Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Stereotypical Representations in Nicolo Zen

I have been a horrible blogger for a long time. I can’t promise I will get much better, but I want to do better at putting my thoughts out into the world, mostly to save my long-suffering mother and roommate from having to listen to me ramble constantly. I have personal things to get you, my friends and readers, caught up on, but for today my thoughts are centered on the book I just finished The True Adventures of Nicolo Zen 


 This is a middle-grade novel set in eighteenth-century Venice. Nicolo Zen is a newly orphaned musician who disguises himself as a girl to get into an elite orphanage orchestra, overseen by Master Vivaldi. Christopher dealt surprisingly well with the lose of privilege Zen takes on in becoming a girl, and the story of Nicolo’s disguise, the intrigue in the orphanage, and the characters—vile and angelic alike—made the book initially promising. There were problematic elements already, though. Both of the villains within the orphanage walls were disabled. Aldo is a blind boy who has the clichéd enhance senses and milky eyes given to every blind villain. Additionally, his lack of vision means he is allowed to be in the girls’ presence without worry of impropriety—arguably denying his sexuality—and then he takes advantage of this privilege. The traditionally repugnant housemother, Marta, is a former member of the orchestra, deafened and embittered thanks to a “fall” down a flight of stairs. Her deafness supposedly prevents her from correctly reading situations, causing her to punish girls for nothing because there’s absolutely no way for her to know what’s going on without hearing their voices. Oh, but she may be faking the extent of her disability, because of course.

Even with these tropes, which Christopher obsessively attempts to balance out with a kindly cook who lost a leg in the Navy, I think I would have enjoyed this story if it had been a historical fiction novel about a boy giving up his male privilege to become a great clarinetist. Instead, his attempt to foil Aldo’s system of kidnapping helpless girls leads to his being outed as a boy (perhaps more realistically than most disguise novels) and thrown out of the orphanage. No matter, though, he has his friend the cook to help him away, and he has a deus ex magician.

You see, Nicolo’s clarinet is magical. It doesn’t play itself, exactly. It teaches him to play. Either way, it takes his agency long before he disguises himself as a girl. And its maker, Massimo the Magnificent, is the king of agency-taking. His assistants seem beholden to him, he threatens Nicolo against losing the clarinet even though he implies it will only work for its first owner, he demands without giving—and this is never acknowledged. Moreover, he is almost rewarded. After he gets angry over Nicolo’s friend Adriana’s decision not to become his new assistant, he demands they bring him a replacement. Juliette, the girl who Nicolo and Adriana effectively give to him, eventually marries him. The text may want you to think this is a love match, but the undercurrents of Massimo’s need for control makes it sit wrong.

Worst of all, Massimo solves most of Nicolo’s problems for him. Nicolo isn’t a weak character. He attempts to reclaim his agency by asking Massimo to take the spell of his clarinet, and he rescues his friends from Aldo’s clutches on more than one occasion—again, as girls they can’t save themselves—but in the end (LOOK A SPOILER) it is Massimo who directly and indirectly solves the Aldo problem. And when Nicolo looks at Aldo for the last time he remarks: “The crows had yet to pluck out Aldo's blank, milky eyes, but I would be lying if I said I felt a shred of pity for him at that moment.” (232) This connects Aldo’s eyes—his blindness, his disability—with pity, implying that looking at those eyes should incite pity. Indeed, implying that the fact that the crows have yet to pluck them out is a negative in some way, that even the birds aren’t attracted to this ugliness, or that even in death he is unequal to his able-bodied thug friends.

I honestly believe this might have been a better book without the magical realism. It is probably meant to evoke the operas of the time, something about which I know very little, and there are themes of doppelgangers, agency, and ability that might not come out in a more realistic novel, but the period and subjects could be really interesting if explored in-depth. Most disappointingly*, to me, the world of the Venice orphanage is set up so well, with so much detail, but once Nicolo is yanked out of it, his surroundings become much more superficial and the characters surrounding him much less interesting, the magic overshadows the realism to an unnecessary degree, and the stakes no longer seem dangerous.

I wish this had continued to be a book about a boy who disguised himself as a girl in order to succeed. It would have perhaps taken more suspension of disbelief without the magic, but I would have enjoyed it more.

*I accidentally typed "disapprovingly" in my first version of this post. Thanks to a helpful anon, I found the error and fixed it. 


  1. This absurd, nauseatingly politically correct "review" by Chelsey is hilarious, if one has read the novel. It takes an amazingly dense and priggish reader to deem the blind or deaf or one-legged characters to be indicative of some sort of callousness on the author's part toward disabled people. Get real! And get off your high horse. So pretentious. The notion the hero should have (impossibly) stayed disguised as a girl in order to demonstrate feminine power, or something, is also ridiculous. But, then, when someone starts talking about "agency" and "agency-taking" (whatever that means) and "tropes," and writes bad English, as in "Most disapprovingly, to me...," watch out and check out the book -- any book -- for yourself. A wonderful rollicking adventure story meant to be read aloud, as I read it with several friends. If you like TREASURE ISLAND or KIDNAPPED, you will love this novel.

    1. Dear Anon,

      Thank you for pointing out my accidental use of the phrase "most disapprovingly," I'll fix it post-haste. I believe, though, that you have misinterpreted my post on Nicolo Zen. I didn't mean it as a book review, precisely. More a summation of my thoughts on the book, which are influenced by a significant amount of time spent in the academic world studying children's literature. Specifically, children's literature dealing with disability, wherein the trope of the disabled villain and the idea of agency are incredibly important. A book necessarily exists in conversation with the books that have come before it, and thus the question of agency are important.

      And, yes, for Nicolo to have stayed disguised may seem "impossible," but I have to ask, doesn't it seem just as impossible for a girl to disguise her sex? And yet, it happens in literature and in life. Moreover, people who are transgendered pass as the opposite sex long before they can afford to go to the extremes of surgery. So, no, it's no more impossible in the world of imagination than a magician who splits himself in half, and that is possible in this book.

    2. I did not intend to be so vituperative. I appreciate your response. And enjoyed your many blog posts. I actually read much of this book (recommended to me by a teacher in an inner city school who is a friend) aloud to two groups of kids at a center that assists children from broken homes with concerts, stories, etc. And these kids loved the story as an adventure. French structuralism, literary theory -- that stuff is far from their minds. I have no idea why the author did not keep the hero disguised as a girl; that would seem to be a very different story, worth telling if done right. But he seemed to have another story in mind, so it seems a moot point. As far as I can tell from the bio in the book, he is an "adult" fiction author and poet. I know his work from the New Yorker. I don't know that he's written other work for children and young people. Or if he intended for his book to be read aloud. But it is really enjoyable that way. I wish you luck as an aspiring author. Whether I happen to agree with you about this novel is beside the point; it is great that you are putting forward books and giving them honest responses.
      --Franklin White

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