Some of you will be aware of my fascination with literary portrayals of the moment of execution, a subject that arrested my attention first in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and then again in Alexandre Duma’s The Count of Monte Cristo, spiraling into something like an obsession through texts that are now too numerous for me to mention, the latest of which is Suson Sontag’s The Volcano Lover.
My history with Sontag is as follows: I was supposed to read several of her essays in university but didn’t, through sheer laziness, but I was left with the feeling, one that I associate with many of the books I passed over on university syllabi, that she was someone I really should eventually read. This is probably why I gradually purchased most of her books, not intentionally, just when I found them at garage sales and in discount bins, with the idea that I would get around to reading them when the inclination struck me, which it did a month or two ago, when I read her book of essays, At the Same Time. I really enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try a novel, The Volcano Lover, which I loved less but at least supplied me with the scenes I’m about to share with you. They’re long, and you might not find them as interesting as I do, but here they are.
The first is dreamed by the Queen of Naples as republican forces approach:
Portrait of a woman condemned to death. In the cart transporting her to this, this, this… machine, this new machine, her hands tied loosely behind her, her hair cropped short to expose her nape. Portrait of a martyr. She is all in white: a simple dress, coarse stockings, a shapeless bonnet on her head. Her face is old, tired, and drawn. The only trace of her former glory is her strict and upright posture.
She blinks her eyes. They sting because she has been so many months in prison. The cart wheels rattle and bump. The streets are strangely silent. The sun is shining. The cart arrives, she mounts the ten rough wooden steps. There is her chaplain murmuring prayers, staring at his crucifix, tears streaming down his face. And a voice, someone else’s voice, saying, It will not hurt, Your Majesty. It seems to come from the man with the hood. She averts her eyes form the ladder-like structure, some fourteen feet tall, with its ax-shaped blade rusty with blood, and she feels her shoulders being pushed down on both sides, making her lean over, no, lie down, her stomach and legs on the board, lie just so. Someone pulls her by the shoulders a little forward, so her throat rests in the trough of the bottom half of a wooden yoke, and then the upper part closes down on the back of her neck. She feels a strap squeezing her waist and another being affixed to her calves, binding her to the board. Her head is over the dark-brown plaited basket, the blood rushes forward to her face. She resisted the weight of her head pulling it down, held it out to see over the platform the bobbing heads of the crowd, lifted it up to lighten the painful contact of the edge of the board with her collarbone, the yoke against her gorge, which made her gag, which was starting to cut off her breath, saw a pair of large muddy boots advancing toward her and heard the bellowing of the mob go still louder, then go silent; here’s some kind of strange creaking: something rising, higher, higher; the sun getting brighter, so she shuts her eyes; the sound, higher still, stops –
The second is from the perspective of Eleonora de Fonesca Pimentel, a republican and a poet:
I spent my last night trying to master my fear.
First, I was afraid I would lose my dignity. I had heard that those about to be hanged often lose control of their bowels. I was afraid that my knees would buckle as I was led through the square to the platform on which the gallows and its ladder stood. I feared a convulsion of unseemly terror at the sight of the hangman advancing toward me with the blindfold, and his assistant holding the long rope with a noose. The crowd’s shouts of Long Live the King had provoked some of my friends to make their last words Long Live the Republic. But I wanted to go to my death in silence.
Then, I was afraid of being choked before they hanged me. For I knew that after the hangman tied a dirty rag around my head, he or his assistant would drop a heavy hairy ring of rope over my head and onto my shoulders. Unseen hands would pull it tighter, and where it tugged I must go, to the foot of the ladder, and then upward — I would have to follow the rope. I imagined the ladder sagging with the weight of three. The hangman above me, pulling me up by the head. His assistant below me, holding my ankles and guiding, thrusting them from one rung up to the next.
Then, I was afraid I would not die after the hangman scrambled onto the crossbeam to make fast his end of the rope, and his assistant, tightening his grip on my ankles, pushed of into the air, taking me with him. Could I still be alive when there were two of us swinging in the air, his weight stretching downward from my feet? Still alive when the hangman leapt from the crossbeam to straddle my shoulders, and we became a dangling chain of three?