Sunday, 20 May 2007

The return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis

Hands up who has seen Gerard Depardieu in Le Retour de Martin Guerre which was released in 1982. It might have even been on TV tucked away in a late night art-film nook and cranny. Well this is the book of the history that the film ignored. It was written by the consultant to the film who is a very famous feminist leading proponent of cross-disciplinary history, which consists of combining history with disciplines as anthropology, art history, ethnography and literacy theory.(ohh, I'll go to the foot of our stairs!- meaningless if you are not from the north of England !)Now don’t stop reading because youse ‘ate’ history, the story and the film is a definite 3 handkerchief fable that has been popular for nearly 500 years

Let’s start at the beginning, Martin Guerre, is a Basque peasant in France who marries as a young teenager but for seven years no or poor sex with his wife, Bertrande. So becomes the laughing stock of the village until eventually a bit of love potion gets the machinery working. A baby is born within 9 months so family thinks that all is well with inheritance and the future. However, he is bored with work and married life so ups and deserts Bertrande and joins the Spanish army then attacking France. Bertrande is not distraught to see him go as she gains the independence and status of being a married woman without the hassle of a man with no lead in his pencil. Nor are the family as more land for them!

In the meanwhile, Arnaud du Tilh is whoring and thieving his way through life having too much intelligence to fit into farming and liking the ladies too much for the Church. He has a very good memory and can charm his way into anything. Some seven years after Martin Guerre has disappeared, Arnaud meets some villagers in a Tavern and hears of the pretty wealthy woman and so hatches a plot to impersonate Martin Guerre.

This is where the plot thickens, because he does fool most of the family and villagers. But Bertrande clearly knows what is what yet they fall in love. Ahead in the story is how this love becomes doomed, how Bertrande has to pretend betrayal to save her child and the family estate, and how a figure from her past stomps in at her moment of triumph. And this is just the story of these three, you also learn about why the Father-law sets in motion the tragedy and why the Judge was not all he appeared.

See told you it was 3 handkerchief fable. Sadly, the story is more interesting then the style of its writing which at times can steer towards a cut-down academic of…on the one hand but on the other But it does give a rounded historical context of why main characters made the choices they did. And the real tragedy is the blighted lives of the many in a feudal society undergoing the changes that would lead to the revolution and the historic root of the individual freedoms that Martin, Bertrand, and Arnaud were struggling towards.

Would I recommend it? Yes for its insight to a story that has never lost its power to fascinate since the 1560’s. But see the film as well.

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