Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tunneling Out of the Chateau d'If

I vaguely remember reading a story some years ago about a race of people—it may have been the Neanderthals in the Thursday Next series—who utterly abhorred fiction, but loved reading facts. Dry facts. The drier the better. If you came to their house in the evenings, you might find them reading an automotive repair manual, or a guide to the farming of wheat. Why waste your time trying to imagine things that never actually happened?

That’s how I feel at the moment, which is why I’ve been reading The Count of Monte Cristo with voracious interest for the last few days. It is like a parable from God—a parable of faith. The great themes of the story are much more explicit in the novel than in my beloved film adaptation. In the novel, the Abbé Faria tells anyone who will listen that he has a fabulous treasure worth millions which he’s willing to lavish in all its abundance on the first person who will let him out of his cell. Each of the governors and deputies who visits the prison comes away thinking he’s mad.

But Edmond believes him. Edmond becomes his adopted son. Edmond breaks out of prison and travels to the island where the treasure is supposedly hidden. And there he becomes richer than any man alive.

Edmond believed; Edmond acted. It’s hard to imagine a more moving demonstration of faith. That treasure was available all along for anyone who wanted it; but only one person believed. And his confidence propelled him to act, and he became a different man. The story of Edmond’s transformation in the prison from naïve and illiterate young sailor to a man of intelligence, command, and charisma has numinous power. It’s like a vibrant stone which never stops radiating its own perfection. You can draw from it again and again. Such is the power of myth.

Some of the set pieces emblazon themselves on the memory with the vividness of an unforgettable sunrise:

Little by little, the wind subsided. Westwards across the sky rolled huge grey clouds which seemed to have been discoloured by the storm. Patches of blue sky reappeared with stars that shone brighter than ever. Soon, in the east, a long reddish band lit up the undulating blue-black line on the horizon. The waves danced and instantly a light sped across their crests; transforming each one into a mane of gold. Day was breaking.

Dantés remained motionless and silent before this great spectacle, as if seeing it for the first time. Indeed, in all the years that he had been at the Chateau d’If he had forgotten it. He turned back to look at the fortress, sweeping his eyes across the whole arc of the land and the sea. The dark pile rose out of the midst of the waves with the imposing majesty common to all motionless objects which seem at once to watch and to command.

This is much more than just an interesting visual description of daybreak. We feel it all the more deeply because it’s the first hint of sunlight the novel has given in hundreds of pages. And the whole span of waiting that precedes it connects us with Edmond at the level of the heart. He, like the reader, has earned this sunrise.

It is a suffering which makes the transformation in his character all the more believable and haunting:

‘Monsieur,’ Caderousse said, nervously holding out one hand, while the other wiped the sweat that was beading on his brow, ‘Oh, Monsieur, do not jest with a man’s happiness and despair!’

‘I know what happiness is, and what is despair, and I never just with feelings.’

There’s an unforced confidence and dignity in all the Count’s actions which is central to the whole substance of the story. It’s one of the few aspects of the novel which the recent movie adaptation got absolutely right. And I suppose it was this which I secretly coveted in all my first adventures.

I think, at last, I may be finding it.