Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Executioner (El Verdugo) by Honoré de Balzac

Moving and effective, but all too brief
El Verdugo (The Executioner), a short story by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1830. Though very brief, like all of the components of Balzac’s body of work known as the Comédie Humaine, it is considered an individual work of literature in its own right, and is distributed by Amazon or Project Gutenberg as a stand-alone ebook file.

The story takes place in Spain, in the small town of Menda, at a time when Spain is under French occupation. Victor Marchand, a young officer in the French military, has been stationed in Menda with his battalion of soldiers, partly to defend the coast from British attack and partly to keep an eye on the local Spanish nobleman, the Marquis de Leganes, who may be acting in collusion with the English. Despite the suspicions surrounding the Marquis, Marchand has a cordial relationship with the family and has even fallen in love with one of the Marquis’s daughters. Then one lovely night, the tranquility of this peaceful Spanish village is shattered by unexpected treachery.

Though the story deals with military matters, Balzac chose not to classify this tale under the Scenes of Military Life category of the Comédie Humaine, but rather under the Philosophical Studies category, which gives some indication that it won’t be a typical war story. El Verdugo depicts a tragic and disturbing event, one that inspires contemplation of life, death, love, and honor. Unfortunately, it does little more than depict this event. Upon completion, the reader can’t help wishing it were longer, more fleshed out, and had capitalized more on its merits. Even an epilogue of more than one paragraph would have been a big help. As it stands, it’s like a pivotal scene torn from the pages of an excellent novel. Absent that excellent novel, one can’t help wondering what the point of it all is, except to produce a profound and affecting sadness. Nevertheless, anyone who’s ever enjoyed Balzac’s writing should read El Verdugo. For such a brief story, it packs a powerful emotional punch.

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