What schemes are hatched when a young and wealthy dandy is tempted by his mischievous servant with the possibility of a lecherous conquest in Florence? A barren wife, flea-bitten partners in crime and the eventual culmination in a drink of the Mandragora brew; that cures as well as kills.
Mandragora is inspired by the Renaissance comedy, The Mandragora, penned by Niccolò Machiavelli and is apparently the only novel written based on that play.
The novel is set in the Renaissance, mainly in Florence, and involves the machinations of a servant, Siro, and his master, Callimaco Cagliostro. Together, they hatch a plan to bed the young, and apparently barren, wife of an aging Florentine lawyer, Nicia Calfucci.
I have not had much exposure to ribald fiction, and the lack was my main incentive to read Mandragora. Along with my equally missing experience with the play on which it is based, this possibly leaves me without some of the foundation required to critique it in depth. However, I shall try to couch it in terms with which I am familiar.
To me, the plot and the characters somewhat resembled Blackadder, the television series written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton for the comedy genius of Rowan Atkinson. I loved the series and reading this novel was like reliving the antics anew. The plot to bed the young and beautiful Lucrezia under the very nose of her husband is bound to become convoluted. The debauched accomplices who join our Casanova hero in his lecherous scheme provide a filthy and humourous sideshow.
The doddering and impotent Calfucci, the imperious Sostrata and the innocent but canny Lucrezia provide the obstacle course through which our ill-matched gaggle of conspirators must navigate. And when the Mandragora poison/cure is introduced and Lucrezia acquiesces the twist is revealed and lust becomes love which becomes lust.
Our cast is, in general, a set of caricatures, required to elicit the appropriate raised-eyebrow response as their exaggerated exploits are related.
Calimacco, our Casanova, is handsome, used to getting any woman that he desires, and easily corrupted by his devious servant. Siro, the silver-tongued, lives for intrigue and the service of his master. It is around him that the story pivots to an extent, as he is the instigator. In the story, we discover whether his naughty scheming is to be rewarded or punished. The other key character, in my mind, is the beautiful Lucrezia. Pure and religious, a virgin perceived as barren, whose awakening to desire parallels smutty adolescent jokes about Catholic girls gaining sexual independence. She is the trophy, but she’s also the judge and jury of both Calimacco and Siro.
The supporting cast of scoundrels and dupes add to the spectacle. In particular, Ligurio’s pervasive mis-speakings often coaxed a giggle from me.
The writing attempts a flourish of allusion and wit and largely succeeds. The phrases circle the meanings rather than issuing clear statements and the more filthy topics are often implied rather than described. It’s a style that probably coaxes the dirtier parts of the reader’s mind, to meet the narrative half-way and elaborate in privacy on what is unwritten – the reader now an accomplice in the nudge-nudge, wink-wink of the prose.
I liked Mandragora. It isn’t politically correct in any sense and you can’t help feeling a little dirty after reading it. However, it’s a guilty pleasure that has intelligence behind it; an homage to a style of ribald story-telling, written with flair and a more sophisticated turn of phrase. I enjoyed my little detour into literary lechery and I think others that don’t mind indulging that secret desire for a little snigger and sass will enjoy it too.
Price at the time of review: $5.99 US
Author site: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/HDGreaves
GoodReads page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18521587-mandragora