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The Slave

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Panther, London, 1970
price: 6/- (30p); 336 pages

(translated from the Italian by Isabel Quigly; first published in Great Britain by Macdonald & Co, 1969)

The blurb on the back:

Orgy for two.
Silvia - Young, beautiful and rich, she has everything - except the bondage and humiliation she craves to fulfil her erotic yearnings.
Margaret - The sex-symbol movie star who loves to wade thigh-deep in 10,000-lire notes - and who is only too willing to give Silvia what she wants...
In a strange secluded house outside Rome, where six women and a man live in a bizarre private world, Sylvia's fantasies become real as Margaret turns her into what she most wishes to become: a slave, a plaything of flesh, subject to the whims of an all-powerful owner...
Renato Ghiotto's novel, a European bestseller, is a masterly, intricate study of aberrant sexuality, told with uncompromising candour.

opening lines:
As soon as the car moved, I pretended I was tied up, wrists crossed in my lap, ankles together.

It starts with an elegant woman in a cab, leaving a major European capital behind for a remote house, on a journey into decadence and voluntary slavery. A familiar opening, but the key difference between this novel and The Story of O is the presence in that first sentence of the word 'pretended'.

Silvia, our narrator, is - she says - 'a moderately masochistic girl' who has to work damn hard to create a reality that will approximate to her dreams of non-existence. 'Free choice was not for me,' she declares, but unfortunately there's no Sir Stephen waiting in the wings to take decision-making away from her, and she finds herself having surreptitiously to push and prod those around her so that they play their parts correctly in her fantasy.

She's greatly assisted in this when she becomes the live-in companion to Margaret, a successful actress who spends her days shut up in her room in absolute idleness. The atmosphere of indolent luxury that pervades her house enables Silvia to adopt a more and more subservient role, allowing Margaret's petty whims to grow into tyrannies and abuses. Before too long, Silvia is dressed in a quasi-Roman tunic and acting as a footstool for her mistress. There are problems - Silvia's creativity is much greater than anything anyone can devise for her, and she finds that her need to be treated as an object is being over-ridden by Margaret's bourgeois tendency to see her as a low-grade servant (a very different proposition indeed) - but she struggles onwards and things inevitably get much, much heavier. Well, where else were they going to go?

If I'm giving the impression that this is a tale of sexual servitude, then I should correct that. There is no overt sexual contact between Margaret and Silvia (or 'the silvia', as she becomes known). Indeed Margaret dislikes even seeing her completely naked and insists she wear a black silk cache sexe when changing into one of her increasingly elaborate costumes:

One was made of thin strips of steel, lined with white leather on the inside; handcuffs five centimetres wide at wrists and ankles, a collar, a very wide belt on the hips, made of interwoven strips that fitted my body so as to allow me to bend or kneel down. The handcuffs were linked at each other and to the collar with fine chains and shut with a lock that needed a key to open it. The chains were long enough to allow well-controlled movements; the handcuffs on the wrists could be joined to immobilise the arms either in front or behind the body, and so could those at the ankle. The wrists could also be joined to the belt, either together at the back or else separately, each on its own side. I wore a helmet that opened up with a visor and was fastened under the chin; it covered my hair and part of my cheeks, leaving only the oval of the face showing; this helmet had a chain at the back of the neck and by fastening it to the belt, you could force the head back. (pp.236-7)

And yet: not an overtly sexual relationship. Instead what we have is a sustained meditation (it is almost exclusively in Silvia's words) on the psychology of submission, the drive to abandon personality through ritual and objectification.

It's an extraordinary book. It may take a while for its slow-burning atmosphere to hook you, but when it does, you'll find yourself reeled in before you realize you've been caught. For some reason, it doesn't appear to be celebrated as a classic within BDSM culture, but it certainly should be: it appears to me - as an outsider - to be as subtle and profound a consideration on the dialectic of liberation through self-abasement as you'll find outside the volumes of Catholic matyrology.

Whether it's psychologically true and whether it also works as erotica, I don't know. But then I'm afraid I'm not 'a moderately masochistic girl'. Any comments from those who are will be greatly welcomed.