Annie Messina (Gamîla Ghâli) ‘The Myrtle & The Rose’

“Well, my lord, I happen to have a consignment of exceptional merchandise, right now at this moment —six boys from the Greek coasts, all under the age of ten, superb little creatures, veritable budding flowers, the stuff of connoisseurs.8BE84CE6-68FC-43B4-B37C-8C7DAADDDA65 But I realize this sort of thing doesn’t interest your lordship.” “No,” said the prince brusquely. “If you’ve got some pretty little boys among your flowers you might propose them to the Emir Husain ibn Ali. He has a harem that could use wet nurses instead of eunuchs.”

This book, read for Italian lit month, when first published, was so by an unknown author Gamîla Ghâli, who was later revealed to be Annie Messina, an elderly Italian lady of Little or no previous literary success but who did not want to benefit from the name of her aunt, the author Maria Messina. And who probably wanted to avoid the public uproar surrounding the book’s subject matter.

The book is a fable set somewhere at the turn of the first millennium in the Arab world and concerns the relationship between Prince Hamid , known as al-Ghazi, the warrior, who is the Myrtle of the title and of the beautiful fourteen year old  bought from Boutros during his visit to the slave merchant, described in the opening quote, the Rose of the title.

As the story begins, during the visit to Boutros, there is a loud disturbance and Hamid discovers that a beautiful young yet rebellious boy, who has lost his memory, is about to be castrated, Hamid buys him for a pittance and so begins a story of love, respect and desire as the boy slowly becomes prince Falcon:

Thus it may happen that a bird comes down momentarily from its domain in the sky and lands beside us. And we watch it, happy to have it so close but wishing to touch it, hold it in our hands. Yet we know if we reach out for it a flutter of wings will carry it far away

Hamid and Falcon grow close as the subject of the fable develops, the Emir Husain ibn Ali from the opening quote has designs on both Hamid’s land and on Falcon and Hamid has a treacherous son, Prince Harazad who wants vengeance on his father for banning him. An alliance is reached whereby Harazad would be allowed to capture his father alive, to display him in a gilded cage and to keep his land and the Emir to capture Falcon. The fable is a background to test the relationship between the the man and the boy, the following two quotes illustrate firstly how Hamid sees their relationship:

Even the intimacy between them had changed into something more virile. They shared long rides on horseback, swimming races, mountain climbing. Sometimes when they reached a summit at dawn the two of them would sit together and silently watch the sunrise while their guards kept watch nearby.

And then secondly, in a world where slaves belong to their master, who have the right of life or death over them, we see through the eyes of Boutros  how the outside world must see them:

What sort of magic had the prince resorted to to tame that little rebel? One had only to look at the boy (which Butros attempted to do surreptitiously) to read in his eyes the adoration he held for his master, a feeling clearly mutual. Oh well, of course. The two didn’t have to be touching and making eyes at each other for anyone to see what held them together, quite simply a vigorous mature man’s feeling for a pretty submissive boy.

This was a well written, well translated fable well worth reading, is Hamid aware of his own temptation? How far will Falcon go for Hamid?

First published in Italian as ‘Il mirto e la rosa’ by Sellerio editore in 1982
Translated into English by Jessie Bright as “The Myrtle and The Rose” and published by Italica Press in 1997

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