Les Bijoux Indiscrets (Denis Diderot, 1748)

Mangogul, the Sultan of the Congo, has grown bored and listless. This has not gone unnoticed by the Sultana, Mirzoza. It’s suggested that much entertainment could be found in the personal histories and exploits of the ladies of the court, but of course, those areĀ  secrets they’d never reveal. Mangogul calls on Cucufa, a hermit sorcerer, who supplies him with a ring that, when the Sultan rubs it and points it at a woman, will cause that woman’s vagina to speak — and vaginas only have one thing to talk about.

Although Mangogul promises never to turn the ring on her, Mirzoza has misgivings from the start. No good can come from it, she says. It would be an insult to a virtuous wife, and for one who isn’t, her husband’s happiness depends on his ignorance. Mangogul persists, however, and begins performing “trials” of his magic ring. Mirzoza’s second warning proves to be entirely correct, but her first seems to be unfounded, insofar as there don’t appear to be any virtuous women in the Congo. Mangogul makes a bet with her that one will never be found. Twenty-nine trials pass and Mangogul is still the winner.

Mirzoza suddenly falls ill, and Mangogul, fearing that her death is imminent and seeing that she is insensible, turns on the ring. Mirzoza’s “toy”, as the book euphemistically calls it, attests to the Sultana’s fidelity to the Sultan. Mirzoza recovers and at first is angered by Mangogul breaking his promise, but quickly recognizes the circumstances that prompted it, and forgives him on the condition that he return the ring to Cucufa. Mangogul takes off the ring at once and readily consents to give it back to the sorcerer.

The book is explicit in the sense that there’s never any question about what’s going on, but simultaneously, it strictly avoids any vulgar language. Whenever things starts to become… less polite, it switches to Italian or Spanish, and when it gets really filthy, it drops into Latin. The author cautions curious lady readers not to inquire as to the translation of these sections.

Les Bijoux Indiscrets was Diderot’s first novel, and although it’s set in Africa in the far, far, far distant future of 15,000,000,032,000,021, it’s a rather transparent allegory for the then-current court of Louis XV in France.

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