Maleficium, by Martine Desjardins
Reviewed by Daniel McDonald
Martine Desjardins’ Maleficium—as translated by Fred A. Reed and David Homel—prefaces itself with a “Cautionary Note to the Reader,” warning that the unholy contents of the book will no doubt disturb us. The book is framed as a series of transcribed confessions to the Vicar Savoie in one of Montreal’s Catholic churches some time in the early 1900s. Savoie, by transcribing the depraved confessions he hears, violates the Holy Oath he’s taken in a serious enough way for the Church to apparently threaten anyone associated with its publication, including its readers, to excommunication. Pretty scandalous stuff, it would seem, but after reading Maleficium‘s eight short chapters, the warning seems to bear about as much weight as it would if applied to this review.
Each of the chapters are surprisingly prose-filled confessions of different travelers’ experiences in the Middle East, particularly Persia, which in turn become ominous warnings to Vicar Savoie of evil presence encroaching into his church. They tell stories of exotic travel to different parts of the Middle East and Africa in search of varying earthly pleasures of the senses; one searches for incense, the other the perfect carpet, another for saffron. Their interest inevitably turns to sinful obsession, and each confessor is tempted by the same hare-lipped woman, who by tempting them with various supernatural and vividly creepy manifestations of what they’re looking for, inevitably cursing them in a particularly apt way.
The stories follow a formula that’s predictable by the time the second one is over, so there isn’t much suspense through the narrative. The voices of the characters vary little, giving a bit of a repetitive feel as well.
Where the book finds its strength, though, is in the amount of information within the prose. There are some very interesting details about, for example, saffron growing, incense production, and tortoise shell harvesting that seem accurate and are woven smoothly into the narrative. On top of this, there are some particularly vivid descriptions of some genuinely creepy stuff that really stand out as the highlights of the book and give it its sensual, sinful feel.
The warning we’re given at the beginning of the book implies a certain heft to what follows, which in the end it doesn’t necessarily deliver. While I don’t feel disturbed the way the author might have hoped, I appreciated the time spent on the details and might have liked the book more if I wasn’t made to expect something weightier in the first place.