Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Robert Coover’s “The Colonel’s Daughter” was originally published in the September 2, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I’ve enjoyed, to a degree, Coover’s short fiction that’s appeared in The New Yorker, and I really need to read one of his novels. It’s impressive that he’s still going strong at 81. I have read this one already, but it was a puzzle I haven’t yet had a chance to revisit. Consequently, my thoughts have been a bit jumbled and not quite ready to post. Thankfully, Betsy has!
Best start at the starting place with Robert Coover’s “The Colonel’s Daughter.” Although the story might appear to be about the Colonel, or about the cabal he hopes will kill the President, I think the story concerns itself most deeply with the Colonel’s daughter, even though the reader is immediately distracted from her importance by the story’s opening word: “The conspirators . . .”
The story takes place within the Colonel’s mansion, where he has gathered a group of nine men together in his den for the purpose of setting a coup in motion. Comprised of representatives of various power groups, the cabal includes a revolutionary lawyer, a deputy minister, the chief of police, a corrupt retail mogul, a real estate tycoon, a pilot, an editor, and a doctor. In his interview with Deborah Treisman, Coover reveals that the effect he is aiming for is cinematic. His method is to focus on the thoughts of several of the men, revealing that, for instance, the colonel believes that at least one of the men present will betray him, that in fact there might be a counter cabal within the cabal. The colonel hopes to be president, but the fact is almost every single man has a reason to hate him. Cinematically speaking, however, we would never hear any of these men thinking, nor would we hear someone thinking about them.
The story appears to be taking place in a country lacking a stable system for the orderly transfer of power, a place where the army might suddenly seize the reins. Even though there is a description of native dress that appears to be eastern European, one is put more in mind of the present difficulties in Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria.
Coover plays with the instability of metaphor by having each man “interpret” the meaning of the nationalist or tribal embroidery on the daughter’s apron and vest in a different manner. One has to doubt that the message conveyed by the embroidery is at all clear, given that each man’s answer is more fanciful than the last. One would doubt the power of metaphor, except that this metaphor is not at all clearly expressed.
At the same time, there can be no doubt about what the colonel is doing by having his daughter present at the meeting. While he appears to have her there as a hostess, and as light conversational diversion, he is in fact using her to determine the loyalty of each of the men present. He is using her to the point of assault, and his display of her verges on offering her as fodder for rape. By the time the evening is over, she has shed her apron, her vest and her skirt. Nothing in the tone of the story teller reveals any shock at the bizarre goings on, and no one speaks on the girl’s behalf, not even the revolutionary lawyer who was once her teacher or maybe even her lover. Not even the family doctor interrupts on her behalf. The deputy minister is frightened by the girl’s beauty, and thinks of her as “wanton.” In the deputy minister’s mind, she is to blame, and should be punished. She is in so much danger that even the colonel realizes he must sequester her, but he reveals no sadness about the circumstances that now necessarily mean she must be “protected” for the rest of her life in a convent.
What country Coover intends is not clear, but it is a country with, for one thing, no respect for women. I am reminded of the places where women are attacked with acid, or raped because they are western or are behaving in a western way, or where a girl can be shot because she goes to school.
The girl clearly stands in for the country itself — the country whom each of the men in the cabal is willing to rape, it appears.
The issue of who it is that has murdered the colonel and the lawyer is unimportant, actually. The real question is this: how did this girl, whether she was ever the colonel’s real daughter or not, end up being thrown away?
Countries where women are throw-aways, countries where women need not be educated — these are the countries in the gravest danger of instability. If half of the population lives under this kind of “house arrest,” the country is perched on a precarious cliff: these women, who represent half of the country, are both half alive and half enfranchised. In these countries the women are told what to wear, and their clothing is another form of house arrest. In this story, we never hear the colonel’s daughter say a word, even though we know that perhaps she has a lover in the room. Muzzlement — that’s my word for enforced mutism — ends up in explosion.
The girl stands in for the country — thrown away, used, exploited, silenced, imprisoned — and all in the name of pretty lies told by the ones in charge.
So, who killed the Colonel? My vote is on the doctor, the man in the “bottle glass spectacles,” the one who attends the colonel’s wife, the woman subject to “periodic fits of depression.” I think Coover chose the word “fits” purposely. Keep half the country under house arrest, and the resultant fits ought to be quite significant. Osama bin Laden’s second in command was a doctor from Egypt. I am reminded of Zawahiri by this story, especially as he was arrested and thrown in jail in Egypt at the time of Anwar Sadat’s assassination.
Still, the Colonel’s daughter is the one that matters.