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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Bartolome: The Infanta's Pet
by Rachel Van Kooij
Age Range: 12+
Ten-year-old Bartolomé is one of five children, living in a small village outside Madrid. He has restricted growth, deformed feet and kyphosis (curvature of the upper back, then known as a ‘hunch back’). It’s the 17th century and attitudes towards disability are less than positive, however at least Bartolomé has his family for comfort. Then the children’s father is presented with the chance to move to city and become a coachman at the royal palace. Accepting the position but ashamed of his disabled son, he keeps the boy locked away on his own in a back room.
Bartolomé is desperate to earn his father’s respect, and persuades his siblings to help him receive clandestine reading lessons at a monastery with the aim of educating and bettering himself. However an unfortunate accident ruins his plans and results in the spoilt and objectionable little Infanta discovering the boy and taking him to live with her as her ‘human dog’. There, Bartolomé is subjected to a life of cruelty and humiliation – only finding solace in the art studio of the court painter.
This highly memorable novel was inspired by a real painting, on display in the national art gallery in Madrid. The historical detail is exacting, the translation by Siobhan Parkinson, smooth and sinuous and the narrative powerful and enthralling. A poignant story but tinged with a defiant sense of hope, as the proud and intelligent Bartolomé is endlessly rejected and ridiculed, and yet resolutely refuses to allow the cruelty of individuals or society to devalue and destroy his life.