Friday, March 13, 2015

The pathological characters in 'The Last Castrato' novels by Hill and Sanchez (with spoilers)

John Spencer Hill, in 1995, wrote a novel The Last Castrato with a pathological eunuch character. Eleven years later, J. Wolf Sanchez published a novel by the same title with an identical premise. In this article, I compare the two novels: first Hill's, then Sanchez's.

Here there be spoilers.

John Spencer Hill's novel

In the novel The Last Castrato by John Spencer Hill, a crazed eunuch is on the loose in twentieth-century Florence. The stage was set three decades earlier when five self-appointed "Camerati dell’arte" tried to bring back Renaissance music per the original Camerata:

They found a boy, Francesco Pistocchi, about ten years old who "sang like an angel," and they paid his parents "a few hundred lire" to allow them to take the boy to Florence. "They were simple folk and I suppose they thought Marchesi was a singing coach or something of the sort," one of the perpetrators recalled. They performed the castration at midnight in the candelit chapel of Santa Maria Novella. Intending to do things the way they were done in the Renaissance, they gave the boy “a posset spiked with laudanum,” stripped him, and put him in a bathtub. “‘The idea was to have the scrotum fully distended so that we could find the right tubes. Anyway, after half an hour we took him out and Cafferelli muttered a few words in Latin over him, then we stretched him out on the altar and snipped his vas deferens.’ He added, as if to justify the act: ‘It was quite painless and we employed sterile procedures. The lad was never in any danger.’” (p. 176) Years later, the victim recalled how the cardinal crossed his forehead with bathwater and said, “This is a new beginning. From this day I christen you Farinelli, the last and best of the castrati — in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost." (pp. 245-246)

When police heard the story decades later, they noted that the castration itself was "a felony under Italian law," and that the kidnapping and unlawful confinement were also illegal. (p. 177) This awareness accounts for why the young castrato was never able to sing. No one wanted to be associated with the castration. “The lad was simply not a marketable commodity,” the perpetrator said. (p. 179) What they had instead was a "monster". One of the Camerati realizes "he’d allowed Marchesi to talk him into creating a monster — a time-bomb fused to blow up in their faces thirty years later." (p. 112)

They had become rich and famous and none of them had given a thought to Pistocchi for years — though Pistocchi, it seemed, had certainly been thinking about them. ... Who waited thirty years to get even? Strozzi couldn’t have restrained himself for more than half a day. The only possible explanation was that something in Pistocchi’s mind had finally snapped. After bottling up the black poison of his hatred for three decades, he must have been crazier than a shithouse rat and then one day boom! all the fuses in his brain had blown at once. (p. 112)
* * *
Pistocchi’s actions, of course, could hardly be condoned; but it was easy (almost too easy) to sympathize with the desire for revenge that drove him. The men who had castrated and then abandoned him had done so for gain and with an eye only to their own profit. He had been an object to them — a thing — never a human being. They had mutilated and cheated him out of manhood, had inspired his trust and then betrayed it — all without a qualm or a quiver of conscience. Their interest in him, as Strozzi had made plain that day in Arbati’s office, was as a marketable commodity. ... He would be caught and held to account for them [his crimes]. But the guilt for his deeds would have to be shared, before the bar of eternal justice, by the five Camerati who three decades earlier had mutilated him into the avenging angel of their own destruction. They had made a monster, a nemesis, and it had returned to destroy them. (p. 211)

The monstrous split personality

Because of the trauma of his castration and his anger at his abusers, the boy Pistocchi grows to have a split personality. One is Farinelli, quiet, genteel, reflective:

He had a pleasant face lit by frank, intelligent eyes that seemed to weigh all they met with a slightly bemused detachment and that also seemed to miss nothing. He was a big man, well-proportioned and (she thought) probably very strong, who had perhaps once been an athlete, although it was difficult to judge the physique that lay under the folds of his jacket and loose, open-necked cotton shirt. But what attracted her to him in particular was his voice. It had a wistful, melancholy quality that made her think of a wind sighing in the pine trees. It was a sound she knew all to well from nights lying alone, until finally sleep came, in the loft of the cottage on Lake Michigan where her father escaped to write his books in the summer. In her mind it was a sound indelibly associated with loneliness and isolation. She wondered if Signor Farinelli had endured, like her, a lonely childhood deprived of love and motherly tenderness. (p. 37)
* * *
It was as if he had come to interpret his mutilation as the symbol of a universal truth of the human condition — as if he’d understood and been able to accept that, in a way, we’re all castrati cut off from truth and absolute knowing by the impotence of our relativity. We see parts, never the whole. We know in part, never in whole. And yet, for all our unknowing, we know that our partness is part of a greater wholeness — and we have faith that, one day, we will come face to face with it. (p. 268)

The book's main female character, Cordelia, feels that she can identify with his frustration to some extent: "She had endured the tyranny of a husband who had consumed her and spat her out. She knew about betrayal and disempowerment. In a way, she [Cordelia] understood what he had suffered — his castration, his loss of selfhood. But she had broken free and started again. For him, there could be no new beginning." (p. 246) She also sympathizes with the wife of Signor di Banco, who she perceives as embodying “that sorry paradigm of marital conditioning – the eunuch helpmate, sapless appendage of her mate. Cordelia felt her presence in the company as an embarrassment and an affront – an all-too-acute reminder of what women were content to endure from men, of what she herself had suffered in her five-year union with Charles Passmore.” (p. 39) These two examples show a layered interpretation of what it means to be castrated or to be a "eunuch." It is about being consumed and betrayed so deeply that there is no way out, only "disempowerment," "loss of selfhood," in the way that a woman sometimes becomes an "appendage" to her husband and cannot grow or extricate herself.

But then, on the other hand, Pistocchi has a personality with a single-minded focus on revenge. “Debagged and dumped, that’s what I was,” he tells himself. (p. 263) Before the police identify the serial killer, they nickname him "Lo Squartatore."

"Francesco Pistocchi was an angry man, a man consumed by a burning and implacable hatred for those who had wronged him. He was also a simple man — in many ways, even a childish man. His emotions were blunt and visceral desires: not much more, in fact, than savage instincts. There were no grey tones in the palette of his emotional life. His response to events was confined to the primal imperatives of white and black — love and hate — and love was a feeling he had not experienced for many, many years. What he understood best was hatred — and in particular the deep psychological satisfaction of revenge. The wonderful reality about revenge, as he knew from experience, was that it worked. Unlike most other solutions, it actually did make you feel better." (p. 60)

He cuts the vocal chords of the former members of the Camerati, and for the one who actually held the knife, he plans a special punishment of stuffing his genitals down his throat. When approaching his intended final victim, the one who had actually held the knife to castrate him decades earlier: “His eyes burned like coals in their sockets, and a maniacal grin distorted the curve of his jaw into a twisted, demonic parody of joy.” (p. 205)

The image of a Native American is invoked, drawing up cultural stereotypes of stealth and monstrosity:

With the fluid grace of a cat, he crossed the trembling length of his observatory and swung onto a ladder that was bolted to the wall behind a bank of silent, hanging valances. He made his descent swiftly, his crepe-soled shoes silent on the metal rungs. (p. 145)
* * *
He would make the last two hundred yards on foot, moving stealthily – like an Apache. He liked the idea (learned from American westerns) of the feathered underdog, his knife clenched in his teeth, making a surreptitious attack on the well-guarded fort and then melting without a sound, undetected, into the embalming cover of darkness. Only in the cruel light of morning did the stunned and marveling cavalry-troopers find the scalpless corpse of their colonel in his blood-soaked bed, where he had died without a peep or whisper. A feral smile curled at the corners of Pistocchi’s lips. The image appealed to his quixotic sense of the proper romance of revenge. He liked to have a little fiction woven into the weft of his reality. (p. 202)

The moral for others

The moral of this novel is not ultimately focused on redemption for Pistocchi or about eunuchs in general. It pivots from Pistocchi's tragic unraveling to about what men and women can learn from the eunuch's more well-adjusted personality of Farinelli.

For Cordelia, Farinelli is a kind of poetic inspiration as she moves from feeling like an unappreciated wife to being a free agent in the world.

For Cordelia's new male love interest, the balance between gender polarities is of personal interest. He claims to be working on "a poem called Androgyne, about the paradox of masculine and feminine attributes in human personality. I’ve been wrestling with it for weeks and, to tell the truth, I don’t know any more which of us will end up winning – the heroic poet or the poem that’s fighting tooth-and-nail not to be born.” (p. 194) Cordelia later explains the poem to someone else as being “about the reconciliation of male and female characteristics in human personality. His argument is that we all have both – masculine and feminine traits, that is – and that they’re balanced, though in different proportions, in each individual. Personality is the subtle tension of the two held in a creative equilibrium and working together in unison.” (p. 215)

In this book, however, such redemption is not available to the queer character, who suffered a permanent schizoid break in the personality, committed multiple murders, and eventually slew himself. It is only the heterosexual, normatively gendered characters who have the power to interpret gender as gentle reflections on creativity and freedom and to live out this wisdom.

J. Wolf Sanchez's novel

At the beginning of this story, in Florence in 1877, we are told that the talented multilingual singer Giaochinno Vespucci is in an asylum due to “neurosis and mania,” having killed his fiancée with a dagger. He said his fraternal twin Vincenzo made him do it.


One of the doctors in 1877 comments that "our Signor Vespucci is probably the last of his kind. The world has no need of the castrato anymore.” It is unclear why the doctor is unaware of Alessandro Moreschi, who lived 1858-1922 and is known today by the sobriquet "The Last Castrato," and who goes unmentioned in this story by that title.

A little historical information is given on castration in Italy. In other places, throughout history, slaves were castrated to make them "more docile, less sexual," and thus Italy adapted this practice to serve theatrical needs.

“The church had forbidden women to perform in church, or participate in theatre, or in the public stage for that matter. However, by the late 1500’s, as music began to be more complex and works for all kinds of entertainment were booming, a mad rush to find men who could play women’s roles became apparent. ... In the late 1700’s, one Englishman observed that all the castrati in the churches in Italy were made up of the refuse of opera houses."

The author adds: “Since the deliberate process of mutilation was illegal (despite the Church’s employment of eunuchs in their choirs), all kinds of reasons were used to justify the existence of a particular castrato, such as disease of the testes or accidental injury — being gored by a wild boar was a common reason. It became, sociologically speaking, an inside joke.”


Giaochinno and Vincenzo were born in 1805 as fraternal twins. When they are about ten years old, their parents sell them to a man who promises them better singing opportunities. The Conte Gaspari has them castrated to preserve their voices. The castration scene is shown in the novel. Instead of an opium anaesthetic, the cutter (a barber) pressed the jugular so they would fall into unconsciousness. He claims this strangulation is safer, but the real reason for his choice is that he has no opium. The man who brings the boys to the barber hasn't bothered to soak them in a warm bath, either. The boys are tied up suddenly and roughly. On page 16, it says Giaocchino woke up in the middle of his own castration and saw that his brother had already had his completed. This contradicts page 100 which says that Giaochinno had not yet been forced into unconsciousness at all (he was simply gagged to stop him from yelling) and that he watched the cutting of his brother from the start.

After that, Giaochinno and Vincenzo never speak of their castrations, that is, until 1829 when Giaochinno takes an interest in a woman and Vincenzo begins cruelly taunting him. Vincenzo says that he knows Gio masturbates, but what will happen when his girlfriend notices his mutilation? “They all laugh about the half man. The man without a prick!," Vincenzo says. "They were talking about how small your manhood must be.” He calls Gio's girlfriend a "tramp" and warns him: “She said you were probably a homosexual. Most eunuchs are, you know.”

The novel then reveals that one of the boys takes revenge for their castration. First, their father is killed in his own house with his own knife: “The man was beaten to a pulp, his eyes gouged out, his nipples and genitals sliced off.” It was a knife that Vincenzo had secretly taken with him when he departed his father's house after having been sold. Next, the dying Conte Gaspari is suffocated with a pillow.

It seems that Vincenzo would have been the one to commit these murders. After all, at this point in their lives, Giaochinno is described as a sweet, sensitive soul, and Vincenzo is described as cruel.

The monstrous split personality

But then, there is a third murder. This one is a crime of passion. When he hears Vincenzo taunting him about his fiancée Abriana, Giaochinno stabs her repeatedly. He then threatens to kill Vincenzo, too, but another woman, Serpina, disarms him. Giaochinno then “saw Vincenzo wave goodbye.”

An asylum doctor reveals at the end: “Vincenzo died during the castration process.” Of the surviving twin Giaochinno: “He and his psychic twin who lived within him felt abandoned.” This sounds a bit like Hitchcock's Psycho, but, more importantly, it clearly resembles John Spencer Hill's novel of the same title. The moral of the story is: “I think the real illness here is that when Vincenzo died, a part of his [Giaochinno's] soul died with him....The real illness here was hoping against hopelessness.”


John Spencer Hill. The Last Castrato. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

J. Wolf Sanchez. The Last Castrato. Suchamedia. 2006

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