Helen Davies on Kathe Koja on brothels and puppets

Review by Helen Davies

Kathe Koja, Under the Poppy. Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2010.   Hardback ISBN: 9781931520706, $24.00

Pornographic Puppetry?

Considering neo-Victorian fiction’s interest in ‘re-voicing’ the nineteenth century and the primacy of giving voice to the ‘silenced’ sexualities of the Victorian era within this genre, a novel featuring a queer ventriloquist who performs in a brothel seems particularly appropriate. Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy is set in late nineteenth-century Brussels and tells the story of childhood friends, Decca and Rupert, who run a brothel (the eponymous ‘Poppy’). Their establishment is simultaneously invigorated and troubled by the arrival of Decca’s brother, Istvan, a puppeteer/ventriloquist who introduces the puppets into the nightly stage performances at the brothel. The risqué combination of women and dolls proves too provocative for the local authorities and yet the Poppy is an important part of life in the town for the new influx of soldiers seeking release from the horrors of war. Istvan’s and Rupert’s former relationship is rekindled, but a murder means that the inhabitants of the brothel must flee. Some years later, Rupert and Istvan are mingling in the high society of Brussels yet their past catches up with them and they must fight for their love and their survival in an atmosphere of decadence, political strife and persecution.

It is the scenes in the Poppy that are likely to be of most interest to neo-Victorianists. Although the European setting of the text might remove the novel from the immediate context of ‘Victorian’ Britain, the thematic preoccupations of Under the Poppy will prove familiar territory for readers of Michel Faber, Sarah Waters and so on. A recurring trope of neo-Victorian fiction is the desire to engage with the supposedly ‘repressed’ sexuality of the nineteenth century, and Koja’s novel certainly gives a frank account of the work of women and customers in the sex industry. The relationship between Istvan and Rupert – and subsequently Rupert and Benjamin – is sensitively drawn and may hold interest for Wilde scholars, as Istvan and Rupert forge their connection as orphans: ‘feral boys on the street where no one else cares except to fuck or rob them, make slaves or toys or servants of them’ (Koja 31). Here we are exposed to the other side of Wildean dalliances with young men paid for their sexual services; the ‘renters’ are given a voice, represented as vulnerable and open to manipulation.

It is this theme of people as ‘toys’ and the politics of manipulation that finds resonance with the puppet motif that runs throughout the novel. Istvan, the enigmatic but sinister puppeteer, is positioned as both puppet-master and puppet; able to manipulate his sister and orchestrate the performances at the Poppy but in turn unable to control his lover and subject to whims of powerful men. He refers to his puppets as ‘mecs’ and speculates: ‘So how different, really, is a man from a mec?’ (Koja 29). The gendering of this statement is significant as the novel does tend to focus on the experience of male characters at the expense of the women working in the brothel. Here an understanding of the cultural history of ventriloquism becomes relevant. Prior to the use of puppets in ventriloquist performances, the practice of displaced voice encompassed a much broader range of utterances: the priestesses at the Delphic Oracle; medieval accounts of demon possession; the messages conveyed by nineteenth-century spirit mediums. It was generally women who were subject to these ‘supernatural’ voices – fulfilling the role of ‘dummy’ – and yet we can also understand these women as surreptitiously producing the voices whilst posing as a mere vessel for them. It was only during the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century that ventriloquism came to be a form of entertainment largely dominated by male practitioners and Istvan is part of this later tradition, a masculine ventriloquist who possesses uncanny powers of influence. Although Koja seems to blur the boundaries between men and puppets, she generally elides the ways in which the women in the brothel are also puppet-like, subjected to manipulations by customers, their employers and Istvan himself. The most shocking realisation of this power imbalance comes at the beginning of the novel, when we witness one of the women, Pearl, seemingly being brutally violated by two men. The first is Istvan, the second is revealed to be his puppet, Pan Loudermilk, and the scene of the ventriloquist’s doll sodomising Pearl is dismissed as Istvan’s ‘prank’ to announce his return to Rupert and Decca. The use of Pearl in this exchange is horrible yet her exploitation is never redressed. Perhaps my anxiety about this scene says more about my expectations of neo-Victorian fiction than highlighting a deficiency with the actual novel; is it that I require my neo-Victorian sex to be rendered politically correct? I feel that the most successful neo-Victorian texts are those which are doing something to challenge the gendered and sexual power imbalances of nineteenth-century society. Although Koja’s novel is offering an interesting insight into the complexity of desire between men in the late nineteenth-century Europe, its representation of women’s sexuality is rather lacking.

There is a tempting comparison to be made between Under the Poppy and sections of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984), which might go some way to explaining my unease with the representation of women in Koja’s novel. The Poppy is notable as an establishment which caters for theatrical tastes: the women are expected to dress up as angels, mermaids, staging performances for the assembled customers downstairs before offering them private services in the bedrooms. We are reminded of Fevvers’ stint at two brothels in Nights at the Circus: the homely Ma Nelson’s house, where she dresses as Winged Victory and her rather more negative at Madame Schreck’s ‘museum of women monsters’ (Carter 55) where both workers and customers appear in costume. At Madame Schreck’s there is also a dumb manservant/organist Toussaint, who is a precursor of the tongue-less pianist at the Poppy, Jonathan. These intertextual resonances are interesting in several ways. They demonstrate the ways in which neo-Victorian fiction is self-reflexive, drawing our attention not just to nineteenth-century precursors but other texts within the genre itself. The relationship between Carter’s and Koja’s novels also serves to highlight the feminist awareness of the former which is sadly absent from the latter. Although Under the Poppy is a narrative of multiple perspectives and some of the women in the brothel do have a ‘voice’ in the text, their accounts are missing the depth of characterisation and critique of patriarchal ideology which permeates the commentaries of the working women in Carter’s novel.

Despite my reservations about the sexual politics of the novel, there is much to recommend it. The European setting broadens our perspective of the neo-Victorian, and there is a distinctly uncanny aspect to the novel’s representation of a decadent community being encroached upon by impending war; it seems to foreshadow the events in Europe of the 1930s. Above all, Under the Poppy is a text concerned with performances. The sections of the novel are divided into ‘Acts’ and the novel frequently meditates on the blurred boundaries between the ‘artifice’ of performance and the ‘reality’ of life. It is exciting to hear that the novel is being adapted for stage at the Black Box Theatre, Detroit Opera House (scheduled for 2012) and perhaps the more wooden aspects of the Poppy’s puppet-women will be brought to life by this production.

  • Helen Davies is an associate Lecturer in English Literature at Leeds Metropolitan University. Her book Gender and Ventriloquism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction: Passionate Puppets is being published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.

[Posted 03.x.2012]

One Response to Helen Davies on Kathe Koja on brothels and puppets

  1. Pingback: Under the Poppy | That scene with Pearl

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