Saturn (excerpt)

An excerpt from Saturn by Jacek Dehnel translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Francisco Goya, Self Portrait
Francisco Goya, Self Portrait

Javier, son of the painter Francisco Goya, can never forgive his father for ruin­ing his mother Pepa’s life. Francisco (known as Paco) sees own his role within the family differently, and when Javier’s wife Gumersinda takes in her cousin Leocadia as a nanny for their son, Marianito, the old painter takes advantage of the young woman’s presence.


He seemed to me to be getting weaker—he had been deaf since long ago, but gradually he started to lose his sight too, and to squint as he leaned over a copper plate, closely watching the motion of the etching needle. Doctor Arrieta made it plain to me that it wouldn’t be long now. How wrong he was.

He did more and more griping, in fact it was incessant—even my mother lost patience with him. She would come to see me, in the corner room where I used to sit for whole days on end, neatly attired or slovenly, in an old dressing gown, and launch into her litany of complaints about my idleness, about illness, about life in this house being like life in a convent, but at the same time, from under­neath it all, hints of weariness and hesitancy broke through. She never attacked my father directly, but his outbursts of rage, his unfaithfulness and constant grudges against the entire world were well known to all.

[private]Only once did I hear a real grievance from her; I had come to Calle de Valverde, my father wasn’t there, he had gone on a hunting trip, or maybe he was painting somewhere outside Madrid; she was on her second day of the spring cleaning. Yes, it must have been during the spring cleaning, because only then, once a year, did my father agree to his studio being cleaned, though even so you could hear his angry grunts, curses and shrieks for a couple of days after his return when he couldn’t find some brush or etching needle; in fact, it was always hard to find anything in that mess, but after spring cleaning he had someone to blame it on. We were standing in the corridor, by the door into the studio, watching as the maid swept out the dust from in there, the lumps of paint, strips of rag and white powder, which rose from the floor in small cloudlets.

“All because of this,” muttered my mother, “because of this white powder.” I glanced at her and asked: “What’s that? All what?” And she smoothed a wrin­kle from her sleeve and replied: “Well, everything. The little ones’ burials, the miscarriages. Your frailty. And other things I don’t even want to think about. My brother, your uncle Francisco, knew all about it; he was indeed an artist, but he was interested in chemistry, he brought home books, from France even, and explained it to me, and to your father too, he wrote it down for him on bits of paper, because in those days already…it was after he came back from Cadiz, miraculously cured, but deaf…Except that he never did anything about it. Lead white and cinnabar. The cinnabar was only ever in the equivalent of medicinal quantities, but the white, how much of that white came in, arroba after arroba! You can no longer remember how your father used to work on tapestry designs for the king—those were large canvases, six ells wide by four, by five, various sizes; three lads were hired to stretch them, glue, prime and sand them, prime them again, then sand them again…There was powder everywhere, on the shelves in the parlour, inside the drawers, in the kitchen on saucepans and frying pans hanging on the wall, between the plates standing in the dresser, everywhere, eve­rywhere. It went through the corridors and the rooms, it lay wherever it liked, it got into your eyes, your hair, and up your nose, from dawn to dusk you could smell it. At the time I thought it was just another nuisance of living under the same roof as an artist, and in fact I was used to that—when you have three brothers who are painters, you can put up with a painter husband too. Only later did your uncle tell me it was poison, and that people die of sat­urnismo because of it… He told me to throw away all the copper pots in which the solder had worn through, and to hang a wet cloth in the doorway of the studio, but how would your father ever agree to a wet cloth in the doorway, can you imagine? Anyway, he wasn’t work­ing on the tapestries any more, he’d grown bored of those cheerful little scenes with dances, parasols and taverns, he didn’t need such enormous canvases any more.”

She said this as if she were telling me about a troublesome servant from years ago, or about a piece of furniture that squeaked in spite of repairs, a small inconvenience of daily life. And only at the end did her voice falter, when she said: “The house is a woman’s grave. But does it have to be a grave for almost all her children?”—and she seized me by the hand. Me, the only one who had survived the sanding of the canvases by three hired lads.


I never had a life that was idle or empty—always working like a Trojan for my living, I never had the time for fun and games. I had no illusions: life is like a painful enema. And yet, as I approached 70, I realised that whole years had run through my fingers, while I did everything for others, and never had any time for myself, for my own joys; if I went away on a hunting trip, at once I had to come back to paint the portrait of some countess in need of a good poking; as soon as I had pinned

a wench to the wall, at once I had to get on with the painting, because the house costs money, the chamberlain is being insistent, and even if she doesn’t say anything straight out, Pepa is waiting for six yards of brocade for a new dress. My back is aching, I’m pissing one drop at a time, but dog-eared old Paco takes hold of the cart again and pulls, because he has always done the pulling, ever since he was little, since he was a stripling: one school, another school, portraits, tapestries, colour not like that, composition not like that, the dress hasn’t come out ornate enough, the face isn’t pretty enough, though in real life it’s such an ugly mug that I feel like a grave-robbing thief who has opened a coffin and is staring at a rotting corpse…but never mind, I go on painting, I make alterations, I bow and scrape and hold out my hand for some chink; behind my left ear there’s one leech, behind my right ear there’s another, and there are more of them just waiting to latch on. Never mind, old Paco is cut from decent, well-tanned leather, he isn’t worn out yet. But if you’re going to stop old leather from shrivelling up or crumbling to dust, you have to take care of it, you have to polish it and oil it. And nothing does it as much good as a nice bit of puppy fat.

And that’s just what she was: not overweight, not saggy, but padded with pleasant puppy fat here and there, where a woman should have a sweet little roll of it; she had a bottom like a pear, paps like apples, a cunny like a little plum—she was

a fruit-seller’s basket, not a woman! I could bite, suck, and lick her until the juice was dripping down my chin, until I could taste the sweetness on my palate…sin is sin, but let’s admit it: is it really so hard to detect the Hand of God in all this? What were the chances of a rotten old stump, 60-plus, deaf, lustful perhaps, a womanizer—but let’s not fool ourselves, ugly too, for what could be attractive about this swollen, ample body, the white bristles on this chest, this ever receding brow, these ever more drooping lips?—and so what were the chances of an old fart capturing the affections of a lovely, lovely girl, a very young married woman thrown out of the house by her husband, who went crawling from brothel to brothel, and had entirely squandered her nice, decent dowry, and now had the audacity to reproach her for a moment of forgetfulness? What were the chances that this orphan girl brought up in a convent, this terrified little dove, would change at my touch into a she-cat on heat, that she would straddle me, writhe underneath me, scratch me on the back and beg for more? O you stupid fat jeweller! No whore in all Madrid can give you what you had right under your very nose! What were the chances of her having to seek protection and finding it with us, with Gumersinda and Javier, but also with Pepa, and with me, of us clothing and feeding her, of us taking care of her Guillermino, and her taking care of our Marianito, and everyone being pleased and happy? I ask you, can anything evil possibly result from two people, a desperate, ill-treated girl and a life-worn man who works like an ox, finding happiness together, without doing anyone harm—for what’s the harm in it for her vile husband? That sort of harm would be a noble deed, but is that toad capable of caring about anything apart from his own rotten little shop full of gold rings? Or for my dear, forbearing Pepa, who understands perfectly that after almost forty years it is not healthy tupping, but incest? Who in their right mind—and I’m not talking about sex-starved old clerics with wilted little cocks, for they’ve got everything in a hash already—could see Satan, rather than God at work in this?

And how wonderfully she takes care of my Marianito! When she comes to see us with him—for how much time could anyone spend in that house of mildew and despondency?—the four of us are like a new family, like the first peo­ple after the Flood, populating these ravaged lands again: one babe in her arms, another holding her skirt, I paint, she cooks up goodies for me with her own fair hands, while Pepa sits in her room and doesn’t pester us. Can you imagine a happier old age than having a new start in life?


I remember very little, so even that I see blurred, as if through fog: interrupted scenes, isolated conversations. I no longer know what I noticed first: the envy and dislike with which Gumersinda began to speak of her cousin, her peer, with whom she had spent so many pleasant times in childhood, and who until now had apparently taken such splendid care of Marianito? My father’s elation? The fact that suddenly he almost entirely stopped coming to visit us, and if he did, it was only for half an hour, at best an hour, most of which time he spent with Leocadia, and then took her off to Calle de Valverde, saying he had “great need of her there, and she’s sure to be happy to help Pepa”? Or perhaps it was that my mother became even quieter, even greyer, even more invisible, a shadow of herself from years ago, when she was strong, fertile, and stood firmly on the ground? Maybe it was the new confidence with which Leocadia, until now intimidated and afraid of her own shadow, began to voice her opinion, whether asked or not, on any topic at all; maybe it was the first quarrel, when she felt strong support behind her, or maybe the fact that this small, though stocky little figure, crowned with rampant ringlets cascading onto her shoulders, who until now had gener­ally kept to the kitchen and the nursery, began to make more and more frequent appearances in the main rooms, stretching out on sofas and in armchairs, and adopting alluring poses with a little book “exquisitely” positioned in her hand, a finger between the pages, which she did not read; and also that one was more likely to see her dressing up than taking care of the little boy? I don’t know.

But I do know that it was she who killed my mother.


At this age every man should be prepared for what the good Lord has allotted us. That was what Pepa believed. She had chosen herself a place at San Mar­tín’s, and we had written a joint will—she was buried just as she wished, in a tertiary’s habit, without pomp. In any case, who would have thought of pomp in such times—wondering how many candles and what sort of ornaments to have on the catafalque, when Wellington was standing at the gates? According to the testament, we ordered twenty masses for the salvation of her soul, and some other money went on buying back prisoners and charitable deeds in the Holy Land. If anyone had asked me, it was like pouring money down the drain, but so be it, if it mattered to her.[/private]

Jacek Dehnel

About Jacek Dehnel

Jacek Dehnel (born 1980) is a poet, novelist, painter and translator. In 2005 he was one of the youngest ever winners of Poland's Koscielski Prize for promising new writers. He studied Polish Literature at Warsaw University then wrote his PHD thesis on the Polish translations of Philip Larkin, some of whose poetry he has translated himself. He has published four volumes of his own poetry which has been widely translated, including into English.

Jacek Dehnel (born 1980) is a poet, novelist, painter and translator. In 2005 he was one of the youngest ever winners of Poland's Koscielski Prize for promising new writers. He studied Polish Literature at Warsaw University then wrote his PHD thesis on the Polish translations of Philip Larkin, some of whose poetry he has translated himself. He has published four volumes of his own poetry which has been widely translated, including into English.

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