Many of us fall in love with Corsica but it rarely lasts. The French call her l’Ile de Beauté, which helps mask their unease about a place of perpetual insurgency, unrest and superstition. I was smitten on sight, for its beauty, of course but also for its atmosphere – the foreignness, the impenetrability – and for what I would have to call its “edge.” But what do we mean by this? ‘An intense, sharp, or striking quality?’ A grittiness? A lack of compromise? Whatever it was, I knew that the island would remain forever mysterious to me and that – like Dorothy Carrington who spent half of her long life writing about the granite island’s archeology, its history and its people -I would always be an outsider. This knowledge of your perpetual exclusion does not stop you from trying to understand. On the contrary.
I remember the first article I wrote about Corsica, in February, 1996. I was supposed to tell the readers of The Sunday Telegraph how the independence movement, the FLNC was leading Prime Minister Alain Juppe on a merry dance. The organisation had recently held a nocturnal press conference in the maquis around the village of Tralonca in the rugged north of the island. Several hundred militants, wearing cagoules and armed to the teeth had brandished rocket launchers and machine guns for the cameras while dictating their terms to Paris. A source at the ministry of interior had told me that local police had been made aware of the meeting beforehand and had even shown up to take down registration numbers.
As I stepped off the evening flight to Ajaccio and greeted my contact from the PJ (judiciary police), I had so many questions in my head that I had no idea where to begin. As it turned out, the policeman (let’s call him Cesari) tended to meet my questions with as enigmatic an answer as possible, or else with another question.
It was unseasonably warm so Cesari drove us to an excellent fish restaurant on the bay of Ajaccio, or Aj-axe as he pronounced it. (Like the characters in The Sopranos, the Corsicans foreshorten their suffixes). Cesari asked me if I had ever tasted sea urchins, which I hadn’t. He said they were particularly fleshy at this time of year and ordered a bottle of white wine to go with them. As I prepared my first question about the Tralonca fiasco, an old man dressed in a white suit with a black, mostly unbuttoned shirt came over to our table and clapped Cesari on the shoulder.
“It’s Cesari isn’t it? The Cesaris from… (He mentioned some village).”
“No. We’re from…(The policeman mentioned another village).”
In Corsica, as I would learn, the individual is nobody. You are only somebody if you are so-and-so’s son or daughter. Disappointed, the man in the suit turned his attention to me. Cesari duly introduced me as a member of the British press and the old man graced me with a baisemain.
“Ah yes,” he said, pointing at the policeman. “I remember. You raided my house not long ago.”
I was beginning to feel uncomfortable.
“Yep,” Cesari replied calmly. “That was me. Just doing my job.”
“Of course, of course but for some sorry business about possession when we both know that every old woman on the island has a Beretta hidden in her dresser.” He opened his hands. “I mean, come on. It was a pop gun!”
Cesari laughed and began folding and unfolding his napkin. The two men exchanged pleasantries but the old man had made his point and he returned to his table.
I asked who he was.
“He’s a local politician,” Cesari said with a smile. Apparently the ‘pop gun’ was a 9mm SIG-Sauer.
Later, Cesari dropped me off at my hotel. I went up to my room and began writing notes for my first novel, Lost. It would be a thriller, set on Corsica. The man in the white suit would become Coco Santini, the villain and Cesari lieutenant to my jaded anti-hero, Antoine Stuart.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this. A need to get away from DSK perhaps, and from l’actualité in general, and the desire to share that lurching motion that goes on between the real and the unreal, between fact and fiction.
Pour la traduction francaise de cet article paru dans Le Financial Times de Londres, voir Le Courrier International du 19.07.2012