'Mad' Queen Juana sinpires novella

Marjorie Sandor

In August, 1555, after the death of Juana, third child of Isabelle and Ferdinand, the doors of the tower at Tordesillas are flung open, and the personal effects of “the Mad Queen” of Spain are hauled out by the guards: furniture, moth-eaten royal nightgowns, the bed and its hangings, and finally, her beloved organ. As they leave the tower, the guards fail to notice a small figure crouched in a corner, cradling a stringed instrument. Nor do they see, among the small band of court musicians also leaving the tower, a 13-year-old girl with a beautiful voice, and unknown parentage.

“The musician crouched in the corner with his oud, an Arabic lute, is a fictional creation I want to bring into the fascinating history of ‘Juana La Loca,’” Marjorie Sandor wrote about the novella that is her Center project, and that is to open with the scene described above.

Sandor is a Research Fellow and faculty member in the Department of English at OSU. Two previous Center fellowships contributed to the writing of Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime, which won the 2004 National Jewish Book Award in fiction, and The Night Gardener, which won the 2000 Oregon Book Award for Literary Nonfiction.

The novella will carry her into new territory, said Sandor, both in narrative technique and historical/cultural knowledge. Juana was heir to the throne of Spain, and in her mid-twenties, following the death of her husband, was considered mad. She was sequestered by her family at Tordesillas for the rest of her forty-seven years.

“In my fictional arabesque on this historical moment, I’m imagining a secret musical love-affair between the queen, a controversial historical figure, and one of her court musicians, a hidden Jew left behind as a small child when his family flees the Inquisition. In a series of dreamlike fragments, the narration will move back and forth between the musician’s present life in the wake of Juana’s death, and the story of his upbringing at court, from the moment the young adolescent princess discovers him—baby-in-the-bulrushes-like—and brings him home as a sort of pet, all the way up into her secluded life at Tordesillas.”
The project is inspired by music, and Sandor hopes to give it “the same structure and haunting, elegiac quality as the ballads and romances that gave me the idea.” These came from an album of Sephardic music created by a Canadian group, La Nef. In the liner notes for Music for Joan the Mad, the group says that they, in turn, were inspired by the controversial Juana La Loca, variously thought to have been mentally unstable, and actually sane, but manipulated by political forces seeking to suppress rebellion.

“La Nef highlights Juana’s own musical and compositional gifts, and mentions that her own organ exists at the museum in the tower at Tordesillas. This I take as my starting point, for the setting and culture of the novella.”

In giving the role of narrator to a Jew hidden within the Spanish court of the Inquisition period, Sandor means to explore the ways creativity and art might sneak subversively through repressive cultures, working as a “masking” form capable of crossing borders and creating quiet change.

“I want to consider how the rich traditions of Arabic, Jewish and Christian music might blend and blur, allowing forbidden musical forms to find a hidden path into the future. This must happen, of course, between characters, and why not sneak a childlike Jewish folk musician into the world of a royal figure who has herself been discounted and exiled?

“Is there a way to think about how a musical tradition and a culture might survive annihilation and secretly seed itself within the very culture that seeks to destroy it, even creating the music of the next generation? And there might be a love story here, too, between two people whose talents and creative work must, for very different reasons, remain obscure.”