So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Mother of God

The Mother of God by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born on January 27, 1836 in the city now known as Lviv in Ukraine. At the time, the city was in the Galicia region of Austria-Hungary and was called Lemberg. His early books were mostly non-fiction historical treatises written while he was a professor at the University of Lviv while his later works were short stories and novels.
Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel Venus in Furs is his most commonly available book in English. The Mother of God was originally published in Leipzig as Die Gottesmutter in 1883. This is its first translation into English. The translator, William Holmes, is a semi-retired anaesthetist from Northern Ireland. Not liking the abrupt ending, Holmes not only translated the book, but added three additional chapters to the end "to bring it to a more satisfactory ending."
I do not agree with Holmes decision to tack on three additional chapters of what can only be thought of as fan fiction to a 132 year old novel. His writing style is not the same, and he shifts the point of view from Sabadil to Mardona. I feel that Sacher-Masoch ended the story abruptly so that the reader would look back into the text for deeper meanings, not project a satisfying ending. Fortunately, it is very clear in the book that this was done and the reader can view the extra chapters as the translator's work and not the authors. Holmes' translation flows well and where there are references that might not be clear to a modern English-speaking readership, he provides helpful notes to explain them or their significance.
The book tells the story of Sabadil, a 30 year old introverted farmer from the countryside around what is now Kolomyya, Ukraine. He prefers to walk in the woods alone and listen to birds singing rather than to socialize with his neighbors. On one of these solitary excursions he meets and becomes enthralled with Mardona, the charismatic young female leader of a Christian sect of a neighboring village called the Duchobarzen. Known to her followers as the Mother of God, Mardona is treated by them with unquestioning devotion, and has become a spoiled tyrant, yet she feels a strange attraction to Sabadil and his infatuation with her.
The Duchobarzen may have been modeled on the Dukhobors who were a 19th century Russian sect known for pacifism, egalitarianism, and communal living that used the life of Jesus to guide their faith and practice. The Duchobarzen of this novel were a community of a couple hundred farmers who are guided by the wisdom of Mardona and who live a simple life of prosperity, hard work, and communal living.
Mardona's divine love for her community is all-encompassing and egalitarian but isolating. Placed above them, they worship her as a divinity in their midst, kneeling before her and kissing her boots, and treating her every word as sacred. Coming from outside the community, Sabadil's love for her is the human love of a man for a woman. This is a new experience for Mardona, whose other lovers have always been intimidated by her divine nature, and she likes it, but doesn't know how to respond. As she makes Sabadil part of the community, she treats him like a pet that she strokes and keeps by her side.
Through his eyes we see the tension grow between his unrequited love and her annoyance at his failure to fit into the community until it reaches an explosive and shocking ending. This is a novel filled with details of 19th century farming life in central Europe and it is a fascinating look at the experience of divine and human love.
Sacher-Masoch is known to modern readers for his writings on the theme of powerful women and the men who become fascinated and enthralled by them. He was also well known in his own time for his writings about the local ethnic groups of central Europe and their customs. The Mother of God combines these two themes and shows the author at the peak of his literary career.


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