“’Alatiel’…that seems familiar to me, as if it were from a book I read many years ago.”
“She has no name, Daniele,” Julian said, “so I chose one for her. I have invented her, you might say.”
I took the name Alatiel from the Italian masterpiece The Decameron, a collection of tales written around the time of the Great Dying, the plague which devastated Europe. Boccaccio wrote that Alatiel was a courtesan, the lover of a thousand men, who ‘reinvented’ herself as a virgin bride fit for a king. A literary historian wrote of her:
‘Alatiel passes from one man to another – including two Genoese shipowners, the prince of Achaea, the duke of Athens, the prince of Constantinople, the Turkish emir of Smyrna, and a Cypriot merchant – the strange power of her beauty driving each to murder or other acts of malfeasance in order to possess her.’
So, because of her shifting identity, because of her apparent capacity for malice, Alatiel seemed both an apt name for my character and, of course, homage to a fine story. There are, naturally, other aspects which connect her to The Portrait of Alatiel Salazar‘s belle dame sans merci: Alatiel is described as ‘strangely silent’ during a time in captivity, unable or unwilling to tell her captors of her background; in my novella, she is mute. She is considered an ‘object, a possession’ by the men she seduces; this connects to her treatment by the artists in The Portrait of Alatiel Salazar. And of course, her ‘strange beauty’ goads my male characters into acts of evil or even suicide; those who refuse her ‘inspiration’ are destroyed anyway.
Alatiel is every sainted whore, every woman-child they dared to imagine. As I wrote: ‘Alatiel is the mirror in which they saw themselves. She would be whatever her admirers wanted her to be…’
She is ageless, like Pater’s vampiric Mona Lisa, because she is forever born anew in the minds of men, a man-made Athena, as it were; she is chameleon-like because she reflects the fairweather fidelity of men. She is not, despite her actions, evil. Alatiel is at best a blank canvas, or more relevantly, a pale reflection of the contradictory and self-torturing male desire for what is elevated and what is base. Alatiel is a mannequin that comes to life – Pygmalion’s Galatea, Hoffmann’s Olimpia made flesh. Alatiel, in her many guises, is all her enemies ever dreamt of…
‘He had anticipated an austere building, bland and aged, but this was a revelation…’
Initially, Salvació House was severe, grey and ancient; until I read about the artistic technique known as Trompe L’oeil. So Salvació became a ‘house of illusion’ rather than a ruined stately home:
‘Tall arched doors, the wood painted a radiant scarlet, stood out in relief, but there was no genuine entrance to be had; a columned gallery preceded a walkway leading to a distant Arcadian idyll but the path defied progress; a yellow flame appeared to burn brightly within a black carriage lamp which didn’t truly exist. At first, at a distance, it was hard for Holland to tell the difference between solid reality and painted artifice; Cristian Salazar had created a house of mirrors, both wonderful and perplexing.’
And of course, Salazar’s paintings incorporate this beguiling technique:
‘The girl was captured in the act of escaping from the painting. Her hands gripped both sides of the frame, fingers overlapping the edges, and a delicate foot rested on the base. The frame was skewed, false, merely a painted rectangle on the gallery wall. The second picture displayed nothing except total darkness. The ‘frame’ was an illusion like the other, a black background within it; she had escaped.’
Cristian Salazar: Cristian is predominantly based on the Surrealist artist Salvador Dali, in later life especially. Half-genius, half-madman, Dali was the quintessential charlatan towards the end of his career. While nowhere near as malicious as Salazar, Dali nonetheless possessed many dubious traits – perfect material for any writer.
His capricious habit of issuing bizarre commands to his retainers were often a mixture of sheer arrogance and showmanship. Upon awakening, Dali might order his servants to go out and find crippled identical twins, a bald tranvestite, and a leper who was willing to pose naked for a ‘masterpiece’ which would never be completed. The above seems rather comical, doesn’t it? However, Dali expected his followers to treat him as a king, and his whims became identical to royal commands, at least, in the mind of ‘The Great Dali’.
Oscar Wilde’s days of exile in France were another influence; at that time the playwright’s name was ‘a byword for depravity’, as Marcus Allen might have said. The poisoning/street party scene in Chapter IX owes its genesis to a description Wilde gave of a birthday celebration held in his honour by French locals who were unaware of his notorious status; apparently, the children sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him, and feasted on cake…
I’ve always admired Oscar greatly, so I’ve no wish to denigrate his character further (happily, his reputation as an artist is now reborn, of course); I was simply struck, as was Wilde, by the surreality of children celebrating the birthday of one who was in utter disgrace, infamous for his evil passions…much like Cristian Salazar after the time of his first exhibition.
Beatriz Salazar: Although Beatriz’s behaviour owes a little to the life of Gala, Dali’s wife, Cristian’s cousin is her own woman; an invention of mine. Make no mistake, Beatriz is truly the power behind the Salazars’ throne:
“This was bad enough, but what made it worse was the sight of Cristian and Beatriz in communion, as it were — Beatriz’s mocking laughter and Cristian’s strange, joyful sobbing muffled the reverend’s protests. I know how odd this may sound, but I felt in that instant that Salazar was trapped in his own skin, at the mercy of his cousin’s whims…or vice versa…I don’t know which.”
Marcus Allen & Gabriel Holland: Scourge of the Salazars, the instruments of Carliton’s vengeance, Allen and Holland are contrasting characters – Marcus all-wisdom, Gabriel all-action; their combined attributes appear to make them Cristian and Beatriz’s deadliest foes. Some of the characters mentioned in this post may return in the sequel to The Portrait of Alatiel Salazar.