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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History With Academic Rigour and Real Literary Worth, August 29, 2006
This review is from: The Return of Martin Guerre (Paperback)
The Return of Martin Guerre is not a regular history book. It is extremely short and extremely readable: a tale of intrigue; muddled and contradictory motivations; ethnic assimilation, sexual deficiencies; witch craft; and the stolen identity of a peasant by another on the backdrop of the Protestant reformation in France, Natalie Z. Davis's account of this utterly weird case of sixteenth century fraud proves the old dictum that historians never tire of explaining to incredulous novelists and an unfortunately indifferent public: truth is stranger than fiction.

The life of Martin Guerre would have left nearly no evidence of any existence, and have been of little use for any historian, were it not for the fact that he abandoned his young wife and son when he was in his early twenties for motivations that the modern historian can only guess at. Wanting adventure and release from a matrimonial bond that had been established for him at an extremely young age by his wife's and his own parents, young Guerre made his way into the service Spanish nobility and then fought in the Spanish wars in modern Flanders and Holland, where he would loose a leg. This, in and of itself, is unremarkable. There were likely many gimps made by their service in Armies of Spain in the sixteenth century. The utter weirdness of this situation only begins with the entrance of Arnaud du Tilh.

From a modern standpoint, it is difficult to imagine that anyone who knew Martin Guerre would have mistaken Arnaud du Tilh for him for any great length of time. Martin was tall and slender whereas Arnaud was short and stocky; Martin was athletic whereas Arnaud was a lazybones; Martin was difficult and irascible where Arnaud was generally likable; Martin was a native speaker of Basque whereas Arnaud's first tongue was French. The only thing that Arnaud and Martin really had in common was that neither was happy enough in the life they were born into to remain where they were. The question becomes then, how could Arnaud possibly hope to, and very successfully, appropriate the identity of Martin Guerre?

Davis gives many reasonable explanations. First, this was an age before photography and therefore only flawed memory could serve the purpose of knowing what Martin looked like among peasants too poor to have considered portraiture. Second, the Basque tradition which Martin Guerre grew up placed a powerful emphasis on the importance of family and seeing him return would have been, even after a less than honorable exit nearly a decade before, a nearly unadulterated joy. Finally, Davis points out what is the truly amazing about Arnaud is that he had, "a memory an actor would envy (35)." Though this mechanism alone, Davis believes, Arnaud is able to tap into a myriad number of stories which he is able to consciously able to craft into a believable mask of Martin Guerre--one that would, seemingly, fool Martin Guerre's friends, family, and his wife for several years. Even more amazingly, when much of his family was certain that Arnaud was not actually Martin, he would nearly deceive several magistrates.

The fraud only did not go unpunished because the real Martin Guerre reappeared on the scene in the nick of time, and with not much in the way of explanation, with less of memory for the events of his life than Arnaud had. It was this fact that compelled Davis's two primary sources on the case of Martin Guerre to try to understand just what it was that they had witnessed. As Davis points out, this was a case where absolutely nothing was as it seemed. This is what drew both Jean Coras, the judge who nearly freed Arnaud to return to Martin Guerre's wife, to write his magisterial Arrest Memorable and Guillaume Le Sueur Admiranda historia de Pseudo Martino. Both works show a powerful respect for the fact that Arnaud was able to pull off such an incredible act of fraud for so long, but neither could come to terms with how a peasant was capable of doing this. Ultimately this is what drew Davis to the case and will likely be what continues to draw readers to her book.
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Location: Schenectady, New York United States

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