Notes from a Rebel Island

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


6 thoughts on “Notes from a Rebel Island

  1. I have just enjoyed your – Memoir?, Chronicle? I liked the insult ‘collabo’ and also the petshop called ‘ Doggy Style’. But why do the French, and only the French, including you, always refer to the ‘ Anglo Saxons’? Silly, meaningless and racist to boot.

    With your Australian connections you might enjoy the following exchange I had with a young banker over lunch in Sydney earlier this year, he is telling me about his forthcoming marriage….

    He; ” My bride and I have so much in common, we like the same food, music and have the same taste in literature”
    Me: ” I see, and what would that be?”
    He : Looks at me, puzzled “Books,Mate”

  2. Hi Lucy,
    I’m not sure I agree with you that a love of Corsica rarely lasts. I’ve been enjoying holidays there since 1972 and apart from once seeing a few bullet holes around the door of a post office and witnessing the funeral of a young man shot in one of our favourite villages, my wife and I have always felt safe and found local people friendly enough.
    And Mark, French people and the media often refer to the British (and people from northern europe in general) as anglo saxsons, not in a racist way, but as a way of defining our different attitudes to business, social wellfare and way of life. Sometimes in admiration, sometimes not!

  3. I am half way through The Secret Life of France and am really enjoying it! I lived in Tours as a student and absolutely loved the place so your book is bringing back many happy memories, and clearing up a few mysteries for me.

    Mark, I too loved the insult ‘collabo’ – I’d never heard it before, but I love having a few sneaky insults up my sleeve in French. Not sure I’ll ever dare to use it though!

  4. Loved your book. Indeed so much that sending a copy to my mother over in Valleraugue.

    I agree with previous poster about Anglo Saxon. I have this with one of my Belgian friends who is quite big on The Anglo Saxon Conspiracy.

    I am part of The Conspiracy because I am white and moderately successful. I get the impression that if I had a darker skin that I wouldn’t be so responsible. Indeed if I had a Scottish or Welsh accent I think I could be let off the hook. Though having a US accent also makes you part of the gang.

    Anyhow you’ve probably had much more experience of this term. Might even be a good subject for the blog. 🙂

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