Review: The Return of Martin GuerreEditorial Review - Kirkus Reviews
A scholarly speculative reconstruction of a celebrated episode from 16th-century Languedoc that shapes a mass of dusty archival records into a relaxed, fast-paced, and charming narrative. Davis is a Princeton historian who collaborated with scenarist Jean-Claude Carrière and director Daniel Vigne on the just-released Retour de Martin Guerre. That work in turn drove her to do the minute, exacting research that resulted in this fine little book. Martin Guerre was a peasant of Basque origins who married Bertrande de Vols in the village of Artigat in 1538. Both bride and groom were well-to-do and very young, perhaps 12 and 14 respectively. After more than eight years of impotence, Martin succeeded in consummating the marriage and begetting a son. Not long after that he fell out with his father (committing the unpardonable act, for a Basque, of stealing grain from the older man) and then suddenly disappeared. About eight years later a brilliant impostor named Arnaud du Tilh with a reasonable resemblance to Martin Guerre showed up in Artigat and was received by everyone (including Bertrande de Vols) with open arms. But after three or four years as a happy husband and respected citizen, Martin Arnaud was accused of being a fraud in a suit to which Bertrande was a party. He was on the verge of exoneration when the real Martin Guerre appeared on the scene and sealed his fate (death on a gibbet across from the Guerre house). Davis builds her story around the Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, the judge who condemned du Tilh. But unlike Coras and all other subsequent narrators (save for F. Gayot de Pitaval), she stresses what seems to the modern reader an obvious element: that Bertrande must have been in cahoots with her pseudo-husband until, for whatever reasons, she sided with his enemies. Many features of the affair (such as where du Tilh got all the information he needed to hoodwink the Guerres) will forever remain obscure, and to fill them in Davis has necessarily resorted to educated guessing. So this is not history in any strict sense--but it certainly is a fascinating anecdote, with enough colorful background, psychological complexity (Bertrande and Arnaud's testimony dovetailed to perfection, clearly by pre-arrangement), and unsolved mysteries to delight any intelligent audience.