At Last: The Count of Monte Cristo

How do you review a classic?  I mean, unless it's a classic that you really hate, it's rather difficult.  Classics become so for two reasons: 1) they are very good books, i.e. Pride and Prejudice or 2) a cabal of English teachers got together and decided to make their students' lives even more miserable, i.e. Across Five Aprils.  I cannot imagine an English teacher assigning The Count of Monte Cristo to a bunch of students and expecting them to finish it in a semester; therefore, the book has probably been preserved from cruel treatment at the hands of overenthusiastic professors who see symbolism in every space, period, and occurrence of the color red.  This is cause for rejoicing, for if you attempt the marathon that is this book, you'll be rewarded with absolutely brilliant plotting, devious characters, sweet romances, and revenge so carefully planned that it runs like clockwork.

One caveat: please do not make the shameful mistake I did, which is buy a book that is pretty.  I purchased the leather-bound edition from Barnes & Noble because it was shiny.  Plus, unlike Anna Karenina, where I knew I needed the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, I figured that French is really not that difficult to translate, so the translation should be fine.

How wrong I was.  My first clue should have been that there was no translator credited.  I assume this is because either the translator is hiding in shame, or the translator's name is actually Google.  There are some really awkward and amateurish mistakes in this book.  The titles of characters have been mangled.  For example, we have le baron and madame la baronne Danglars.  Except here, there's a weird compromise between French and English and we get madame la baroness ... what?  There's also some false cognate oopsies, like using "pretend" for the verb "prétendre" (to claim), and that can definitely change the meaning of a sentence.

Because I am cheap and the market is ridiculous, ordering a Folio or Gallimard edition of Le Comte de Monte Cristo was a bit out of my league.  I downloaded a free French version on my Kindle to help me along.

Please note that unless you are as anal-retentive as I am, this probably won't bother you.  But it would behoove you to find a well-done and critically approved translation.

As for the story itself, it's iconic and yet many people don't appreciate the complexity or the scope of the narrative.  Edmond Dantès is a young sailor from Marseille, engaged to marry the beautiful Catalan Mercédès.  His second-in-command, overcome with jealousy, hatches a plot with two other men to frame Dantès as a Bonapartist and have him imprisoned.  Fernand, Mercédès' unlucky suitor, eagerly joins the cabal, and Caderousse, who's rather a ne'er-do-well, joins in because he simply seems attracted to deviousness.  Arrested on his wedding day, Dantès suffers further unjust treatment at the hands of Villefort, the local magistrate.  In order to protect his family's name (Villefort's father, Noirtier de Villefort was mentioned in the incriminating letter), Villefort imprisons Edmond in the chateau d'If, which is basically the French version of Alcatraz.  There Dantès languishes in various moods--rage, despair, madness--until he meets the abbé Faria, also a prisoner.  Faria has a treasure concealed on the island of Monte Cristo, and the two men work together to escape.  Faria also educates Dantès.

All of this happens in the first tenth of the book!  The rest of the book chronicles Dantès/Monte Cristo's exquisitely laid plans for revenge against the men he discovered are responsible, not only for his imprisonment, but also for the death of his father.  

Dumas shows himself to be a master puppeteer, managing about ten strings of plot at the same time and never once tangling anything.  Everything converges on a nail-biting climax that seriously made me gasp out loud several times.

I don't want to detail the entire plot, because that would take ages.  Also, it's something you really should discover for yourself.

Dumas raises interesting questions about revenge, forgiveness, corruption, and self-delusion.  Dantès fancies himself an avenging angel on a mission from God, but he comes to see that his actions cause pain to innocent parties as well as the guilty.

I'm keeping this review rather short because you'll probably want to get started right now reading this.  It takes a bit to get through but it certainly doesn't feel like a long read, simply because there is always something happening all the time.  Bandits!  Poison!  Forbidden romance!  Infanticide!  Infidelity!  Duels!  Holy macaroni!  It's all here--and more.


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