A Passion in the Desert

This weekend I read the wonderful short story, “A Passion in the Desert,” by Honore de Balzac. A local “Great Books” discussion group was tackling this work in January, so I met up with them at the Nora library on Indianapolis’s north side last night. It was a nice group of six (counting me)! evenly split between men and women (something of a rarity in book groups). The fact that we were able to have a nearly 90-minute discussion on a 14-page short story is either a testament to the richness of the story, or the quality of the discussion – or both!

For those who don’t know, the story deals with a French soldier who was part of Napoleon’s Egypt campaign around the turn on the 19th century. The soldier is captured by the Arabs (presumably the Mamelukes?) but escapes their clutches only to find himself stranded at a small oasis in the desert, which he learns also happens to be the home of a female leopard. Providentially for the soldier, he first meets the leopard just after she has fed, thus reducing the immediate danger to himself. The two begin a wary friendship, with the soldier initially just biding his time for a chance to kill the leopard or make his escape. Over time, however, the friendship grows (almost) into a kind of love. But, in the end, it “ended as all great passions do – by a misunderstanding. For some reason, one suspects the other of treason; they don’t come to an explanation through pride, and quarrel and part from sheer obstinacy.”

I won’t reveal how the story ends. You can read it for yourself for free online at:

http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/pitdbalz.html

Interesting also is that the story of the soldier and the leopard is framed as kind of a story within a story, told by a man (who had met the soldier as an old man and heard the story from him first hand) to his lady friend after a visit to a menagerie, where the woman marvels at the tameness of the wild animals. This framework meant very little to me while reading, but garnered much focus at our discussion, with one member astutely pointing out that the wonderful story of the desert had become diluted to be used just “to impress his date.”

The story also includes some powerful natural descriptions of the desert, and in a wonderful exchange at the end the soldier says, “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing.” When asked to further explain that statement, he replies, “It is God without mankind.”

Definitely worth a read.

(below: Honore de Balzac)

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