Apr/May 2000 Book Reviews

A Troubadour's Testament

James Cowan
Allen and Unwin (October 1999) 198 pages
ISBN: 1 86508 151 5

reviewed by Ann Skea

The reason for writing is to shelter something from death. -- André Gide

James Cowan uses this quotation as an epigram at the start of his book. I think the reason for his own writing is certainly to shelter something from death, but he is very secretive about what that "something" is. In A Troubadour's Testament, perhaps he tells us in the title, for troubadours are believed to have carried with them on their journeys the secret knowledge of the path to enlightenment and spiritual perfection. Their "testament" was the affirmation of the primacy of love in such a quest--perfect spiritual love: Platonic love--which they expressed in their poetry and music.

But this is a strange book. The story begins with the narrator's discovery of an ancient death roll--a twelfth-century scroll which had belonged to the troubadour-poet, Marcebru, and on which was his eulogy to his love, a Cathar nun called Amedée de Jois. On the scroll, too, (as was customary) are tributes to her from others, which have been added on Marcebru's journey across Aquitaine. The narrator sets out on a journey of his own, retracing Marcebru's steps in reverse and trying to discover his motivations and something more about his love.

This is, of course, the narrator's quest, and the usual testing of the questing hero takes place in some very strange encounters on his path: a blind artist; a philosophical paper-maker; a gold-panner from "the museum of life" who pans pools for poetry; a doctor who regards illness as an illusory condition; a Sufi story-teller in a fortress-bound tent; an ancient Abbess.

For a long time, perhaps because I have been working with quest material recently, I thought this book was a fairly straightforward re-casting of the old questing journey: highly imaginative and full of poetry, but presenting the usual journey pattern and the usual "secret" knowledge about the search for Truth. But the end surprised me, although it should not have done so, for it was exactly the traditional completion of the quest--"In my beginning is my end" as T.S.Eliot put it.

My review copy of this book was accompanied by a transcript of an interview with James Cowan. He and the interviewer discuss solitude and silence, the limitations of language, and the "debased currency of words": all themes which are explored in the book.

"Who do you think A Troubadour's Testament will appeal to?" Cowan is asked.

His reply: "Thoughtful people. People who are not content with the way things are. People who enjoy reverie. I think a writer must have the courage to create his audience not have it created for him."

Well yes, the audience for this book will be fairly limited, but I am not sure that this is James Cowan writing at his best anyway. And perhaps that does have something to do with the limitations of language for the testament he is trying to affirm.


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