Martin of Gfenn
In Martha Kennedy’s quiet, intensely moving novel Martin of Gfenn, the title character is given at a young age by his father to the Augustine Canons of St. Martin in thirteenth-century Zurich. The boy quickly demonstrates a talent for art, which the Augustinians encourage with formal training. At the threshold of his adult life, Martin contracts one of the scourges of the Middle Ages, leprosy (the disease is described with a rhetoric that borders on the poetic and a degree of detail that’s almost clinical), but he initially believes it will remain in remission. He achieves some public success as a painter in the following years, but eventually his symptoms return and accelerate; his life is derailed and he ends up at the Knights of St. Lazarus sanctuary in the village of Gfenn.
Kennedy invests this grim story with a great deal of pathos and a surprising amount of resigned optimism; her characters are richly textured, none more so than Martin himself, who gropes toward self-knowledge and a kind of acceptance even as his nightmarishly worsening physical condition makes it harder and harder for him to exercise his artistic talent. The research behind Martin of Gfenn, both sociological and biological, is evident, but the novel’s true genius lies in its insight into the fragile nature of hope itself.
An outstanding work, highly recommended.