cover image The Merciful Women

The Merciful Women

Federico Andahazi. Grove/Atlantic, $22 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1674-1

Argentine writer Andahazi (The Anatomist) fictionalizes, tongue in cheek, the legendary beginnings of the gothic novel in this slender, winningly erudite volume. In the Swiss Alps, where Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, Mary's stepsister and Lord Byron live in the summer of 1816, the writers contend with the ambitions of John Polidori, Byron's gloomy secretary, who winds up shocking everyone with the first masterful gothic tale, The Vampyre, but only because he's struck a Faustian deal with a devilish woman. Arch, but never smug or precious, Andahazi's tale centers on the disgruntled Polidori, a brooding, self- important scrap of a man who feels ""a delicious pleasure in self-pity,"" and whose foul mood only improves when he receives a strange series of missives, penned by an enigmatic pariah who refers to herself as Annette Legrand. Readers swiftly learn that Annette is a hideously misshapen but preternaturally intelligent freak of nature, formed from the membranous excrescence that linked her two sisters, Colette and Babette, in utero. Vampirishly dependent upon ""the essential fluid that only... men possess,"" Annette has heretofore relied upon her gorgeous sisters' seductions to provide her with sustenance. Now desperate for the ""elixir"" that her aging siblings can no longer easily obtain, Annette suggests a bizarre arrangement to the ambitious, fame-seeking Polidori: if he provides her with his seed, she will provide him with an unpublished manuscript of rare depth and inventiveness, which he can pass off as his own creation. Written entirely in a cleverly modulated mock-Gothic style, encompassing references from Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold-Bug to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Andahazi's well-researched tale succeeds as an elegant, clever deconstruction of authorship, imagination and the writing process. This is a short, tricky novel, peopled almost exclusively by broadly limned caricatures and with a plot hinging on a few well-placed double-crosses. As a piece of mock-scholarly, wickedly ironic entertainment, it is an utter delight. (Oct.)