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Thursday, 29 September 2011

No Ifs, Ands, or Buts

Back in the day, square hole on right was prisoner entrance.
Photo: Richard Carreno/Writers Clearinghouse
Chateau D'If:
Dumas' Island of Revenge

By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Marseille, France
AMONG some of the most infamous prisons and their equally notorious erstwhile lodgers, say, Lubyanka in Moscow (the dregs of Stalin's purges); or Alcatraz in San Francisco (Al Capone), a 2.5-acre rock island just outside of Marseille harbor here has become what may be the world's most mythic penitentiary of them all -- especially for the prisoner it never held.
Unlike France's other historic houses of, ahem, correction, the iconic Bastille in Paris (the Marquis de Sade); the gruesome Devil's Island off former French Guiana in South America (Le Papillon); and Elba, the site Napoleon's luxurious digs, Chateau d'If, a three-story fortress that rises out of the Mediterranean here, is one of the few historic penal reminders among western democracies when 'throwing away the key' meant exactly that. And also, thanks to Alexandre Dumas, this city's most popular tourist attraction.
Built in the mid-1500s, the castle was originally constructed by King Francis I as a military deterrent to a sea-borne invasion to southern France. It worked. Marseille, now France's rough-and-tumble second largest city with about 1.5 million residents, was never attacked. Not that the chateau would have helped much, according military engineers who took at second look at the fortification about 200 years later. The verdict? The place was jerry-built. 'All the buildings, very crudely done, are ill made,' a scathing report intoned.

Never mind. At the time, the French were still enamored with the prevalent, contemporary view that islands made good, forget-about-it places to exile prisoners, especially violent ones who were already one step away from the guillotine. Or worse, political prisoners who for nefarious reasons of state were best never heard of again. (The French also had Tahiti. But that's another, happier story). The British, meantime, were experimenting with penology of another sort, the whole-sale deportation of undesirables to a really big 'island,' Australia.

For the French, If became a sort of down market Elba. It was already an unlikely place for anyone to linger. Hardly the sun-soaked paradise of the coast-line just east of Marseille. Or, the site of anything like a 19th century Club Med. The rock was wind-swept, and already shorn of its natural vegetation, the yew bushes that had once grown profusely. (If means yew). Once incarcerated at If, according to the Centre des monuments nationaux, the agency that oversees the island, it was believed that the fort's impregnability and isolation made escape impossible. In fact, 'cramped living conditions and a lack of hygiene left little chance of survival.'

Finally losing its cachet as a menacing battlement, Napoleon -- who knew a thing or two about the 'charms' of island living after enforced visits as a British guest on Elba and Saint Helena, where he died --turned the chateau into a kind of mausoleum.

After General Jean Baptiste Kleber -- whose name today is perhaps more renowned for the swanky Parisian avenue of the same name than for any military exploits -- was assassinated in Cairo in 1800, the emperor had Kleber's remains repatriated to France. Sort of. Fearing that the general's tomb might come to symbolize Republican yearnings, Napoleon 'exiled' the dead Kleber to If. There he remained for 18 years until he was buried finally in his native Strasbourg.

Meantime, If also became known as island 'resort' of another kind -- a place of last resort. Replacing the Bastille in the hearts and minds of Frenchmen as the country's most loathed and villainous lock-up, If in short order became the dumping ground for political and religious prisoners, including 3,500 Protestant Huguenots.

Enter Dumas, the fantastically popular 19th century novelist.

Never at a loss for translating French history into a ripping adventure yarn, the author of the Three Musketeers also saw paydirt in spinning a tale that tugged his readers into the If's 'heart of darkness,' rock-lined cells on an island of no return. The result, in 1844, was The Count of Monte Cristo. True to form, the book was romantic, thrilling, and long (more than 600 pages).

It was from that point on, following Monte Cristo's worldwide acclaim, that If became the focal point for journalists, literary tourists, and people with nothing better to do while visiting Marseille. (Marseille is still a place with little to commend it to foreign holiday-makers; its gritty exterior is reminiscent of American ghetto life).

Nonetheless, If has never been short of fans of Dumas and Edmond Dantes, the dashing Count of Monte Cristo protagonist. Over the years, the Monte Cristo saga has inspired numerous film adaptations, the latest a 2002 feature film with Jim Caviezel as Dantes. (It's quite good).

Based on the Dumas story-line, If has also now nudged its way into having a kind of literary distinction as being the embodiment of the 'land of revenge,' revenge being Dumas' major theme in Monte Cristo. (Short synopsis: Dantes is falsely charged and imprisoned at the chateau; loses his fiancee, the beautiful Mercedes, to his dastardly accuser, Villefort; escapes from If; finds a fortune in treasure; buys a title as 'count'; and, dah dum, exacts his revenge against the malevolent Villefort).

Today, visitors take self-guided tours of the chateau, including the stone-cold cell where Dantes languished for almost 15 years. And where he despaired of all hope. 'I have lost all that bound me to life; now death smiles on me as a nurse smiles on a child she is about to rock to sleep; now welcome death!' Dantes remembers thinking. Er, Dumas, actually.

It's a good story. So is that of the 'Man in the Iron Mask,' another Dumas adventure hero in a book of the same name, who was also said to have been under lock and key at If. True, the Man in the Iron Mask was real, a royal prisoner during the reign of King Louis XIV. Not true that he was imprisoned at If. Think Bastille.

Still no lesser personage than Mark Twain, on a visit to the island in 1867, got the 'Iron Mask treatment' from a private guide, and fell for it. (You might now understand why Twain titled the book, in which he recounts the visit, as The Innocents Abroad).

Besides the deceased Kleber, perhaps If's most famous real-life resident was also a real-life count, the Count of Mirabeau, who was also quite alive when he was thrown into If at the request of his father to punish him for libertine ways. Mirabeau made the best of his year-long incarceration between 1774 to 1775, quickly seducing the chateau's 'quatermistress.' In his spare time, he also created another literary legend, of the non-fiction sort. This was his influential essay on despotism, which figured as a motivational tool during the Revolution. How three years changed Mirabeau's circumstances. In 1775, he was holed up at If. In 1778, he was a member of Revolutionary Tribunat in Paris.

On my recent visit, I was getting the eerie feeling that the chateau's fictionalized aura was still being ginned up. Was I about to see the cell that housed Al Capone? Charlie Manson?

Despite the stagecraft, If had a creepy karma, and, frankly, the boat that ferried our tour back to Marseille's Old Port couldn't come fast enough.