I came to understand that there are four Corsicas, each of them compelling, each of them quintessentially Corsican: the glamorous, sunblasted, sybaritic Corsica of the seaside resorts and the boldface names; the eco-wonderland Corsica of hearty backpackers, campers, and hikers; the shadowy, misty, steep Corsica of the mountains; and the Corsica most of us will never know, but which at the most unexpected moments whispers proof of its presence into your ear.
I’d like to say that my lifelong fascination with Corsica was a result of my deep reading of James Boswell, who wrote a travelogue detailing his trip there in 1765, or his predecessors Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, or Seneca—all of whom have left us vivid and still remarkably useful portraits of this wild and untamable island. But the truth is that my interest began in childhood, when one of my parents’ bohemian friends, sensing and generously affirming my anarchic contrarian streak, began to routinely refer to me as “the Little Corsican.”
The family friend was an impecunious portrait photographer, an African American bachelor whose studio was his apartment’s one spare room. Like many of my parents’ friends he was a Communist, and we undoubtedly got the Party rate for the portrait he made of 10-year-old me, posed in blue jeans and a horizontally striped T-shirt, with my gap-toothed smile and a big bright part in my wet hair, the rift between the lower left third of my hair and the rest of it as unignorable as the Sino-Soviet split. At the time of his remark, I thought he meant there was something of Napoleon in me, which I did not at all mind since, like many children, I admired Bonaparte, primarily for his being one of the few historical characters who was approximately my height.
Decades passed. My parents’ left-wing friends watched as their sense of History went through the meat grinder of what history becomes when it is bereft of its capital H, when it becomes what actually happens rather than what your theories would lead you to surmise, and they themselves were pretty much stunned by a long slide of bad news, beginning with revelations of the gulag and continuing straight on through the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rise of the money-mad Russian oligarchs. Corsica itself remained uneasily under French rule, and for the most part its business was conducted with a minimum of attention from the outside world. Every now and then, a piece appeared in the world press about explosive acts committed by Corsican separatists, or a cache of stolen paintings that turned up there, or a Corsican governor who managed to get himself arrested for burning down a rival’s businesses—arson is a staple of vendetta, the Corsican home-brewed justice, as ubiquitous as moonshine once was to Appalachia.