The anatomy of desire

Federico Andahazi has been feted throughout Latin America for his novel 'The Anatomist'. It won him the $15,000 Fortabat Prize in his native Argentina. But then Mrs Fortabat discovered the identity of the book's protagonist: the clitoris.

Phil Davison
Monday 02 June 1997 23:02

Which was man's greater discovery, America or the clitoris? A prize-winning new novel by a young Argentinian writer, which looks like being a worldwide bestseller and a Hollywood movie, is based on a factual historic link between those two momentous breakthroughs.

Its controversial theme has also thrust the author, 33-year-old Federico Andahazi, into the jaws of modern conservative and Catholic censorship in Argentina, in eerie parallel to that suffered by his book's hero during the Inquisition of 16th-century Europe. His prize-winning ceremony was abruptly called off by the renowned conservative heiress Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, known in Argentina as the Cement Queen, when she learnt that the clitoris, and its discovery, was the centre of the book's plot.

Andahazi, a Freudian psychoanalyst of Hungarian descent, later received the Fortabat prize money, a $15,000 cheque, anonymously pushed under his door. Mrs Fortabat's negative comments, describing Andahazi as a "Communist porn artist", were included on a black band around the book's first edition, helping it to sell more than 30,000 copies in Argentina alone since March, and thousands more around South America. He is promoting the book in Spain this week.

The publisher Doubleday has paid Andahazi a $200,000 advance, plus royalties, for the English-language rights - believed to be a record for an Argentinian writer's first novel - and film directors and producers from Milos Forman to Antonio Banderas have made movie bids.

El Anatomista (The Anatomist) is the story of the real-life Italian anatomist Mateo Colon ("Colon" in Spanish has traditionally been translated as "Columbus" in English, as in "Christopher Columbus" for Cristobal Colon), who claimed to be the first man to discover the female organ, at least within the civilised world he knew.

Born in Padua, Italy, a few years after Christopher Columbus died, Mateo Colon - no relation but an obvious admirer of the great explorer - studied anatomy at the University of Padua in the mid-16th century. Andahazi was working on a totally different idea, and researching scientific breakthroughs on blood circulation, when he stumbled on Mateo Columbus's story.

"I was flicking through a reference book called History of the Human Body in a friend's apartment when it hit me," the author says. "A single phrase, quoting Mateo Colon in his 1559 work De re anatomica, gave me the idea and I knew I had a novel."

"Oh, my America, my sweet newly-found land," wrote Colon, according to Andahazi. "There's no doubt, from the context, that Colon was describing his discovery of the clitoris, and comparing it with the discovery of his illustrious fellow-Italian. The clitoris may have been discovered earlier, in the Orient and Africa, but he was unaware of that. Since virtually nothing was written about the female organ for a long time afterwards ... I began to suspect Colon's discovery had been censored and got the idea for my plot."

"Mateo's 'America' is less remote and infinitely smaller than that of Christopher Columbus," the author writes in his prologue. "In fact, it barely exceeded the size of the head of a nail. Nevertheless ... despite its insignificant size, its discovery provoked no less clamour [than Columbus's discovery].

"Mateo discovered what every man dreamed about: the magic key that opens women's hearts, which witches, witch doctors and alchemists had sought since the beginning of history." For his trouble, he was hounded by the conservative religious establishment, placed under house arrest in his university quarters and narrowly avoided burning at the stake, according to the author.

Andahazi decided to do no further research on Colon but to fictionalise the plot around his discovery. "I didn't want the reality to detract from the fiction," he says. Colon and an aide are studying the body of an unconscious, sick but beautiful woman called Ines, trying to diagnose her illness, when the aide yells: "It's a man, it's a man."

Colon thought his aide was crazy until "to his stupor, he saw between the patient's legs a perfect, erect, diminutive penis".

Perhaps it was the next few pages that upset 72-year-old Mrs Fortabat and led her to call off the award ceremony late last year. The curious and dedicated Colon proceeds to finger his new discovery and brings Ines back to life, to say the least. She experiences extreme convulsions, opens her legs, fingers her nipples and makes a grab for the anatomist's privates.

The anatomist's motives, however, are pure. Except that he dreams of using his discovery to please his one true love, an emerald-eyed Venetian prostitute called Mona Sofia "with nipples as hard as walnuts... who walked with a Dalmatian by her side and a parrot on her shoulder."

After escaping house arrest and avoiding burning at the stake for his writings on the female anatomy, Colon finds his true love wasted and dying of syphilis and ends up taking his own life.

Andahazi never feared burning at the stake, but admits he was more than a little nervous after the powerful Mrs Fortabat took out an ad in Argentinian newspapers, saying "this book does not contribute to the exaltation of the most elevated values of the human spirit".

"She was very close to the military regimes of the Seventies and Eighties," he told me. "I can tell you if this had happened during that epoch, I wouldn't be sitting here now. A lot of authors 'disappeared' during that time."

The author also said that had he not been shortlisted for the Fortabat Prize, he would not have withdrawn from Argentina's bigger literature award, the Planeta publishing house prize, which pays $40,000 to the winner. "The panellists told me later I would have won that," he says.

"It was on the morning of the Fortabat ceremony that I found a message on my answering machine saying the prize-giving had been cancelled," Andahazi says. "What annoyed me was that the caller said it was because leading Argentinian poet Enrique Molina had died. But the next day, I read Mrs Fortabat's attack on my book in the newspapers and heard she was calling me 'a Communist porn artist'."

Andahazi, whose Hungarian father, Bela Andahazi, was a poet and Impressionist painter who did frescoes in Budapest's Liszt Theatre, does not hide the fact that he is influenced by the "magic realism" of Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Some of the early passages in The Anatomist are pure "Gabo", including plenty of black humour.

Colon and his fellow anatomists did much of their own research and necrophilia was a popular pastime, Andahazi writes. "So extensive was the necrophilia that the greatest compliment you could pay a woman was 'what a beautiful cadaver you have', before cutting her throat."

Because university anatomists used dead bodies, local Italian peasant women would pretend to be dead to sneak in for sex with alumni, covering themselves with blankets and lying on body carts. When one doctor was caught having sex with an apparently dead female body that suddenly began squirming with delight, he ran off shouting "it's a miracle" and propounded the theory that his semen had brought her to life.

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