'Scroll of Seduction' Tells Juana of Castile's Tale Nicaraguan novelist and poet Giocanda Belli crafts the gripping story of the 16th-century Spanish queen Juana of Castile into a historical novel. The Scroll of Seduction was recently translated into English.
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'Scroll of Seduction' Tells Juana of Castile's Tale

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'Scroll of Seduction' Tells Juana of Castile's Tale

'Scroll of Seduction' Tells Juana of Castile's Tale

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Queen Juana La Loca, or Juana of Castile, has intrigued historians ever since she died in 1555 after almost 50 years of imprisonment in a castle in Spain. She was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, the Catholic king and queen of Spain, and she was the mother of six monarchs of Europe, including Charles V of Germany, who later became the Holy Roman Emperor.

Her real life story is fascinating on its own. Nicaraguan novelist and poet Gioconda Belli wove a tale around this, a novel called The Scroll of Seduction. Written in Spanish, it has been translated into the English, and Gioconda Belli joins us now. Welcome, Gioconda.

Ms. GIOCONDA BELLI: Thank you, Jacki. It's nice to be with you.

LYDEN: Would you please tell us a little bit more about Juana of Castile? I don't like to call her Juana the Mad, even though I realize she was known that way during her lifetime. It reminded me, the whole tale, of a dark fairy tale with a princess locked in a tower, only she's never rescued.

Ms. BELLI: Yes. Well, Juana was a woman of many talents. She wasn't raised to be queen because she was third in the line of succession, and so her mother wanted her to be intelligent and she gave her a very good tutor. And she was a very beautiful woman, so she was betrothed to Philippe the Fair when she was 16 years old.

LYDEN: Betrothed.

Ms. BELLI: Yes, and so the whole tale of Juana begins because when they first met, Juana and Philippe, they fell madly in love and the story says that they were so in love at first sight that they asked to be married that same day so that they could consummate their marriage that same night.

Then Juana's older brother died and then her sister died and then she ended up being the heir to the throne. And by that time she had already begun a sort of rebellion against her parents because that was the time of the Inquisition and she had not been very devoted.

And so that began also her - the tale of her being mad, you know, because she was jealous, she was very fiery, and when she became queen, her husband tried to use all of these little things that she would do to imply that she wasn't fit to rule, because he wanted to be the one to rule.

LYDEN: It's such a compelling story on its own. You might have just written it as a historical novel, but you built a modern day sort of love tale reenactment framework around it. Why did you do that?

Ms. BELLI: Well, because you know, this novel owes its life to my fascination with the way the past intrudes into the present. I think there is always this sense that we have of past lives or past experiences appearing in our lives in mysterious ways.

And so, you know, Manuel, this professor of history, seduces young Lucia, who is a girl who is in a boarding school by telling her the story of Juana the Mad. It's a metaphor, you know. This whole game that Manuel plays with Lucia is also a metaphor of the game we writers play with our readers, in a way. It's how we are able to put them in a different time so that we can enjoy the multiplicity of lives. Since we all have one limited experience.

LYDEN: Well, speaking of multiplicity of lives and connecting to the past, you've had quite a multiplicity of lives in one life yourself. You're a distinguished poet. You've written a memoir about your time as a Sandinista. You've met Fidel Castro. Politics and intrigue have been a big part of your life but not exactly the kind of court intrigues that you, I think, elaborate on very well in here. Do you see any sort of connection?

Ms. BELLI: Absolutely. I think we evolve in many ways, but there are some things that remain constant in the human experience. Among them is our emotions and also the way we deal with power. And so I, who have lived a very intense political life, was fascinated to see how men were able to use all the characteristics of Juana's femininity to marginalize her, to put her aside.

You know, in Nicaragua, for example, very often we would find in the political dealings and wheelings of the revolution, they would bring up your love life, you know, to dismiss your arguments as women, and the things that they would never use with a guy, you know. And that kind of thing is what we see in the story of Juana. Her love for Philippe, that was definitely a very passionate love on both sides, was used against her and was the reason why they called her mad.

And you know, in my own personal life I have also felt that sometimes love can make us mad. I made in my youth some decisions that, you know, when I see them retrospectively I think they were mad, but it was hard for me to choose between power and love. And Juana has the same conflict.

LYDEN: Let me ask you, do you think that Juana La Loca was in fact mentally ill at all? Or did they make her unstable by isolating her for over 40 years and even by beating her and whipping her? I mean it's a horrible story in that sense. Do you think that she really had a genetic mental illness?

Ms. BELLI: No, I don't think so. I think maybe, you know, she was a person who was very carried away by her emotions. She was not a person like, let's say, Queen Elizabeth I in England who decided to be the Virgin Queen, you know.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BELLI: Elizabeth said I prefer to be a beggar woman and single than a queen and married.

LYDEN: You've brought Juana La Loca so alive here. Is there any passage in your book that you'd like to read for us, a short passage where you are inventing Juana's voice for us, please?

Ms. BELLI: Yes. Perhaps I am mad. I have no doubt they will convince me of it one day, that I will end up hallucinating, seeing cats. One can end up believing in lies if the lies are repeated incessantly, especially if they are all one hears.

Mad was no doubt my passion for Philippe. It was certainly madness to love him like I did, but love does not choose its object according to reason or convenience. Love besieges love. That is what love does.

So much have I lost that I no longer care, yet I have one last endeavor, to win myself for myself, and I will prevail, even if no herald announces it, even if the centuries come crashing down on me like rumbling walls. Who will dare? I shall dare.

LYDEN: The book is called The Scroll of Seduction, a novel about the tale, the historical truth of the queen known as Juana La Loca, Juana the Mad; the author Gioconda Belli. Gioconda Belli, thank you for joining us very, very much.

Ms. BELLI: Thank you so much, Jacki. It's a pleasure.

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