Sunday, April 18, 2010

Review: WATERMARK by Vanitha Sankaran

Medieval woman's search for a public voice takes on a literal incarnation in Auda, the protagonist of Vanitha Sankaran's new novel WATERMARK (Avon A). Frightened by the newborn Auda's albinism, the midwife's assistant mutilates the infant shortly after birth, cutting out her tongue to free her of the devil's curse and prevent her from spreading his lies. Ironically, this cruel act facilitates the very thing the assistant hopes to prevent. Auda defies her imposed silence by learning to read and write and pens poetry that explores love from a woman's perspective. Her unsettling appearance, inability to speak, and unabashed feminism, however, make her an immediate target of Church inquisitors seeking to rid Narbonne of the sect. Auda's views on the equality of the sexes flirt too closely with the heretical theology of the Cathars to ignore.

The tie between poetry and heresy is strong in this book, forged in links of paper. Auda's father Martin is a scribe who manufactures rag paper, a new-fangled invention that has yet to prove its utility and longevity in comparison with increasingly scarce and expensive vellum. The quality of Martin's paper catches the eye of the viscountess of Narbonne, who hires Auda to copy boxes of decaying parchment documents onto paper for her library. In the course of her work, Auda discovers poems written decades earlier by troubadours. Inspired by the verse and her own blossoming relationship with an itinerant painter, she composes poems in which women make their own choices in love. Impressed, the viscountess distributes one of Auda's poems to the group of ladies which gathers regularly at the castle to discuss courtly love. Flattered to find an audience for her work, Auda fails to realize the danger of having her verse circulating in written form.

The viscountess is not the only one who appreciates Martin's paper. The Cathars, who buy large quantities of paper in order to copy and distribute their religious tracts, become interested in Martin's goods. Martin steadfastly avoids dealing with the sect, but when Auda commissions from a gypsy a watermark of the Narbonne bridge to identify her father's paper, she unwittingly entangles him in their snare. When someone steals her poems and the Cathar tract she has hidden in her father's house and delivers them to Church authorities, Auda finds herself fighting not only for her right to speak but for their very lives.

Ms. Sankaran does a wonderful job of evoking the nitty-gritty of medieval life, both the physical hardship of daily existence without modern conveniences and the inexorable sway religion and superstition held over the medieval mind. She provides a fascinating look into the process of making paper from rags and the cultural resistance that pitted the new medium against the established standard, vellum. As a student of literature, I was pleased to see her evoke the troubadour tradition and the Courts of Love of the previous century (although I wish she would have explored the contributions of trobairitz, or historical women troubadours, a bit more). I found the notion that Cathar theology promoted equality between the sexes intriguing and an interesting way to link Auda, a literate woman, to the sect. Most of all, I admire the way Ms. Sankaran animates the trope of the "voiceless other" to suggest that perhaps the most important truths of all are those that escape articulation.

(And kudos on the book's beautiful cover, designed to look like an illuminated manuscript. Auda might have lost her tongue in the story, but at least she didn't lose her head on the cover!)


Catherine Delors said...

Gypsies in medieval France??
I know the Rom are often used as all-purpose plot movers regardless of era and setting, but this is a major anachronism.
I agree with you, Julianne: the cover is striking!

Julianne Douglas said...

I double-checked the text; that is the term she uses. Did the Roma not arrive in France until later? Maybe Vanitha can stop by and address this.

Vanitha Sankaran said...

Thank you, Julianne, for your thoughtful review. To answer your question, the "gypsies" in the story are Arabic people displaced from the fringes of the Crusades. Often called Travellers or nomads, these people are not directly related to the Roma but had a similar lifestyle. We struggled over what to call them for a variety of reasons.


Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for clarifying, Vanitha! Sometimes finding a label that will be meaningful to all readers can be tricky.

Catherine Delors said...

Yes, Julianne, the Roma began arriving in France towards the end of the 15th century (thus Esmeralda is not anachronistic in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.)
True, it is sometimes tricky to find the right label :). The problem with "Gypsies" is that it is applied to the Roma, who, originating from India and speaking an Indo-European language, bear no relationship to the Arabs.
Maybe "Moor" would have been more evocative of a person of Arab descent, seen from a medieval European point of view. But this is difficult to tell as I have not read the novel.
In any case, this remark gave me the idea of a post on the Roma people and their representation in fiction.

P. M. Doolan said...

But doesn't "Gypsy" refer to Egypt, and therefore the link with Arabs could be plausible - I don't know, just a question.
I find the idea of trobairitz, which I have never heard of before, fascinating.

Julianne Douglas said...

There is a good book by Meg Bogin, THE WOMEN TROUBADOURS (Norton 1980), that presents the trobairitz's verse, in the original Occitan, side-by-side with an English translation; the essays in the book discuss the women's history and their favored theme. Here, for example, is a stanza from a poem by Castelloza, a noblewoman from Le Puy born around 1200:

God knows I should have had my fill of song--
the more I sing
the worse I fare in love,
and tears and cares
make me their home;
I've placed my heart and soul
in jeopardy,
and if I don't end this poem now
it will already be too long.

Vanitha's character Auda participates in an established historical tradition, although she differs from her ancestresses by coming from the lower middle class. The trobairitz were usually women from the upper, landed classes, the very objects that the troubadours idolized in their poetry.