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Mystery and memoir about the last day of the Duchess of Alba

By Melissa Pressley / October 5, 1988



THE LAST PORTRAIT OF THE DUCHESS OF ALBA by Antonio Larreta. Translated by Pamela Carmell

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Bethesda, Md.: Adler & Adler. 207 pp. $16.95

ANYONE who has seen any of Francisco de Goya's portraits of the Duchess of Alba, but especially that portrait titled ``The Naked Maja,'' will have been struck, certainly by the beauty, but perhaps more by the enigmatic smile of the model. Only da Vinci's ``Mona Lisa'' can rival it for elusiveness.

Still, it may come as a surprise that this woman - the Duchess of Alba, a celebrated and powerful lady of the Spanish court - died a mysterious death in 1802, at the age of 40. ``The Last Portrait of the Duchess of Alba'' is Antonio Larreta's fictional unraveling of the crime, if indeed it was one.

First published in Spanish in 1980 under the title ``Volav'erunt,'' the novel was a Spanish best seller and winner of the Editorial Planeta Prize. Reading it, now in English translation, it's easy to see why.

Written as a memoir of Godoy, Duke of Alcudia - adviser to the King of Spain, confidant of Queen Maria Luisa, lover of the Duchess of Alba herself - ``The Last Portrait of the Duchess of Alba'' recounts Godoy's memories of the last night before the Duchess' untimely demise. The Duchess held a party in her new town house: friends, past lovers, enemies, and rivals attended it, and the Duchess had taken them all on a tour. Later that evening, she became ill. Now an old man, Godoy relates his part in the investigation of the Duchess' final hours. The book then goes on to present the same event as witnessed by Goya.

The result is a fascinating look at the closed circle of the Spanish court, Goya the artist, and the variance of eyewitness accounts. To add to the conundrum, the author presents his tale as a memoir, once found and annotated by his stepfather, then lost, and found by himself.

The whole is written in a clean, conversational style that fairly zips along - even when the reader is skipping back and forth between the text and the footnotes that conclude each chapter.

Thus, ``The Last Portrait of the Duchess of Alba'' is a bit of historical sleuthing that will please both mystery buffs and fans of historical fiction. It's a mystery within a mystery inside another mystery. Larreta has captured the essence of the personal memoir of the mid-19th century, and his detailing of pre-Napoleonic Spain is most adept.

But is it all speculation or is it a mirror of truth? It's a riddle to please even Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Melissa Pressley reviews historical fiction for the Monitor.