Friday, October 8, 2010

Mérimée’s "Mateo Falcone" (1829)

This terse, disturbing tale of father killing son has ancient Roman resonance (Lucius Junius Brutus and Manlius Torquatus); nevertheless, it is set in the 19th century and in France, at least a nominal part of France – Corsica. The story was originally subtitled ‘‘Les Moeurs de Corse’’ (‘‘The Customs of Corsica’’), and it does have a flavor of an anthropological study. Basically, the father executes his only son for betraying a fugitive to the gendarmes; even though the father has no great liking for the fugitive.

Mateo Falcone portrays a world diametrically opposed the Paris drawing rooms of most of the books we’ve read, all the more remarkable because it is in the same country and time. The morality of the maquis, the undergrowth that covers much of rural Corsica, implies tight family bonds, vendetta, and an unrelenting idea of honor.

The maquis itself is a character in the story, “si épais et si touffus, que les mouflons eux-mêmes ne peuvent y pénétrer.” (so thick and bushy that the mountain sheep themselves can't penetrate it). The maquis is the refuge of the outlaw:

“Si vous avez tué un homme, allez dans le maquis de Porto-Vecchio, et vous y vivrez en sûreté, avec un bon fusil, de la poudre et des balles,… vous n'aurez rien à craindre de la justice ou des parents du mort.”
(If you have killed aman, go into the maquis of Porto-Vecchio, and you will live there in security, with a good fusil , powder, and bullets… you will have nothing to fear from the law or from the relatives of the dead man.)

In other words, to disappear into the maquis is to find certain refuge. Mateo Falcone, a prosperous shepherd/small landowner, owns a house a short distance from the edge of the maquis. With the gendarmes on his heels, the fugitive bandit (who cannot quite reach the maquis) seeks refuge in the house. When the ten-year-old son, Fortunato, left alone in the house, finally betrays him, he does so for a watch, a rare luxury for the boy. The gendarmes carry off the bandit as Mateo comes home.

The boy has betrayed the code of hospitality and the general refusal to help the authorities. He has to die, regardless of his young age and inexperience. The scene where Mateo kills, rather sacrifices, Fortunato is rendered as a sacrament:

“- Dis tes prières. - Mon père, mon père, ne me tuez pas. - Dis tes prières ! ” répéta Mateo d'une voix terrible.”
(Say your prayers . -Fathere, father, don’t kill me. –Say your praters, reoeated Mateo in a terrible vocie.”

Of this story, still included in “great short story anthologies”. rhe English poet and critic Walter Savage Landor called "Mateo Falcone" "the cruellest story in the world." His fellow French Romantics could have learned something from his terse style. But the biggest influence of Mérimée may be the way in which Romanticism sees the exotic, the alien, the primitive, nearby, in France, Spain, and Italy, without resorting to Gothic devices or far-off shires. In Mérimée, Falcone amd Carmen are even further from polite society, wilder than Atala and René in the wilderness of the New World.

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