A TROUBADOUR'S TESTAMENT
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
James Cowans short novel A Troubadours Testament is an historians search for information about the end of the life of the troubadour Marcebru, based on the twelfth-century troubadour Marcabrû. Informed that a new manuscript which was carried by his object of study had been found, the nameless narrator travels to France to obtain a copy of the rouleau de mort, an obituary of Amedée de Jois which Marcebru carried and asked people who knew Amedée to add their memories to.
Cowans story is not, unfortunately, all it could be. His narrator and his friends converse as if they were members of an Oscar Wilde-style circle. Furthermore, as the narrator traces the path of the rouleau backwards, he continuously meets people who have knowledge of both the twelfth century and Marcebru. While in other hands, these characters might have achieved a level of notoriety or individuality, Cowan does not manage to instill any personality to any of them. They seem to exist merely to give the narrator clues and lead him on his spiritual quest.
Cowan portrays the twelfth century as the height of civilization, a golden age since when mankind has been in descent. Although he acknowledges the existence of war, he focuses on the ideals of courtly love as expressed by the troubadours. In this, the narrator seems to wish that he were living in the idealized medieval period he has built up in his own mind.
Despite having been written in English, A Troubadours Testament has the feel of a novel originally published in a foreign language and later translated into English. While this style of prose fits the literary and philosophical manner in which Cowan approached his material, it fails on a narrative level. The language manages to get in the way of both Cowans story and the concepts which he is attempting to relate.
The novel is punctuated by quotes which Cowan attributes to the roleau as having been written as Marcebru made him way across the langue doc region. Although the thoughts which are related in these excerpts help the narrator formulate his own philosophy and obsession with Marcebru and Amedée, they have a tendency to further fragment the novel. Frequently, they fail to fully capture the mentality which would have been prevalent when Marcebru was supposed to have lived.
Cowans conceit of a scholar tracing the path of a long dead troubadour is interesting, yet it does not really manage to hold together in the face of too much philosophizing and lack of characters or motivation. The reader is expected to simply accept that the narrator has an obsession with Marcebru without understanding why and further believe that everyone the narrator comes into contact with has a distinct sense of history and their own ancestry running back eight centuries. Unfortunately, A Troubadours Testament is a much more interesting in broad outline than it is in specific detail.
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