In Margriet de Moor's exquisite (and exquisitely translated) The Virtuoso, a love affair with a castrato becomes the last thing one would expect: thoroughly, almost overwhelmingly physical. A bestseller in Europe, this Dutch writer's novel overflows with the sights and smells, tastes and textures of an 18th-century Naples caught in intellectual and sensual ferment. Here, thieves take shelter in churches, carriages race through the narrow streets, and aristocrats gamble, discuss Descartes, cross-dress, and swoon over their favorite male sopranos. Into this heady milieu comes Carlotta, Duchess of Rocca d'Evandro, married at 15 and a firm believer that "your body is what you are and all knowledge begins with desire."
What, then, to do with a body like Gasparo's? A native of the same village as Carlotta, at age 11 Gasparo underwent the infamous operation that would keep his soprano suitably pure. Years later, Carlotta hears him sing in the San Carlo theater and immediately falls into a fever of desire. One expects such a passion to be primarily metaphorical, and there is indeed something quixotic about her love for Gasparo, with his voice that "attests to a world beyond this world but which comes none the less from a body like every other: warm, full of obscure desires." Well, not quite like every other. A product of both prodigious natural gifts and prodigiously unnatural intervention, Gasparo is closer to a work of art than a man--but that doesn't prevent Carlotta from lusting after his bod. With some coaxing on her part, they manage to have an affair, the mechanics of which Carlotta by no means ignores in her breathless narration.
De Moor writes compellingly about beauty and art, but the book's real strength lies in her almost offhand depiction of Neapolitan aristocracy--its decadence, its playfulness, and even its casual cruelty. ("Only one boy in four fails to survive" Gasparo's operation, Carlotta breezily notes.) Reading The Virtuoso is like immersing yourself in another world entirely, one in which the central love affair makes beautiful sense. History is full of mutilation in the name of art; de Moor's triumph is to make the mutilation itself a subject of desire. --Mary Park