By: Prosper Mérimée
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
The novella that was the basis for perhaps the most popular opera of all time, Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen is the swashbuckling story of a nineteenth-century Spanish soldier who deserts his post to pursue the fiery gypsy beauty, Carmen—who is as brave as she is fickle.
The opera’s plot, it turns out, is based only on part of the larger adventure that is Carmen. The story opens, for example, with the narrator, a historian like Mérimée, researching the lost site of an ancient Roman battle on the plains of Andalusia, when he meets a notorious bandit, Don José Navarro, on the run from the law. Feeling a certain sympathy for Don José, whose face is “at once noble and fierce,” and a vicarious thrill at this brush with danger, he helps the bandit to escape.
When they next meet again, Don José is in jail in Cordova, due to be hanged for his crimes. In his last days, he tells the narrator about a wild gypsy woman he met back in Seville . . .
What follows is an iconic and highly entertaining tale of doomed passion full of chases, sword fights, bullfights, smuggling, wild dancing, and more—except no mezzo-sopranos.
My first read of 2014! I guess just to ease myself into starting the new year (I recently re-wrote my to-read list in my notebook and have been organising what books to read for what reading challenge) I decided to start with this title. I’ve been getting around to the Melville House list of novellas published–lots of great titles there–and Carmen was definitely a title I was interested in reading.
This book is part of the Everything Espana Reading Challenge 2014 that I am participating in.
Carmen is a very curious novel. It has that Romantic feel of adventure and action akin to a Dumas novel, of the vibrancy and unruly Spanish countryside. Even as the narrator, and later Don Jose, fall into hard times, there’s something whimsical about the story. Yet at the same time there’s this dark streak to the novel, that violent intensity of Don Jose’s passion for Carmen, especially when Carmen toys with him and strings him along. He loves her, he wants her, he wants to settle down with her and yet with their volatile personalities/tempers/stubbornness and opposing cultures and outlooks, it makes for a dangerous combination, ultimately leading to tragedy.
Culture, geography and nationalities also play a major role in this novella. Each act takes place in a different part of Spain and each character hails from a different region or a different nationality altogether: Navarre, Andalusia, Basque, the Roma. The reader not only gains a sense of the cultural and linguistic differences that each region has but also the way each region perceives each other. The Basque especially are regarded as quite foreign, untrustworthy, which reflects a lot of the regional issues that the region had at the time with the rest of the country. The portrayal of the Roma is rather stereotypical (even with the presence of some of Merimee’s research in the final act) but again, it shows the times in which this novella was written.
Carmen overall was a quick but interesting read that shows the scope of the time in which the novel was set in but also features a fully-formed story. It’s hard to say why Carmen did what she did–why she sought to manipulate the people around her (for comforts? for attention? because she could?)–but the narrator seems to indicate/judge that it was because of her upbringing. She didn’t come across as three-dimensional compared to Don Jose but then again the story is told from Don Jose’s perspective. In the end, all of the principal characters involved have paid the price for such an attraction. Readers of classic fiction may find this novella interesting.