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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

May 12, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

LIEUTENANT NUN: Transvestite in the New World by Catalina de Eraso, translated from the Spanish by Michele Stepto & Gabriel Stepto, foreword by Marjorie Garber (Beacon: $16.95; 80 pp.). Catalina de Eraso was born in Spain in 1585. Her parents placed her in a convent for Dominican nuns when she was 4. In 1600, after being beaten by one of the sisters, she ran away from the convent, spent three days re-cutting her clothes into breeches, a doublet and hose and never looked back. The rest is pure picaresque.

She finds work as a ship's boy on a galleon belonging to her uncle (none of her family members, including her parents, recognize her anymore) and sails to the New World in 1603. She becomes a soldier, fights in the conquest of Chile, seems to spend about half of each year in jail for theft, murder or assault and battery and the other half in the homes of wealthy patrons who inevitably kick her out for competing for their mistresses' attentions (and usually winning). She escapes marriage several times to young girls proffered by their families and leaves us guessing as to the details of her sexual encounters, admitting only to a liking for pretty faces and to cuckolding more than one gentleman.

In 1624, she returns to Europe, is given a pension by the Spanish king and permission from the pope to continue to wear men's clothing! The translator bemoans Catalina's somewhat flat, deadpan tonality and describes the difficulties of translating into a language with none of the gender subtleties (masculine and feminine endings) that Catalina used to describe herself, but it's a rollicking, swashbuckling tale nonetheless. One only wishes there were more of it than a mere 80 pages.

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