Can a son ever slap his father? No! That would be a slap on the face of nature, a sign of imminent Armageddons! Or such is the outraged conviction at the heart of Alexandre Dumas’ “El Salteador, or The Gentleman of the Mountain.”
This is a minor Spanish tale from 1853, short by Dumas’ standards, and would seem to take its subject from a play by either Tirso de Molina or Lope de Vega or Calderon de la Barca or one of them Dons. Dumas, who appears to have written without (living) collaborators, freely admits in a disarming preface he’s more or less stolen the concept from a theatrical Spanish source – but won’t say which one. As in those plays, the exaggerated Spanish sense of honor from the Siglo de Oro forces characters into nearly tragic situations that could be easily solved if everyone worried less about inflexible moral codes and more about common sense.
It’s 1519. The Germanic King Charles V of Spain, soon to be Holy Roman Emperor, is visiting Spain, specifically the Granada that was once Muslim territory and still retains its Arabesque nature. Preceding the king is Grand Justicier Don Inigo, (a former sailing-mate of Columbus), who’s traveling the mountains with his beautiful daughter Dona Flor. They’re assaulted by a band of thieves, but rescued from death (and, in Flor’s case, ignominy) by the dashing prince of thieves, Don Fernando, who feels a mysterious sympathy for the travelers.
Fernando is El Salteador (a brigand), and of course one who takes pride in his chivalry. He releases Flor and Don Inigo, but soon the King’s tough-on-crime forces are setting fire to the mountain range in an attempt to smoke the criminal out. Fernando’s unpleasant band mates disappear ( a weakness of the novel: a Robin Hood without Merry Men.) He’s accompanied only by the loyal gypsy princess Ginesta (so Esmeralda-ish she’s even got a pet goat).
Ginesta turns out to be the “natural” daughter of the Bohemian Queen Topaze and Philip the Handsome, 1st Hapsburg king of Castile, and therefore related to Charles V. Hoping to pull some family favors, she goes to the Court of Lions in Alhambra (beautifully described: Dumas had visited Spain in 1845, and was a fan of Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra.”) Ginesta begs Charles, and secures a pardon for her beloved thief – a pardon that Fernando promptly squanders by getting caught in a nonsensical duel with his best friend over Dona Flor’s affections. In a subsequent climactic hissy fit, Fernando slaps his own long-suffering father in front of the whole shocked town.
Dumas, as the ever-intrusive narrator we’ve grown to love, reacts to the slap with apoplectic, exaggerated outrage: HOW CAN SUCH A THING HAPPEN ARGGHH IS THERE NOTHING SACRED ANYMORE? As a matter of fact, it feels like an inside joke. One pictures Alexandre Dumas Pere reacting to a similar slap by a rebellious Alexandre Dumas Fils: “HOW DARE YOU? I GAVE YOU MY NAME, YOU BASTARD! I’M GONNA WRITE A NOVEL ABOUT THIS!”
“El Salteador” is a pleasant read full of Iberian color, but fails to join the middle tier of Dumas’ work by the unlikability of a mercurial main figure. Dumas begins writing Fernando as another of his adventurous braves, a Spanish D’Artagnan – but halfway through the author adopts a weird contempt for his rebellious lead. Fernando’s unpredictable moods do add a perverse twist: The tall-dark-and-handome macho bad boy turns out to be just plain bad, an incorrigible murderer who also
has been trying to screw his own sister throughout. (Holy Star Wars, Hombre Murcielago!)
Just when Fernando is at his most despicable, having slapped down the man who raised him and killed a lot of innocent people during his escape… the novel doles out unearned happy-endings to everyone.
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH