‘A Túlipa Negra’ (‘The Black Tulip’) by Alexandre Dumas

My rating: 3 stars

A Túlipa Negra (The Black Tulip), written by Alexandre Dumas and translated into Portuguese by Mateus Valadier, is a nineteenth-century historical romantic comedy featuring a man who has to pay attention to both a woman and a tulip, while his neighbour conspires against him in the background. I purchased this book a few years ago, when I was trying to read more French novels, and I must have paid no attention to the blurb, since this is not the type of story that would have caught my interest straightway.

The novel starts with the real historical conflict between the two brothers De Witt and the population of The Hague, in the Netherlands, in 1672. They were both accused of treason and ended up being lynched by the people while trying to escape to exile. I was really confused about this part of the story, because it feels like the narrator expects the reader to have previous knowledge about this event.

Before dying, Corneille De Witt sent a message to his godson, Cornelius Van Baerle, requesting him to destroy a package he had formerly left with him for safekeeping. At the time, he had asked him never to open it, since it contained dangerous information. This is when the fictional part of the novel starts to develop.

Van Baerle, a promising botanist, is trying to grow a black tulip in order to win an important prize. His talent for cultivating beautiful tulips causes the envy and hatred of one of his neighbours, Boxtel, who also desires to be regarded as a great botanist. Boxtel is consumed by wanting to impair Van Baerle’s work, and the narration of his actions is at times quite funny.

Since Boxtel spends most of his days spying on his neighbour, he is aware that he keeps De Witt’s letters in a drawer. He shares that information with the states’ guards, who then arrest Van Baerle for treason. However, before being taken away as a prisoner, he manages to hide the black tulip’s bulbs in his pocket. It is in prison that the botanist meets Rosa, the daughter of the guard, and falls in love with her. Will he still manage to grow the black tulip?

The botanists’ work is glorified throughout the book, although sometimes there is a subtle irony involved. The activity of growing flowers is even compared with the works of Shakespeare and Rubens.

Despite the funny undertones, the writing style is not always captivating. There is too much telling and not enough showing, which is not engaging. The narrator sometimes being referred to in the first-person plural was also a bit off-putting, since it remembered me of the style used in scientific studies. And many of the metaphors felt forced, though the fault may lay with the translation.

A Túlipa Negra is an average read with a predictable ending. There is nothing particularly remarkable about it, but it introduced me to a Dutch historical event and provided some light-hearted reading time.


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