Friday, July 19, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Mateo Falcone and The Return of the Prodigal Son

Story Collection: Great French Short Stories
Editor: Paul Negri

I highly recommend these two stories.

Title: Mateo Falcone
Author: Prosper Mérimée
Translator: Stanley Appelbaum

This brutal story explores the concept of honor, and how it can be far removed from mercy and humanity. Set in Corsica a couple of centuries ago, the story shows a society where men are inseparable from their guns; there's a striking image of a husband and wife walking home, with the wife burdened under a heavy load of chestnuts, while the husband merely carries two rifles - as it's beneath a man's dignity to bear anything but his guns. Murder is acceptable, as long as certain conditions are met, chief among them an insult to one's manhood - whether it's to a man himself, his family, or his property, with a blurry distinction between the three.

The action centers on the young son of Mateo Falcone, a well-known property owner. The boy is at home alone when a criminal approaches him and asks for shelter from pursuing soldiers; the boy agrees, after the criminal pays him a small sum. Soon after, the infantrymen show up, headed by a sergeant who bribes the boy to reveal the whereabouts of the criminal. More than one betrayal follows.

Title: The Return of the Prodigal Son
Author: André Gide
Translator: Wallace Fowlie

After wandering far afield, the prodigal son in the story returns to his home and enters into dialogue with four family members: his father, his older brother, his mother, and his younger brother. Each family member represents a different aspect of the prodigal son's struggle between his desire to seek in the wilderness what he can't find in society, and the forces that lead him to renounce his wanderings.

His father represents comfort and stability, along with the bonds of love. Interestingly, his father seems to understand that love can be expressed in multiple ways - that his son could have loved him both from the comforts of home, and from the wilderness, without forgetting or despising him. As for the prodigal son's older brother, he's taken over as the authority figure in the house and represents a strict morality, holding that there's only one true way of life that one must follow with complete obedience. With the mother, the prodigal son speaks of self-denial and humility, placing the needs of others over his own and defining himself only by his relationships with his family; he renounces his need to seek a personal identity beyond that. And then, what brings the story round full circle - in his younger brother, the prodigal son discovers what he once was, or thought he was.

What I love about the story is how it explores different sides of morality, especially as it's expressed in conformity to societal norms. What keeps people from straying from their obligations and duties? What is both attractive and terrifying about the wilderness?

I also thought of the story from the angle of religious practice. In some ways, the father represents divine love, while the elder brother is impatient with the complexity of this love and claims to be able to cut through it and see the one truth that must be submitted to without question:
"I know what the Father said to you. It was vague. He no longer expresses himself very clearly, so that he can be made to say what one wants. But I understand his thought very well. With the servants, I am the one interpreter, and who wants to understand the Father must listen to me... There are not several ways of understanding the Father. There are not several ways of listening to him. There are not several ways of loving him, so that we may be united in his love."
The elder brother, who sets himself up as an enforcer of his father's will, is really attempting to rule over his own father as well, defining him narrowly and making him conform to his own vision. A religious fundamentalist, or any strict ideologue really, would think this way.