Figaro's Children (2005)

     by Serge Lehman & Fernando Calvi

          from Tales of the Shadowmen 2: Gentlemen of the Night, 2005

This story is a super short-short, somewhere around 350 words all told; as such, it's almost more of a sketch than a story, though it does have the distinction of having more of a plot than many much longer works I've read for this project.

This story is from a larger collection of short sketches about classic French characters, including Arsène Lupin, Doctor Omega, Fantomas, Doc Ardan, the Nyctalope, Judex, and Leroux's own celebrated detective, Rouletabille. While all of the Shadowmen compendiums are already great sources to pick up if you're unfamiliar with the classic French characters, this little suite is a pretty great condensation of that idea, though not as detailed and less likely to give you a clear picture of the characters in question.

The story itself is both short and charming; in a nutshell, the Opera Garnier sports a cat mascot named Figaro (a traditional name for the Opera's mouser, so it applies even though she is female) who is adored not only by most of the workers but also by Erik himself, who the cat seems to love and spend time with despite the off-putting qualities that usually keep humans away from him. For those of us making the mad journey through Phantom literature, this immediately summons up the memory of Ayesha, Erik's Persian cat from Kay's 1990 novel; while normally I wouldn't assume there was much of a connection, the text also mentions that Figaro loves to let Erik feed her dates, which are a distinctly Persian treat. If it is a shout-out, it's a subtle one.

The idea of the simple animal being more able to appreciate Erik in spite of his physical condition is a fairly prevalent one in Phantom literature; Kay touches on it with the dog Sascha as well as Ayesha, Jones echoes her in his later comic interpretation, and the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film also featured a Phantom with a cat (in this case a cat he stole from someone he murdered, and possibly the first instance upon which all later cats companions for the Phantom are modeled). I should note that those are cases wherein the animal is used as a reasonable humanizing or symbolic element for Erik, as opposed to the clumsy attempts of authors such as Ashley (who will have you know that the Phantom loves horses) or Vehlow (who makes sure you know how much his dog loves him) to show him as a Paragon of Virtue; thankfully, not everybody falls into the lazy literary trap of using Animal Affection as equivalent to Good Personhood.

At any rate, the conflict is a tiny and simple one, suited to the story's length: there is a stage worker in the Opera named Manoukian (a callout to one of the authors of the somewhat hilarious 1998 Tarzan crossover comic, or just a common French name?) who raises rabbits in his spare time, and he hates the cat for occasionally preying on the baby bunnies. Since the entire company loves the cat, he can't do much about it, but when Figaro gives birth to a litter of kittens, he determines not to put up with a bunch of bunny-killing critters and dumps them into a bag, planning to drown them and be done with it.

It is not particularly surprising that he turns up drowned and floating in the Seine later, or that Figaro's kittens have the run of the opera house thereafter and often hang out in the sub-basements. The drowning of Manoukian is interesting as a precursor (presumably, though the story doesn't explicitly state its time frame) to the drowning of Phillippe; in both cases, there is no demonstrable remorse or concern from Erik for the deed, which rather than over-syruping our view of him drives home the point that he is someone to be feared. Additionally, the murder of a human (a man that the story takes pains to humanize as well, emphasizing his love for his rabbits and painting him as merely a normal person rather than a horrible villain) in order to save an animal is an inversion of the usual human priority scale, reminding us that Erik is not necessarily bound to any particularly normal moral code from the society that rejected him.

The story's overall feeling, in the end, is one of neutrality; both Erik and the cats are neutral toward humanity, they in their non-judgmental choices of human company and he in his indifference toward human life in general.

Humanizing without being saccharine; a nice little sketch, if lightweight and largely contentless.

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