A Coin in Nine Hands is a novel about a social group and about a period, the reign of Benito Mussolini in 1933. Marguerite Yourcenar uses the device of the circulating ten-lira coin to link her diverse characters, but they are also linked by the period and by the effect Mussolini had on each of them. The first three characters whom the reader encounters are all in search of some illusion that will enable them to survive. For example, Paolo Farina can still think of himself as a desirable man when the Roman prostitute, Lina Chiari, goes to bed with him. Lina can face the world with the help of cosmetics she purchases from Giulio. Giulio’s difficulties are more complex—his wife is a shrew, his daughter’s husband, Carlo, is in jail, and his daughter, Vanna, and her sick child live with Giulio—and his consoling illusion is the Catholic church. The relationships between these people are primarily commercial rather than human; they are selling and buying illusions.
Rosalia di Credo’s story is somewhat different; her difficulty is her inability to recover or return to the family home, Gemera, in Sicily. Nevertheless, while Rosalia idealizes that home, its description and history suggest that it is merely another comforting illusion. Not only is Gemera decayed and decrepit, but its springs have dried up as well. In addition, Rosalia was driven from the decaying mansion by the enraged villagers, who think that her father is a demon. Rosalia comes to Rome with her mother to live out a meager existence. Rosalia’s illusion of a return to Gemera is shattered when she receives a letter from her father announcing that Gemera is to be sold and torn down. Her response to the death of an illusion is to spend the ten-lira coin given to her by Giulio to buy hot coals, which she spreads upon her bed, making it her funeral pyre. When people rush into her apartment after seeing the smoke, they find a Rosalia who is “peaceful,” who has “just reached the foot of a nocturnal, monstrous Gemera.”
The next chapter, the central one in the book, brings together Vanna, Massimo, Dr. Sarte, and his wife, Marcella. Each wants something different. Vanna wishes to have her husband return, and she is “radiant” when she hears that Carlo has retracted his “errors.” Marcella, the revolutionary, wants a dead martyr for her anti-Fascist cause rather than a living Carlo. Dr. Sarte, like Vanna, is worldly and opposed to the romantic idealism of Marcella. He and Marcella have separated because of a difference in political and social views. He informs Marcella that Carlo has died on the prison island of Lipari; this news, and the news that Massimo is a double agent, however, do not reduce her ardor for her revolutionary ideals. Instead, she is provoked to act; she tells her husband that she is going to assassinate Mussolini with the gun that she has taken from his desk. Dr. Sarte is not appalled by this proposed action; he is a student of human character and, although a Fascist, not committed to the cause of Mussolini. He even tells Marcella that he will be nearby to witness this intriguing event. Marcella passes the ten-lira coin to her husband as payment for his...
(The entire section is 1298 words.)