Robert Coover: “The Colonel’s Daughter” from TNY, 9/2/13

TNY Illustration by Scott  McKowan

TNY Illustration by Scott McKowan

The conspirators sit smoking thoughtfully, sipping brandy, around the fire in the Colonel’s den. The decision has been made. They have each entered here in uncertain pursuit of some vague enthusiasm and, looking behind them, they have seen that what they passed through was a doorway into history. Soon there will be no turning back. Probably there is already no turning back. They have been chosen by the Colonel. They do not all know one another well, and are not sure they trust one another. They murmur softly, chuckle self-consciously, toast to their luck in the coming adventure, but remain watchful.

It’s a political thriller, I thought; as I read (you can, too; it’s available online), I was surprised at how stereotypical the characters seemed: the merchant looking for the profit angle, the academic feeling intellectually superior, the Minister of the Interior ready to just execute all dissenters and be done with it, the “dashing young biplane pilot” – can’t you just see him (think Han Solo), thick hair tossed back, an easy grin, restless while sitting indoors – not exactly sure about the fine details of the revolutionary conspiracy but hoping to get some adventure out of whatever it is. It’s like an MGM cast meeting for a WWII B-movie.

I was a bit surprised by Coover’s use of these stereotypical characters, as well as by the linear narrative movement of the story; the two stories of his I’d already read followed a less traditional path. It wasn’t until the last few paragraphs that I was reassured: this was still Coover.

Then there’s the Colonel’s Daughter, acting as servant; she never speaks, nor are we privy to her thoughts as we are to the other characters:

When the Colonel’s daughter approaches the department-store magnate to refill his glass, he grasps her hand-woven apron and brings it close to the rimless spectacles perched on the end of his bulbous red nose. Blushing, she unties the apron and backs away, leaving it in his hands—and after a moment’s study he identifies not only the village whence it came but the probable weaver, impressing everyone with his expertise.

In his Page-Turner interview with Deborah Treisman, Coover explains he was thinking of a cinematographic fairy tale; hence the archetypal characters (I was thinking stereotype, but he’s right, archetype is closer).

I suspect men and women will react very differently to this story, that men will see primarily the puzzle: who is the traitor? For me, I saw a woman being stripped by a roomful of men while her father looks on, a father who views her as merely a measuring device for ferreting out the traitor. I don’t care who the traitor is. Furthermore, I don’t think it matters; a year, a decade, a century from now, a similar cluster of men will gather in a room and plan another conspiracy. I want to know what the Colonel’s Daughter (who is, by the way, the title character if that’s any help) is thinking.

But she, too, is an archetype, I suspect, a stand-in for the country being exploited by the merchants, the military, the intellectuals, all the other archetypes, in the interests of power, greed, or glory. Which makes it all the more important to know what she is thinking, especially now.

While reading this, I was reminded again of the importance of context in reading, something I just experienced a few months ago when reading Light in August (for a class) against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s dismantling of voting rights protection and the Trayvon Martin verdict. With Coover’s story, I’m sure the tension of the imminent attack against Syria acted as an intensifier for this story. And it goes both ways: come on, would you be more or less likely to favor an attack if you knew the rebels were like the guys in the story? Of course, TNY couldn’t possibly have slated this story to fit this particular crisis; they were probably thinking of last week’s Middle East crisis in Egypt. For my part, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t rise above the real-life gloom to fully examine this as a story; it seemed like a powerful but unoriginal parable for someone of Coover’s talents. Maybe this story will read differently when it isn’t quite so immediate.

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