realized on the 8.26 to London Victoria was basically a depiction of child abuse. Thankfully, Andahazi balances his refusal to shy away from the realities of this murky world with scenes which sweep the reader into the more glorious rituals of 16th century Renaissance Italy, including a memorable dance episode where the men bedeck their private parts with ribbons and bells to entice the ladies, which will make you question if society really has progressed, unless you too have been lucky enough to be enticed with willy bells.
Finally, whilst a story centred on a clash between the male-dominated worlds of Church and science could easily become a man-fest character-wise, Andahazi fills his tale to the rafters with vibrant female characters and their back stories. There’s the wealthy widow Inés de Torremolinos, who, in a segment that reads marvellously like a vintage porn scene, accidentally provides the source for Colombo’s discovery, and undertakes drastic cross-your-legs-it’s-gonna-make-you-wince action when she realizes that the Amor Veneris is governing her love for the anatomist. Most prominently, the defiant rise of Mona Sofia from child prostitute to coveted courtesan, through a Lorena Bobbit-esque reaction to her early abuse and the savvy purchase of freedom from her pimp, brings a bit of female kick-ass to proceedings:
My body has more than paid you back for the education you bestowed upon me…But now I demand that you grant me what is mine: my own body.
The phrase she repeats to her clients – ‘Your time is up’ – takes on an unexpected poignancy in her final scene with Colombo, which treads a fine line between unabashed erotica and the touching end to the love story that threads through the book. You may cry or blush. I did both. Sign of a good book in my humble opinion. Enjoy!