Hail to Xavier I, King of Redonda

9 Sep

Redonda is a tiny uninhabitable island in the Caribbean, with high impenetrable cliffs and one boulder-strewn beach, home to colonies of boobies and rats.  Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1493 and named it Santa María de la Redonda.

But the Spanish novelist Javier Marías is its king and his court includes a glittering assembly of literary, cinematic and artistic giants.

The story begins in the mid 1800s when a trader from Monserrat claimed Redonda to celebrate the birth of a son after having had eight daughters. His son,  M.P. Shiel (1865-1947), later to become a popular author of fantasy literature , was crowned king of the island when he was fifteen by the Bishop of Antigua.

Shiel, or King Felipe I, moved to England and in turn passed the crown to the English poet John Gawsworth (1912-1970), whom he also made his literary executor.

Gawsworth, King Juan I, was a convivial man with a bit of a drink problem and generously gave or sold a host of dukedoms during his reign. Among his courtiers were Dylan Thomas, Henry Miller, Doris Day, Dirk Bogarde and Lawrence Durrell. He also, unfortunately, sold his own title as King many times over so that there is a swathe of pretenders to the throne. However, on his death-bed, he appointed publisher Jon-Wynne-Tyson (1924-) his only heir and literary executor, soTyson became Juan II.

Now enter Javier Marías. Marías’ novel All Souls, which is set in Oxford, features a character believed to be based on the poet Gawsworth. The then reigning King of Redonda, Jon Wynne-Tyson,  was so impressed by Marías’ portrayal of Gawsworth that he abdicated and the kingdom passed to Marías.

Since King Xavier I ascended to the (non-existent) throne, Marías has appointed several Dukes and Duchesses to his court, including Pedro Almodóvar, A.S. Byatt, W.G. Sebald and Francis Ford Coppola. In 2001 he created a literary prize which is judged by his courtiers. Among the winners of the Reino de Redonda prize are Alice Munro (Duchess of Ontario), Umberto Eco (Duke of la Isla del Día de Antes) and Eric Rohmer (Duke of Olalla).  I understand that the architect Frank Gehry (Duke of Nervión) has even designed a blueprint for the palace on Redonda.

In an interview in the Paris Review,  when asked about his attitude to the pretenders, Marías said he had decided never to reply to them, claiming that was the “kingly” thing to do. “What would the King of England or the King of Spain do? They would not reply.”

(The pretenders have also instigated their own alternative literary award, submissions open only to resident of the islands of the Eastern Caribbean.)

This is a true story.


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