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Far ? January 12, 2009

Posted by Lee in Uncategorized.

I was recently reminded that “far away” is contextual, and has changed somewhat over time. Two stories, one in last week’s News and Observer, the other written in 1829 [FR (HTML) | EN(PDF)].

The News and observer story tells of a Hooverville that exists in the woods off of Poole Road in Raleigh. It seems so distant to me — a woods deep enough to hide a rather large camp of people. Yet it’s practically in my back yard : one town over. At first blush, I thought I wouldn’t have much in common with these men, but the more I think of it, the closer I get. Said another way : I don’t have a lot of money in the bank. I have zero investments. I’m unmarried. There aren’t too many steps between me, the homeowner, to me SDF (sans domicile fixé, the French classification for those we would call “homeless”)

Prosper Merimée was a writer straight out of the late 18th / early 19th century. All the world was romanticism — Ô, lac! rochers muets ! forêt obscure ! — yet he wanted to leave behind the fjord-pining and try to imbue his stories with a little realism.

Mateo Falcone is one of his earlier works (he’s remembered for writing Carmen, later made into an opera) and it is remarkable on several levels. It occurs in a place that, to modern French readers, is really close : the island of Corsica. Yet Merimée describes it as a thick, impenetrable wooded island (a mâquis), full of criminals and ne’er do wells who survive off the land, using their wits and their rifles.

If you have killed a man, go into the mâquis of Porto-Vecchio. With a good gun and plenty of powder and balls, you can live there in safety. Do not forget a brown cloak furnished with a hood, which will serve you as both cover an mattress. the shepherds will give you chestnuts, milk, and cheese, and you will have nothing to fear from justice nor the relatives of the dead except when it is necessary for you to descend to the city to replenish your ammunition.

Of course Merimée had never been to Corsica, so this was all either pure fiction, or the best that he could pull from traveler’s guides and newspapers like the N&O. Realism to him was just a real-sounding situation that may or may not be reality. But even after nearly 200 years, Merimée could be researching from our contemporary local story:

It’s a comfortable life once you get used to rain-wet hair and achy bones, they explain. But nobody bothers them, not even the police.


1. cahbagoes - March 29, 2010

nice site.. very interesting!! i need updates from you guys..

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