Saturday, January 06, 2018
The year is 1237. As the king of France and the Inquisition are finishing off the genocide of the Cathars in Occitania, King Fernando III of Castile is about to marry his second wife, Juana de Dammartin at Burgos (she narrowly avoided marrying the English king, Henry III). To mark the occasion, a contest of some of the most respected troubadours is held at the castle. At the very last minute, Maria Balteira introduces an odd duo to the event – a Galician xograr (entertainer?), Nuno Porco, and an Occitan refugee shrouding herself in mystery and going by the name of Elvira, whom Balteira had discovered performing at an inn in the town.
They get to perform last, and in the presence of the royal couple and Fernando’s teenage son, Alfonso. After they have blown away the bickering competitors (including eg Pero da Ponte and Bernal de Bonaval) and stunned everybody into silence, the king’s son is the first to applaud. He is, of course, the future king Alfonso X, el Sabio, the author of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. This imagined encounter between the brutally extinguished culture of the Occitan troubadours and the new wave of the Galician mediaeval music is at the heart of this short novel.
Many of the characters are loosely based on historical figures (follow the wikipedia links above to find out about them), but who the hell is Elvira? That is the mystery the novel plays with to great effect, and I’m not going to spoil it here. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I missed all the clues. The answer only hit me when I got to the very last sentence. So I’ll just have to read the novel again – it will be a completely different experience, knowing what I know now.
I’m thinking it might work well in English translation, actually. Would just need a few footnotes. Maybe the Galician Studies Centre and the Oxford Trobadors should conspire to make this happen …
A arte de Trobar
Editorial Xerais, October 2017.