24 April 2014

Carole Martinez: Du domaine des Murmures | The Castle of Whispers (2011)

Carole Martinez's second novel, Du domaine des murmures (translated as The Castle of Whispers) is set in the twelfth century but throughout it begs to be viewed from a twenty-first century perspective. This is in effect a long feminist tract with a strong criticism of a male-dominated world, along with criticisms of religious superstition and hypocrisy.

Fifteen-year-old Esclarmonde is the daughter of the lord of the domaine des Murmures and has no choice in who she can marry: she is told that she is to wed Lothaire de Montfaucon, a truly obnoxious deflowerer of young virgins. There is no way that she can argue with her father, although she very dramatically refuses to marry by cutting an ear off at the altar and just saying 'No'.

In Esclarmonde's world it is either marriage or the convent and she duly goes to spend the rest of her days in a spartan cell devoting her life not to any man but to God. Her father wants no more to do with her. But that's just the beginning as opposed to the end of the story.

Esclarmonde receives her meagre allowance of food through a small barred window, and it is also through this window that many people come on pilgrimages to see the girl they see as a saint whose powers can perform miracles. Her powers have certainly worked miracles on Lothaire, who's no longer a Lothario but has turned good and worships Esclarmonde. In fact, Lothaire's father sees him as effeminate now he's taken to music: the gender tables have been turned.

Shortly before Esclarmonde went into her prison she was raped, and she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Elzéar in secrecy in her cell. The apparently insane reaction of her father to crucify himself on learning of the birth will become more comprehensible: towards the end of the novel – in fact near the end of his life – he confesses that he raped his daughter.

His first reaction, though, is to pierce his son's palms, and the stupid and the gullible (including the archbishop) believe that these wounds are stigmata, and that Elzéar is a child of virgin birth.

Esclarmonde, in her position of power, frees her father from his otherwise certain death by persuading him and most of the other fit males to go off to fight in the holy land, leaving her step-mother Douce and a mainly female-dominated land. Meanwhile Elzéar grows into a normal child (under the circumstances) and regularly explores the environment by slipping through the bars of the cell until he gets too big for it and must leave Esclarmonde.

After almost all of the men die in the war and Esclarmonde intends to leave her cell, the people are concerned that they will lose their saint to the world and – as they aren't particularly bothered whether a saint is dead or alive – they build a fire outside her cell and she dies after a fruitless kiss-of-life from the ever-faithful Lothaire. Yes, the whole book has been related by a voice from the afterlife.

And the book itself is so powerful that it is haunting.

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