In his 1957 classic of demystification, Mythologies, Roland Barthes found a new argument with which to reopen the troublesome case of Gaston Dominici. Dominici was a septuagenarian Provenšal farmer who in 1954 was tried for the murder of three members of an English family who had been camping close to his land. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment and he was eventually let out after doing only six years, his guilt having come to look less and less sure. (The case still hasn't expired: there are dozens of Dominici websites on the Internet, some of them coming out for and some against him.) In his brilliantly tendentious commentary, Barthes suggests that the illiterate farmer was condemned in part because he didn't speak the same language as the authorities who tried him. Or rather, he spoke the same language in name only, French, 'the clearest there is', as Barthes sardonically notes; but the sub-Alpine patois in which Dominici, his family and his neighbours can be imagined giving their statements would have been less than consistently transparent to the lawyers and judges conducting the trial. Because he was a French citizen, however, there was no question of him being allowed an interpreter, since that would give the lie to the principle that French is a single language covering the whole nation, any one speaker of which is to be assumed capable of following what any other speaker is saying. This assumption was, for Barthes, a 'myth' that might in such a serious instance have proved fatal, with the perhaps innocent Dominici being condemned out of his own mouth, not for what he did say but for what he couldn't.
LRB 11 September 2003 | PDF Download