Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1298
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 gun and as a symbol of her commitment. Marcella next tells Massimo of her plan, and a debate ensues; he argues that it would be a useless gesture, but she remains committed to the act—even if it is meaningless. She describes herself as doing “the dirty work no one else would do.”
During the attempted assassination, Marcella thinks that she has been released from her flesh and become “pure strength.” A moment later, she sees the act as absurd, yet at the crucial moment “she raised her arm, fired—and missed.” She has put her illusions into action rather than rely on them to soothe her, as others have done, but the result is merely ridiculous.
The next chapter deals with Angiola Farina and is almost a commentary on the previous action of Marcella. Angiola is in a motion-picture theater watching her screen idol, Angiola Fides, whom she uses to supply the missing romance in her life. Dr. Sarte, whose wife has just played out a cinematic action, sees Angiola as an easy sexual conquest, and they enact a scene similar to that in the film they have just watched. They part, with Angiola in pursuit of a marriage to an Australian lord and Dr. Sarte in pursuit of some meaning in his life. Since Marcella has not met him as arranged, Dr. Sarte thinks that she also lacks courage, like everyone else in this society, but a bystander tells him that some madwoman attempted and failed to assassinate Mussolini and has been shot down. The chapter ends with a gruesome and realistic description of Marcella’s body lying on a Roman street.
The rest of the novel is anticlimactic. Old Mother Dida is a miser who extracts work and profit from everyone with whom she comes in contact. Her old habits and thrift drive her, and she seems unable to change. At the end of the chapter, however, a slight transformation does occur. She is walking by a dark street in Rome, when she sees a poor man whom she distinguishes from the usual run of derelicts. She gives him the ten-lira coin that Dr. Sarte had given her earlier for flowers. Nevertheless, this realistic woman, who seems to have altered suddenly, falls prey to the same errors and illusions that the others do. The man to whom she has given the coin is not a poverty-stricken wretch but an artist suffering from angina.
The mistaken beggar, Clement Roux, and the enigmatic Massimo next encounter each other. Roux is an artist who mourns for the loss of the Rome he had known thirty years earlier. He meets Massimo, who is attempting to mourn for Marcella or find some expiation for his failure either to join or to prevent her attempt. Massimo has seen Roux’s self-portrait in a museum and knows who he is, but they still talk at cross-purposes. Massimo continually refers to the attempted assassination, while Roux talks about either his art or his past. Roux, who is seventy, has had no experience with the realities of life; he was even too old for World War I, in which his brother died. In contrast, Massimo is twenty-two and seems to have experienced too much reality to be able to bear it. Roux’s thoughts are of art and beauty, while Massimo’s are of war, torture, and assassination. As they are about to part, Roux takes the ten-lira coin he received from Mother Dida and throws it into the recess of a rock, rather than into Massimo’s hand. Roux is leaving Rome because of the climate and the changes brought about by the modern world. He leaves Massimo to the streets, as he returns to his comfortable home and the perceived safety it creates.
The last chapter of the book is a suitably fragmented survey of all the major characters in the novel. Paolo sleeps and is still unaware. Giulio is once more annoyed at the talk of his women and cannot sleep. Dr. Sarte is being interrogated by the authorities about his knowledge of his wife, Marcella, but remains in control of himself. Lina Chiari is lying on her bed thinking of Massimo—who is not thinking of her—and of her breast cancer. Angiola dreams of Angiola Fides, and Massimo collapses in weariness. Oreste Marinuzzi, a new character, appears and finds the coin, using it to get drunk and pass out—which makes him “as happy as a dead man.”
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