A review of The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc
By Ali Alizadeh
Giramondo
$26.95, ISBN : 978-1-925336-40-5,

Much has been written about Joan of Arc or Jeanne d’Arc, but Ali Alizadeh approaches his subject with such a deep sense of Jeanne’s humanity and in such a rich, multifaceted way, that she seems an entirely new character. This Jeanne is both simple and deeply complex. The simplicity is because, at heart, Jeanne is just a frightened young girl whose voices have led her to a bloody battle followed by incarceration and vulnerability at the hands of her cruel English captors. The complexity comes from the out of sync time sequences and shifting points of view. Jeanne is her own narrator, moving between first and third person as she dictates her story to no one in her solitary confinement. Her voices move in and out of her head, and the story is developed through a series of narratives that don’t merge but instead give us a Jeanne that is both object and subject. The result is a tale that is humanising and deeply powerful, without losing any of the mystique associated with the historical character.

The voices may or may not be aspects of Jeanne’s own mind and Alizadeh allows the ambiguity. At times the writing is spare and immediate, personal pronoun stripped:

Keys clink and turn. The iron grill moves on squeaky hinges. Obtrusive orange glow, a flame. (17)

Other times the narrative slides into third person in what feels almost like a straight historical narrative:

Philip VI of France calls Edward III of England contumacious and annexes the duchy of Aquitaine. Edward responds by declaring Philip an illegitimate ruler. Edward announces that the entire kingdom of France belongs to the English crown. (25)

The variety of voices and viewpoints allows the reader to participate in Jeanne’s mental processes, tracing a line between myopic fear and a fearless commitment to the righteousness of her voices.  The multiplicity  also allows the narrative to move smoothly forward and backwards in time. The story opens in the prison, “A place of grey stone”, where Jeanne is forced, by virtue of her signed abjuration, to remove her black tunic and leggings and put on a white feminine gown. Jeanne’s extreme discomfort at her own nakedness immediately places the reader into an uncomfortable position witness to her humiliation. The two opening chapters are intimate and poetic, with short sentences and rich visual descriptions that places us in the cell with her:

Her back coils over her knees on the floor. Clasped hands are now knotted fists. (6)

The story then moves seamlessly into scholarship. In dated, diary-style, the story begins again at the point of capture, working through Jeanne’s interrogation and the steps to her abjuration. This backwards progression continues to 1932 and the beginnings of the hundred years war where Alizadeh gives us a very clear picture of the political manoeuvrings that led to the war, and then slides forward again to the point where Jeanne enters the war. These shifts in time might be disturbing in the hands of a lesser writer, but Alizadeh handles them like a poet, shifting easily between epistolary, third person narrative, and a first person confession that goes right back to Jeanne’s youth in Domremy at the point where a shy, bullied girl starts to hear voices.  These voices coincide with Jeanne’s sexual awakening and a growing sense of being different, and the co-mingling of sexual desire, religious fervour, and a desire to make history by ending a brutal war that is destroying France all come together perfectly. Jeanne’s first person narrative has several voices, one of which is parenthetic, as if Jeanne were talking from the present tense to her younger self: “(And I knew you too were bullied, my love….)” (89). Other voices that enter the story include the Saint Catherine, whose particular voice is set off in a concrete poetry style, heavily spaced and structured. From this point the story progresses through to the present, but the voices continue to intrude and mingle, taking different storyteller roles, as the many representations of Jeanne form a mosaic, collectively true. The slip between first and third person happens so frequently at times it becomes a single fractured voice:

I knelt, ate, crossed myself and rose to my feet. She feels tipsy, giddy and a little disoriented. She nearly trips over a pew and falls against the chapel’s arched entrance. She pushes disorderly locks of hair off her face. My hair was getting too long. It almost reaches her shoulders. (223)

Alizadeh’s scholarship is obvious as he traces the trajectory of the war and the political underpinnings as the English and French kings jockey for power at the expense of the common people who starve and suffer. The war progresses and Jeanne’s prowess and luck change history, even as she begins to question the brutality of the battlefield and the certainty of her destiny as she move towards inevitable death. The facts are engaging enough as a history, but Alizadeh’s portrait of a young women in love, coupled with his exploration of the patriarchal, uncertain nature of both historical account and memory (“Or does she?”) takes this story to a new level.  Alizadeh’s Jeanne allows for the contradictions in the varied voices that are both inside and outside of his subject and also calls attention to the fact that narrative is something that is constructed rather than something inherent. Jeanne becomes a sympathetic and rich character that defies her many labels – heroine, villain, warrior, outcast, witch. Alizadeh invites the reader to take her side, not in spite of her frailties, but because of them.

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