“Without meaning to exaggerate the seriousness of the situation,” the minister began, placing a slim sheaf of documents in front of the microphones …

The ministers had, in fact, seemed rather nonplussed by the whole affair. “What if they get all the way to Europe and decide to land in France?” asked one. “Never make it,” replied an admiral. “I’ve taken a look at the pictures. One good stiff wind, and that’s all there is to it!” Just like that. A million wretches, drowning on the ground floor of the Élysée Palace, while the breeze gently rustles the trees in the park outside, clothed in their tender, young green. “In other words,” the President observed, with his usual festive, postprandial smile, “we can sit back and just let the storm gods take over. Old Aeolus and Neptune, if I’m not mistaken?” Someone cleared his throat, trying to come up with a simple idea: “Why not ask all the governments on the Indian subcontinent to stop them while they still have time?” A snicker from the end of the table. “Is there any such animal?” asked some undersecretary or other, one who usually never opened his mouth. “A government on the Indian subcontinent!” Sighs from the distinguished seats. “I can give you their answer right now,” said the Minister of Foreign Affairs. “The governments of the Indian subcontinent, gravely concerned with domestic conditions and the worsening crisis in food distribution Another snicker. “Balls!” exclaimed the undersecretary of this or that … Now, the President is hardly one to frown on after-dinner banter. Still, he finds the expletive somewhat out of order. “Please,” he says sharply, “a little decorum. This is a serious matter.” Then, turning to Foreign Affairs, “You were saying …” Another sigh. “The governments of the Indian subcontinent wish to make it clear, at this time, that any action on their part is quite out of the question, and they wish to disclaim any and all responsibility …” So, back to the beginning. “Yes, I’m afraid you’re right,” the President agrees. “A fine way to run a country! Isn’t there a government on the face of the earth that’s willing to be responsible for anything these days? … Well, what if the admiral is wrong? Couldn’t we still try to work something out? Something official, I mean. Through diplomatic channels. Maybe the United Nations …”

The undersecretary springs to his feet, like a jack-in-the-box, beside himself with glee. “Listen, I have a perfect idea. We put this fleet of nomads under the UN, blue flag and all, with sailors from Sweden, Ethiopia, and Paraguay to act as observers. Then we let their Relief Agency send out helicopters once in a while to feed the people and take care of the ships. And the fleet goes round and round, from ocean to ocean, all over the world, for the next twenty years. That should satisfy everybody. Besides, it’s hardly a new idea. Remember Palestine? … Just one thing: in twenty years there’ll be twice as many on board as there are today. What with the heat, and nothing to do … We’ll have to build floating camps and attach them to the fleet. Believe me, gentlemen, it could go on like that for a long, long time! In two generations they won’t even know why there’s nothing out there but ocean, far as they can see, or why the deck of a ship is their only homeland. … That’s right, their homeland. Because, in time, they’ll even come to feel a kind of national pride. The heat, after all, and nothing else to do … Then they’ll ask for independence. They’ll damn well demand it. And why not? The UN has delegates today from a hundred countries that have no excuse for existing. We’ll invent a hundred and first, that’s all! The Floating Republic of the High Seas, we’ll call it. Naturally, there’ll have to be a partition, the way there always is. We’ll split the fleet in two, and make sure both halves turn in opposite directions. That way they’ll never have to meet. Of course, it’s going to cost us something.
The West will have to be dunned for the upkeep. The richer we are, the more jealous they’ll be, and the more we’ll be billed. But so what? We’re used to all that. Don’t we do the same thing now when the Third World kicks up and we want to make peace? We pay. We bitch a little, but we pay. And we get our peace for a couple of food packages from UN Relief and some aspirin from World Health. Cheap enough, don’t you think? Isn’t that what you want? A nice, quiet, lasting little peace, and one that won’t cost us too much or worry our neighbors He turned to the President. “There’s my idea, Your Excellency. It’s yours for the asking!”

Tie President flashed him a quizzical scowl. “What’s your background, Monsieur Perret?” “Marginal majority.” “No, I mean what school?” “École Normale Supérieure, degree in letters.” “I could have guessed … You’re. joking, I hope.” A look of disapproval furrowed every brow, frozen in a painful mask of fruitless thought. “Gentlemen,” the President went on, “you’re worse than a bunch of tongue-tied schoolboys flunking their orals! Whereas you, Monsieur Perret A smile passed between them. “Yes, Your Excellency, you’re right, I’m joking. Still, I seem to be the only one here who sees what an absolute farce this whole business is! To threaten the West with a bloodless invasion! Indeed! Did you ever see the lamb attack the wolf and gobble it down?” A flurry of portfolios, and cries of “Shame! Shame! No heart! No soul!” Yes, when the mind is missing, a soul will do. “Your Excellency,” he continued, “when my colleagues decide to discuss the subject rationally, I’ll be only too happy to suggest twenty serious ways of solving this ludicrous problem.” “For example?” the President queried. The undersecretary sat up straight, pointed his hands like a child with a make-believe gun, swept them in an arc around the table. “Bang bang! Bang bang! Bang bang bang! You’re all dead!” he shouted. A wave of shocked dismay ran through the room. As it reached its height, the admiral, half hidden behind his minister’s chair, went “Boom! Boom! Boom!” “What’s that?” the minister blurted, wheeling around, eyes aglare. “The cannon,” the admiral replied Three ministers were sitting, heads in hands. Another was mopping his brow. Two more were choking back their anger, while three were trying to stir theirs up. One of them even sat there weeping discreet and worthy tears. It was he, in fact, who finally broke the siege of silence, as he slowly raised his head and gazed at the council through disheveled locks, with the tragic mask of a grand vizier. “Are we the government of France,” he began, “assembled in extraordinary session with His Excellency, the President of the Republic, to discuss, humanely, a drama that has no precedent since deep in the Middle Ages? A drama that shows the way to man’s loftiest transformation, as he stands, at last, at this hour of materialism’s ultimate upheaval? Or are we some petty village council, called by the mayor to tighten the ban against gypsies camping on our public lands?”

The speaker was Jean Orelle. The President, rather sheepish, felt obliged to soften his attack. “Aha! My thoughts exactly,” he said. “My very words to the council last year, during the general strike: ‘Gentlemen, are we the government of France?’ And later, too, when we had to devalue the franc.” Satisfied with his defense, he added, “Please, Monsieur Orelle, continue.” Whereupon the wind of the past rose up from across the ages, gathering all the derelict fleets, the prophetic peoples, the militant armies, the nations drunk on trumpets and drums, the Kingdoms of God, and sweeping them off toward the calm and fathomless deeps, where even the boldest of storms will blow themselves out in the end. Its great historic gusts pushed back the slumping shoulders, raised up the bowed heads circling the Elysian table, and turned all eyes toward the vast perspective of humanity unbounded. Proof, once again, that when the mind is minute and the heart misplaced, we have to invent a soul to answer for all our foul transgressions … Off in his corner, the undersecretary sat smirking to himself. No one gave him a second thought, except the President, perhaps, in his own bizarre way The spirit of France, her particular genius,” minister Jean Orelle went on, “has always guided her path through the great waves of modern thought, like the noble flagship whose instinct shows her the way to go, as she plies resolutely forward, colors flying for all to see, at the head of the fleet of enlightened nations, setting their course, now left, now right, showing them how to sail into the storms spawned by the great compassionate gales of human progress …” 

And so the thinking machine whined on, guaranteed authentic, hundred percent Orelle, last word in modern technology, with chrome-plated psyche, plastic-coated, rustproof, antidoubt brain, and prefab heart clicking its clockwork claptrap a mile a minute, available on easy budget terms, perfected model for high-class personnel, and special reinforced model, ultra de luxe, for millionaire social lions and potentates of the press. “Could we get to the point?” the President mumbled, discreetly winking at the stenotypist to keep the remark off the record. The point was finally reached a quarter of an hour later, but only after a stratospheric flight beginning at feudalism’s dying gasp, through the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, state-run education, the antifascist gains of ‘36, the liberation of Paris, the liberation of Algiers, Third World relief, and French-style socialism. “Gentlemen,” said the minister, “what difference does it make if this fleet, heading west, inching its way through our conscience with its last ounce of strength, like a dying indictment, lands on the shores of France, or Germany, or England? What difference indeed? All the privileged nations must stand up as one, must lend one solemn ear to the eternal question, ‘Cain, where is Abel thy brother … What hast thou done …?’ Can any among you fail to perceive that France owes it to herself to respond in a clear, compassionate voice, and to plan a heartfelt welcome, here and now, in keeping with both our material wealth and our moral resources? At the moment of truth, how urgent it will be to know how to read the signs and symbols, and master our own selfish interests!” Ah yes, what a lovely tune! How that breed puffs and struts when there’s nothing to do but sing! These days, with its swelling cliché chorus, how expert it is in feigning concern without taking a stand; in basking in the trumpet’s blare while marking time in place; in pouring out into the street to beat the drum for the revolution, yet never leaving the pavement hallowed with a single corpse for a single cause; in cherishing its heroic illusions, bought for a song! In no time the Council of Ministers gave their approval. Plan a welcome? Why not! With the universe all eyes and ears, think how awed and impressed it would be!

“Isn’t that rushing things a little?” the President ventured to suggest. “Spontaneity,” replied the minister, “is the mark of true generosity. France owes it to herself …” “Yes,” echoed the President, loud and clear, “France owes it to herself …” Then silence. But his thought marched on: “France owes it to herself to speak the truth. No more, no less. When will she finally stop playing along with fate, and decide to put her foot down! She’d find it so refreshing!” And he gave a hint of a shrug with his shoulders, meant for himself. After all, wasn’t he the first citizen of France, up to his neck in the monster’s slimy jaws, playing both sides at once like all the rest: antiracist and racist; protester and patriot; Marxist and libertine; democrat and fascist; Communist and landlord; ecumenist and Catholic; unionized, socialized, subsidized conservative; humanitarian and hedonist, rolled up in one? “Yes, France owes it to herself,” the President repeated, “to present the world with a clear, coherent view of the whole event. For that reason, I’m authorizing Monsieur Orelle, as spokesman for the government, to explain our position to the press, and—taking into account the distant vantage point we still enjoy vis-à-vis the refugee fleet, and its uncertain future, and within the bounds of common sense, of course—to sketch out for them, in very broad terms, some kind of general welcome, in a framework of international cooperation, I would hope, to allow us, if need be, to share the burden of a generosity which, frankly, I fear we could come to regret. In fact, if you want my thoughts on the matter He caught himself raising both hands hip-high, in what promised to be an eloquent gesture; then stopped in midair, thought better of it, and shook them from side to side in mute negation, as if to say that this probably wasn’t the time to be giving his thoughts on the matter, all things considered. … Off at his end of the table, the undersecretary wasn’t taken in by the maneuver. He looked the President square in the eye, and formed four short, silent words with his lips: bang bang bang bang. “Gentlemen, that will be all for today,” the President said, standing up. Then he went to his office, gave orders not to be disturbed, poured himself a good strong whiskey, loosened his tie, unbuttoned his collar, turned on the giant television set, and settled his everyday, round-shouldered bulk deep into his armchair. Then, live and in color, Monsieur Jean Orelle:

“Without meaning to exaggerate the seriousness of the situation,” the minister began, placing a slim sheaf of documents in front of the microphones, “the government of France perceives it as a sign of things to come, a symbol of the rising worldwide socialist movement. Suddenly the symbol has grazed the tip of its wing against our worn-out world, and the old world, whether afraid or proud, shudders at the touch. Gentlemen, in an effort to clarify our position in regard to this momentous decision, I have come here this evening to answer your questions …


Popular Posts