I went to a very interesting talk at the Parisot Literary Festival in October 2013 by former journalist and think-tank head Martin Walker. It was about why France is a happy hunting ground for authors. Martin should know: he has written a successful series of novels set in the Dordogne about Bruno, an engaging local policeman.
Each of the Bruno books incorporates political and/or social issues in contemporary France as part of the plot. They range from sharp practice in the truffle trade to the legacy of the Resistance in World War II. Martin’s talk described some of the rich seams of material available to novelists writing about France.
Why is Corsica overlooked?
It therefore surprises me that more novels haven’t been set in Corsica. There are certainly some rich seams just begging to be mined. A number of French authors wrote about Corsica, such as Prosper Mérimée, Guy de Maupassant, Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas. But I have not found many contemporary novels set there. Or perhaps I’ve just overlooked them.
I assume that this is because Corsica has always been a land apart. It was ceded to France by Genoa only in 1768, having been owned by Pisa and Genoa for several centuries before that. And while it’s a well-known tourist destination, it’s not as familiar to us as mainland France.
What’s special about Corsica?
So what is it about Corsica that ought to attract more literary interest?
First, of course, it has terrific scenery and picturesque villages. The island is basically one big mountain range rising out of the sea, with narrow coastal areas. Homecoming Corsicans claim they can smell the maquis – the scrubland of aromatic plants – before they can see the land itself. This atmospheric place is made for a romantic or dramatic story.
Second, Corsica has a fascinating history. Its strategic position in the Mediterranean means that it was always being invaded, from the earliest prehistoric times. The Corsicans often struggled against their invaders but never had sufficient military capacity to expel them.
Although riven by scrapping warlords, Corsica was never a feudal society, unlike the rest of Europe. And the concept of personal and family honour was particularly strong, often culminating in vendetta when honour was breached. The French novelists were particularly captivated by this aspect of Corsican life.
Third, aspects of Corsican culture that persist today were forged in prehistoric times. Myths and beliefs specific to Corsica, onto which the Catholic religion was grafted, date far back in time.
Corsicans believed in bands of spirits that can invoke death. They feared the mazzeri, or dream-hunters, who go out at night and kill an animal, in whose face they recognise someone they know who later dies. They consulted the signadori, healers who could also cast out the Evil Eye, using rites passed down in secret over millennia.
Finally, Corsica has a unique musical tradition, with its voceru, or songs improvised in honour of the dead, polyphonic chanting and other musical forms that are particular to the island. We went to a terrific concert in the church in Corte last September, performed by musical group Meridianu. This elemental music evoked the spirit of Corsica.
Corsica has been a happy hunting ground for me. Where are your happy hunting grounds?
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