One of the books I’m most looking forward to getting this week is C.M. Mayo’s new novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, set in Mexico during the brief, doomed reign of Maximilian von Habsburg, in the mid-19th century. Mayo is the author of Miraculous Air, a gorgeously written exploration of Baja California, and the story collection Sky Over El Nido, which will turn every one of your preconceptions about Mexico on its head. She also blogs as Madame Mayo, where she offers sound advice on writing and the writing life.
The past week’s train commute has been enlivened by the CD edition of “From Mexico to Miramar, or, Across the Lake of Oblivion,” Mayo’s engrossing account of her trips to Maximilian’s old haunts in search of insights and information. This passage is from her account of a visit to Miramar Castle, Maximilian’s former seacoast residence in Trieste, described as “the capital of nowhere” by travel writer Jan Morris:
The morning was gray when we drove the few minutes up the coast to Miramar. From the parking lot, we caught a peek of the castle: sober-looking in this diffused light, but nonetheless fantastic, as if it had risen straight out of the sea: A rectangular tower with porthole-like windows and topped with a square crown of crenels. It was medieval-looking, but too new, too white, too sharp-cornered perfect. The evil thought occurred to me that it might have made a neat-o attraction at Disneyland. “Ivanhoe,” or something like that.
A. had become very quiet. Our shoes crunched on gravel. Rising up on our right was a hill thick with pines. Overhead, seagulls whirled and honked. There were a few other tourists: in Michelin-man down jackets and jeans, cameras slung around their necks. I didn’t recognize their language; was it Croatian? Czech? A tiny girl in a pink coat and tennis shoes skipped ahead.
On the other side of the gate a long path took us between the forested hill and the water, and then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves drawn inland into the circular drive of the castle’s entrance. Neither of us wanted to go into the castle yet, for this was in itself a strange-feeling space. There was the castle, a massive white block; behind us, stairs leading up into the gardens, so dense with pines they looked almost black; and then, in the open sweep below, the small harbor enclosed by the jetty that ended with a sphinx that was, perhaps, the size of a Great Dane.
The little sphinx was one of Maximilian’s souvenirs from a cruise to Egypt, and it did indeed appear, as his secretary Blasio fancifully put it, to be “interrogating the Adriatic.” Blasio had come here with the Empress Charlotte in 1866. Maximilian’s empire was nearing its end, but Charlotte would not accept it. She was strangely agitated when she met with Louis Napoléon in Paris, and in the Vatican she raved before the Pope and refused to leave. By the time the empress arrived here at Miramar, she was in the full throes of a ferocious psychotic breakdown.
The faithful secretary Blasio, Maximilian himself… I could not but think of all the many people who had climbed up from their rocking rowboats onto those stairs and rested their hand on that cold stone head of the sphinx: Charlotte, despairing at the riddle of her broken life; but only a few years earlier, Don José María Gutierrez d’Estrada, the exiled diplomat with his tender hopes that this Austrian Archduke might accept his proposal of the Mexican throne. General Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, another exiled diplomat, with his letter from Louis Napoleón promising money and an army. One Mr. Boudillon, special correspondent for The Times, who assured Maximilian that, though full of thieves, Mexico was, by Jove, one of the richest countries on earth! And it was from this jetty, on April 14, 1864— the very same unlucky day President Lincoln would be shot one year later— that Maximilian and Charlotte left for Mexico. A great crowd of Triestini watched their launch move out to the waiting Novara. A band played the Mexican anthem, and Maximilian, who had once written that the Atlantic Ocean is so wide “it is like a lake of oblivion,” began to weep.
Now only a seagull bobbed on the water. With our digital camera, A. snapped photos of me in front of the sphinx.
Inside the castle the first thing we came to was the gift shop, and it was exactly as awful as our friend Samuel had said: there were the Maximilian ball-point pens, Maximilian bookmarks, Charlotte ball-point pens, Charlotte pencils, Maximilian and Charlotte notebooks, key chains, mouse pads, pendants, even a glass case with tote bags and silk scarves and demi-tasse cups with Maximilian’s monogram, the overlapping “MIM,” for the Latin Maximiliano Imperator de Mexico.
A. said, picking up a baseball cap with the “MIM,” “Want one?”
“What would I do with it?”
“You could wear it when you ride your bike.”
“Just the thing,” I said. He chuckled as he tossed it back on the pile.
At the ticket counter, we rented the audiocassette tour, but before the clerk would hand over the apparatus, one of us had to leave a driver’s license.
“Leave yours,” A. said.
I didn’t want to have to dig mine out of the bottom of my pack. “You leave yours,” I said.
A. whispered into my ear: “I don’t want them to see that I’m Mexican.” I laughed, but he said, “Just do it.”
I recognized at that moment what I should have long before, that Maximilian, for my husband, represented something that I, for all my careful research, as an American, had never before encountered. There is no parallel to Maximilian in the United States. If some German prince had been put into our White House, and we had shot him on, say, field outside of Philadelphia, what would I be feeling to have come here, into the foyer of his castle? It was a Gordian knot of a question to contemplate, but already we had our earphones on and were being instructed to follow the signs around a corner.