Feature

The divine power of salt

A Covenant Of Salt
Martine Desjardins

Talonbooks
$17.95
paper
160pp
978-0-88922-566-4

It’s an unusually muggy September afternoon when I set out to meet with Martine Desjardins. In downtown Montreal the air is heavy and stale, as though summer were bottoming out in one last big huff. Yet as my cab winds its way into the author’s native Town of Mount Royal, something already feels fresher. Old trees shading Desjardins’ street seem to filter the smog, and here in the author’s quiet home, built by her grandfather in the 1930s, even the décor is cooling. Impeccably creamy with the occasional lavender accent or bouquet of white roses, Desjardins’ home is an antidote to the city’s nearby clutter and congestion. A breeze wafts in through wide-open windows, inspiring discussion.

I’ve come to talk with Desjardins about her third novel, just translated from the original French L’Évocation. It’s a book whose central theme – salt – also evokes coolness. Yet, due to the author’s penchant for the macabre, wintry white images are exquisitely framed in slick, gothic darkness. It comes as no surprise that Desjardins cites Edgar Allan Poe as a major influence.

Set in the 18th century, A Covenant of Salt draws on the conquest of Quebec and on Irish legend, depicting the chilling landscape of Lily McEvoy, an eccentric recluse who lives in a County Armagh manor house with an enslaved childhood companion and two maidservants. Lily has commissioned a legendary stonecutter to transform the estate’s abandoned salt mine into a funerary monument for her deceased parents: Rear Admiral Magnus McEvoy, hero of the capture of Quebec, and Laurence, rumoured to be a river nymph with webbed feet. The McEvoys embody the violence that erupts when family secrets are suppressed. As characters they are archetypal – or shadowy in the Jungian sense. Yet Desjardins says she doesn’t work on the psychology of the characters per se.

“I don’t start with character. I start with matter,” she explains. “In The Fairy Ring I start with quartz and crystal, in my second book [All That Glitters}, with gold, and in this one with salt. I read this description of a salt mine in Poland where the workers in the beginning of the 19th century almost lived in the mines. They started carving statues out of salt and they carved a little chapel in the mine and eventually they carved a whole ballroom with a floor made out of salt. There was a salt crystal chandelier, apparently, and the nobility came and visited, and they had concerts there and balls, and this image to me was so very interesting.”

Desjardins, who is clearly drawn to the romantic, has fictionalized this scene beautifully. Much like the black and white drawings she creates in her spare time, her descriptions are detailed, precise, and dreamy. Mythical creatures stemming from Irish legend and her imagination blend with religious images, providing an ornate backdrop for the McEvoy family drama. And salt, as Desjardins points out, figures prominently in the Bible, providing “heavy symbolic baggage.”
Desjardins skilfully draws from the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrines, sculpting and polishing religious symbols until they glitter like gems. “I think, for we who do not really have a mythology, [religious symbolism] is our mythology,” she explains. When she began to explore the theme of salt in particular, it was Lot’s wife who came to mind.

“I thought about this story in which she is turned into a pillar of salt because she looks back on Sodom and Gomorrah, and to me it was a perfect metaphor for how you can become petrified when you keep looking in the past. If you’re always looking behind you and not where you are, or forward, you get caught in the past.”

Which is precisely what happens to Lily. Attributing near-divine powers to salt, Lily believes it capable of capturing “all that, in life, is doomed to vanish in a cloud of smoke.” She sniffs, eats, drinks, and talks of nothing but this magic powder, obsessively forming a private cult around it. Meanwhile, the only thing that grows in her life is resentment: Lily herself remains immature, both physically and psychologically, dried up and victimized by her own fetish.

With all three of Desjardins’ novels set in the past, one wonders about the author’s own attraction to olden times, a penchant she claims has more to do with poetic license than any particular interest in history.

“The things that take place in my novels are possible, but highly unlikely. That’s why I set them in the past. It’s easier. I don’t think that if I set them in the present, the reader could have this suspension of disbelief. Although it does permit me to say certain things about the present,” Desjardins continues, confirming a suspicion that Lily’s resentment is a metaphor for Quebec politics.

“To me [A Covenant] was really an expression of my impatience when I hear certain Quebecers talk about the Conquest and the resentment they have against the English.

In the French community here, there are a lot of prejudices. There’s not a lot of openness towards the English Canadian culture. You know, they’ll say, ‘There is no English Canadian culture; they’re Americanized.'”

As a book reviewer at L’Actualité, Desjardins is familiar with local talent. “I think it’s very sad because there is a lot going on in anglophone literature in Canada, and here in Quebec, wonderful writers whom the other solitude doesn’t want to acknowledge.”

With a bachelor’s degree in Russian and Italian, and a master’s in comparative literature, Desjardins has embraced several literary traditions, including those of the French and English.

“I write in French because I really discovered my love for literature with the 19th century French authors, and it’s with them that I learned to write,” recounts Desjardins, adding how, at 17 or 18, she “discovered the English Romantic poets and the English gothic novel,” and drew particular inspiration from women writers such as Maria Edgeworth and Ann Radcliffe.

“And I read all the 1920s authors like Henry James and W.W. Jacobs. That’s where my literary affinities are, with the British, the Irish, the English Canadians.”

Desjardins’ cultural openness has yielded an enticing hybrid. Even in translation, A Covenant conserves the lavishness of the French language while borrowing from English genre styles. And Lily, whose very name suggests primness, evokes the theme of language purity. In a rather humorous scene, the Bishop (which Desjardins points out is “l’évêque” in French), turns Lily on to sniffing salt, but not before quizzing her on the purpose of adding it to holy water. Lily replies that this is done “to preserve our souls from corruption and protect them against the Devil.”

Wrapping up the interview, I’m not the least bit concerned for Desjardins’ own integrity. For all her cultural flirtations, she seems strikingly far from corruption. Mining the past, Desjardins extracts treasures without “getting caught,” and surfaces like a breath of fresh air. A Covenant of Salt marries literary traditions in a sleek, gothic ceremony, with silvery salt sprinkled like confetti and the Saint Lawrence coursing through. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. mRb

Kimberly Bourgeois is a Montreal-based writer and singer-songwriter. Heart Wave, her second album with Kimberly and the Dreamtime, was launched in November 2016.

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