Balzac’s El Verdugo is around 15 pages on my kindle edition. It’s a change of pace which places us in Spain during Napoleon’s campaigns, and the story opens in a moment of deceptive peace with a ball in the background. Balzac uses balls a lot in his stories, but then these were grand social events with opportunities for courtship and great intrigue. El Verdugo seems to include both scenarios in the opening scene with young French Major Victor Marchand looking at the town and the ocean while leaning on the terrace parapet of the Chateau de Menda. The château belongs to the Marquis de Leganes, a grandee of Spain who has 5 children–3 sons: 30-year-old Juanito, 20-year-old Felipe, and the youngest son is 8, and two daughters. Marchand noticed that during the evening, the eldest daughter kept casting glances “expressing extreme sadness” his way. Perhaps she’s in love with him? Marchand may be in charge of the French troops there, but he is the son of a grocer, and while he notes Clara’s interest, he cannot credit that the Marquis would allow his daughter to marry the enemy–a commoner to boot. But romance is in the air, and, after all, it’s a romantic setting:
The beautiful sky of Spain spread its dome of azure above his head.
The scintillation of the stars and the soft light of the moon illumined the delightful valley that lay at his feet. Resting partly against an orange-tree in bloom, the young major could see, three hundred feet below him, the town of Menda, at the base of the rock on which the castle was built. Turning his head, he looked down upon the sea, the sparkling waters of which encircled the landscape with a sheet of silver.
Marchand has received a dispatch from Marechal Ney which warns that the English may soon send men to the region, so Marchand must be vigilant and remember that the Marquis and his family are enemies. Marchand’s thoughts are conflicted as he gazes out across the parapet, and notices that something is wrong….
Balzac, that great observer and chronicler of human nature, always manages to get to the heart of the matter. Is there anyone who can describe so accurately the viciousness of family politics when it comes to the division of a family estate? In El Verdugo which means The Executioner, Balzac examines the nature of divided loyalties, punishment and human cruelty. Does an adherence to a moral code of behaviour trump family loyalty? There’s one chilling scene in which executions take place against laughter and feasting. Balzac, a writer of great compassion, seems to argue that the anguish of suffering set amidst feasting and laughter shows human behaviour at its worst. By the story’s chilling conclusion, we ask ourselves which were the noble acts of courage and who acted callously and with supreme cruelty. Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. Prepared by John Bickers and Dagny