“Monsieur Orelle, without jumping to conclusions as to their final destination, may I ask if the government has any plans to ease the plight of these poor, suffering souls? It’s reaching a point where we can’t sit idly by …”

The speaker was one Ben Suad, alias Clément Dio, one of the monster’s most faithful minions, concoctor in chief of the poisonous slops poured piping hot each Monday into the feeble, comatose brains of the six hundred thousand readers of his weekly rag, served up in its fancy sauces. Citizen of France, North African by blood, with an elegant crop of kinky hair and swarthy skin—doubtless passed down from a certain black harem slavegirl, sold to a brothel for French officers in Rabat (as he learned from the bill of sale in his family papers)—married to a Eurasian woman officially declared Chinese and author of several best-selling novels, Dio possessed a belligerent intellect that thrived on springs of racial hatred barely below the surface, and far more intense than anyone imagined. Like a spider deep in the midst of French public opinion, he had webbed it over so thick with fine gossamer strands that it scarcely clung to life. A cordial type all the same, given to great informative bursts if he chose, though always one-way, sincere enough to put his convictions on the line and draw the occasional fire of intelligent colleagues—of whom there were fewer and fewer, alas!, and whom people had all long since stopped reading. In those topsy-turvy days the Left sprawled out in abundance, while the rightist press, in a hopeless muddle, languished alone in its trenches, deserted. The home front, meanwhile, true to form, fraternized high and low, unabashed and unrestrained. Politically, Dio’s columns were something of a hash, whipped up with a proper dose of utopian pap. But most dangerous of all was his very special talent—unrivaled, in fact—for planting his mines through the waters of current French life, far and wide, just surface-deep, always finding those areas still intact, and larding them through with the deadly devices, spewed mass-produced from his prolific brain. Jean Orelle, we should note, was one of his most devout readers, never missing the weekly pause in the journey along his ageing imagination, and confiding to his intimates, with a chuckle, that “this Dio chap” reminded him so of the fearless reformer he himself used to be, “Lots of nerve! Plenty of new ideas! And a real, burning passion for the everyday man, the citizen of the world!” Yes, this Dio chap’s citizen of the world, in all his glory! Ah, what a dismal, repulsive creature! The journalist’s pen gave him many a size and shape, but one thing never changed: his contempt for tradition, his scorn for Western Man per Se, and above all the patriotic Frenchman. Like a kind of anti-Joan of Arc, charged by King Dio with a thousandfold mission. To wit, to crush with the weight of shame and remorse the common, foot-slogging soldier of the Western World, lord of its ancient battles, deserted by all his generals to a man, but a powerful force all the same. In column after column, the anti-Joan became, by turns, an Arab workman, snubbed and insulted; a publisher of smut, hauled into court; a black bricklayer, exploited by his boss; a theater director with a censored play; a young Madonna from some leftist slum; a rioter, beaten for ripping up the streets; a café tough, shot in his tracks; a student terrorist; a schoolgirl on the pill; the head of a people’s culture center, summarily fired; a marijuana prophet; a rebel leader dispensing guerrilla justice; a married priest; an adolescent lecher; an incestuous author; a guru of pop; a female dead from an overdose of love; a pummeled Egyptian, a poisoned Greek, a Spaniard, gunned down; a reporter, attacked and beaten; a protester crapping on the Unknown Soldier; a hunger striker, soft in the head; a Vietnam deserter; a big-chief thug from the wrong side of town; a faggot with a medical excuse; a sadistic schoolboy tormenting his teacher; a rapist, mind twisted by racks of hard-core porn; a kidnapper, sure of his righteous cause; an incurable delinquent, victim of his genes or society’s pressures; an abortionist butcher, screaming for his human rights; a Brazilian backwoods wench, sold into São Paulo salons; an Indian dying from a tourist’s measles; a murderer calling for prison reform; a bishop spouting Marx in his pastoral letters; a car thief, mad for speed; a bank thief, mad for publicity’s easy life; a maidenhead thief, mad for free and easy sex; a Bengali dead of starvation … And so many more. So many crusading heroes, skilllully chosen to please and persuade. Which they usually did. And why not? When the heart gives way, it’s a Turkish bazaar. Freedom is all or nothing. With the likes of this would-be heartrending rabble, these pseudopathetic peons beating his battering rams against the gates, Dio knew that, in time, he was sure to smash them down. When freedom expands to mean freedom of instinct and social destruction, then freedom is dead. And all the slimy Dio-larvae teem on its corpse, ready to burst into great black moths, heralding angels of the antiworld.

To appreciate the scope of Dio’s power, we could look to a hundred examples. One will suffice: the Saint-Favier swimming-pool scandal. Saint-Favier is a dull, sleepy town stuck away in the Jura, that decided one day to indulge its wild fancy and present itself with a gift sure to rouse an industrious populace lulled by the pipemaker’s lathes. Namely, a swimming pool. Olympic, Hiltonesque, covered in the winter, basking in mountain sun in the summer, a billionaire’s pool on a communal scale, a fabulous toy for the people, democratic to a fault, and always jam-packed (God knows how those French love the water!) … Well, it just so happened that, in one of the weekly analyses required by law, a lab technician discovered a troop of bacteria—gonococci, to be precise—living on a corner of the metal plate marked “Saint-Favier Municipal Swimming Pool,” happy as could be with their new surroundings, and, in a word, thriving. So well, in fact, that the hospital, much to the doctors’ disbelief and indignation, found itself treating three youngsters with ophthalmic gonorrhea: two girls and a boy—not even related—and one of whom, it should be noted, was a pupil with the Sisters of Perpetual Help. Now, in France, no schooltot does anything much with her eyes but open them wide, agog at the wonders of the world. There had to be an explanation. And it soon came to light in the files of the hospital, the national health plan, and the factory infirmary, where the records showed that a thousand Arabs—first-rate workers notwithstanding, and socially accepted if not socially absorbed—had been showing up time after time, to the tune of some ten percent, with the aftermaths of a stubborn case of North African clap. To be utterly fair and unbiased, the authorities proceeded to check through the files of all the Jura natives too. A time-consuming task, but one which the West, personified there in Saint-Favier, felt obliged to perform in the worthy effort to subdue its prejudices. The result, unhappily, merely confirmed them. They turned up a total of two rich young brats, both terribly spoiled, who wouldn’t have dreamed of using the public pooi, and one dirty old derelict, who never bathed and didn’t know how to swim. What a blow for the poor town fathers! Such fine folk, too, these laborers, pensioners, railroaders, politicized peasants, placing their leftist ballots in the box, like Eucharists laid on the communion plate, and scratching their chins, deep in thought … One of them, a delegate from the Communist trade-union party, in a highly emotional search through his papers, brought out a mimeographed document proving that the Arabs were essential to the economic well-being of the nation, and that the sudden resurgence of racism had to be nipped in the bud. Of course, they all agreed. The point was well taken. They were all for the worldwide solidarity of the masses. But still! If their kids’ eyes were going to catch the clap, after all—and in their nice new pool, to boot, that they scrimped their pennies together to pay for—and a dose like you wouldn’t pick up from some army-camp whore, well, Arabs or not, they couldn’t just let the thing get out of hand, and besides, doesn’t everyone know it’s an Arab disease? … The fine folk believed it was only common sense to vote as they did, and to reach their unanimous decision: namely, that thereafter the only Arabs to use the municipal swimming pool at Saint-Favier would be those with a medical certificate proving that they had no contagious diseases that might be spread by water. The decree was posted at the entrance to the pool, and in all the Arab cafés and haunts in town. It was, in fact, rather clumsily worded. But that’s hardly a surprise. In times when a spade has ceased to be called a spade, it’s no wonder that thirty-two town fathers—each one a family man, but none with an excess of schooling—should let themselves be trapped by the subtleties of language. … Dio rubbed his hands with glee, and proceeded to use the Saint-Favier edict as his cover of the week, spread over the newsstands in all its glory (by ultracapitalist distributors, no less), with a big title splashed across, proclaiming: “Anti-Arab Racism Alive and Well!” Six hundred thousand copies. Rather hard to miss! … In Paris, His Excellency the Algerian ambassador demanded an audience and got it on the spot. The North African press let loose volleys of hate, and the French press picked up the tune, albeit in a minor key. Somewhere there was even the observation that plenty of Frenchwomen jumped into bed with those poor, slandered Arabs, without once insisting to see their bill of health. … Retaliation took many forms. Oil, for example, was an issue again, as three tankers returned bone dry. And a hundred nice French girls, teaching school in Algeria, were suddenly hauled into the hospital and spread on the stirrups to be plumbed and explored by a squad of medical student commandos, whipped up to a frenzy. Two of them died as a result, but the inquest didn’t last. On his minister’s orders, the prefect of the Jura quickly reversed the Saint-Favier decree, first for certain technical flaws, and also for its breach of human rights. Dio was exultant, crowing his triumph in one of his best editorials. Because, when all was said and done, he was right. And any time that man was right—which he often was, since he chose his pretexts with diabolical skill—the walls of the ancient citadel were sure to crumble. So the Arabs of SaintFavier returned en masse to the pool, victorious. And they had it all to themselves. No townsfolk were seen there again. There wasn’t even talk about building another one, separate from the first. What would be the sense? … And all at once whole sections of New York are deserted, a score of American cities watch the flight to the suburbs—and half the historic Paris pavement too—American tots in their integrated schools fall five years behind, tubercular Gauls flee in droves from our open-air clinics. … Tally-ho! Tally-ho! Just listen to that battering ram smash at the southern gate!

And so, into the pressroom of the Élysée Palace, amid five hundred reporters all concerned more with rhetoric than truth, slipped the battering ram’s most recent recruit: the starving passenger of the pathetic fleet. The question was very well put. Not the principal question, to be sure. No frontal attack that might frighten off the faint of heart. But a question that checked the big issues at the door, and subtly aimed at the hidden, most vulnerable spot: “ … may I ask if the government has any plans to ease the plight of these poor, suffering souls? It’s reaching a point where we can’t sit idly by True, the West can’t sit idly by anymore. Not for anything. It had better get that fact through its skull, no matter how many induced neuroses it takes to sink in. Out of all the world’s billions, let one Indian from the Andes croak from famine, or one black from Chad, or one Pakistani—all citizens, by the way, of free and independent states, proud of their self-determination—and suddenly the Western World feels obliged to fly into raptures of repentance. The agitators know its reactions. It’s not even money they’re after. No appeal to the breast- beating West to thump on its wallets, once and for all, and adopt the four-fifths of the globe trailing dimly in its wake. No, they aim for the head. Those remote lobes of the brain where remorse, selfreproach, and self-hate, pricked by thousands of barbs, come bursting out, spreading their leukemia cells through a once healthy body. It’s reaching a point where we can’t sit idly by! Of course not! Sit idly by? What a thought! The minister’s voice was so choked, he could hardly speak: 

“Gentlemen, we have to think in tune with worldwide conscience. Or perhaps the word should be ‘throb,’ not ‘think,’ since our hearts are at issue, I’m sure you agree, not our heads. The moment this fleet set sail, a million human beings chose to cut themselves off from their homeland. Far be it from us to pass judgment. Far better to think of these poor, homeless souls as citizens of the world, in search of their promised land. At first the government of France felt compelled to approach the governments of India, in an effort to persuade them to hold back the fleet, to keep it from plunging out onto the deep. It will come as no surprise, when we think of the wretched conditions that engulf that unhappy part of the earth, to learn that our efforts were fruitless. What power, after all, can stem the force of fate? … And so, let me assure you, Gentlemen, that the government of France, having once done its duty, is nonetheless ready and willing—indeed, all the more so-to assume the humanitarian obligations incumbent upon all men of good will in these truly unprecedented times. France will take her place in the forefront, make no mistake. She asks only one thing, and we venture to say that her past actions give her the right to insist: that is, that she not stand alone. With that in mind, she has proposed to her Western partners that an international commission be formed, for the purpose of providing the fleet with urgently needed food and supplies.Whatever qualms some of us may have about the outcome of an affair unparalleled in its desperation, we are duty-bound to keep them to ourselves, and to say for all to hear:

‘These men are my brothers!’”

“Typical!” the President said to himself. “The old son of a bitch has to throw in a headline!” 

Also in front of their color TV screens were most of the magnates of the French shipping industry, watching the press conference from their presidential suites. They were doing their job, nothing more, merely keeping abreast of whatever concerned the sea, and whatever might hinder the speed of their ships and the profits they reaped. Their reactions—against the general tide—are well worth noting. First, consultation by phone among themselves. Then coded messages buzzing from antennas, haughty and high atop their company roofs, to all their ships in the Indian Ocean: “Ordered to change direction, earliest convenience. Avoid all possible contact with refugee fleet. Present position assumed as follows …” Of all the captains who received that command, not one failed to see that this forced retreat was a retreat of the conscience. Theirs was being protected, and they rushed to obey. Seafarer that they were, they knew the impossible and hopeless when they saw it: Let one typhoon blast those rotting wrecks, with their million starving creatures strewn over the water, tangling in their tunics and waiting to die, and every last ship in the Western World, brought together by some kind of miracle, still couldn’t save even the hundredth part! And at what a price to try! All useful commercial traffic halted. Crews stunned by the sight of an ocean of corpses. Fine merchant ships turned Samaritan craft, floating hospitals left to days on end of aimless ‘drifting. And for what? For life? Not even! For death. Death, seeping its way deep into the Western marrow … In other countries too the same orders were sent. In England, Germany, Italy, and more. And from that day on, the refugee fleet had the sea to itself. Off on the horizon, no billows of smoke marked the presence of man, no beating heart … Such was the first response to the minister’s exhortations. Kept secret for the sake of human dignity, it did little to alter the course of events …

“Monsieur Orelle,” asked another reporter, “are we to understand that you plan to reimpose censorship?”

“Really, Monsieur Machefer! Aren’t you embarrassed to sound so foolish? What on earth could make you ask such nonsense?” 

This verbal jousting between these two was a common occurrence. It livened things up, and sometimes they even enjoyed it. But this time they seemed quite determined to loathe each other in earnest. In short, the moment of real confrontation that had to come sooner or later.

“Why, you said so yourself, Monsieur Orelle. We’re duty-bound, as you put it, to keep to ourselves any qualms we might have about the outcome of this affair. Aren’t you suggesting a kind of moral self- censorship, in fact? With all the clear consciences on one side, and on the other …”

“And on the other, yours! Yes, we know, Monsieur Machefer. Well, don’t worry. You can go on just as you have, writing anything you please.”

“Good, that’s exactly what I’ll do,” said the journalist, “first thing in the morning.”

“And I’ll be sure to read you, too, Monsieur Machefer,” the minister replied. “I’m one of your most faithful readers. Of course, I have no choice. It’s my job. But still, that should make you happy. After all, there aren’t many of us left …”

An obsequious smile ran through the pressroom. Everyone knew about Machefer’s paper. They knew what a time it was having to keep its head above water, and most of them gloated to watch it struggle. A poor, eight-page daily, with no pictures, practically no ads, badly printed, and more badly sold, it owed its survival to the combined efforts of a few anonymous benefactors, no one of whom gave very much, but who, taken together, got the moribund rag through the end of each month, like the Cavalry in any good Western, galloping up in the nick of time to save the beleaguered forces. Each month, just as all hope seemed lost, the bugle would blare its salvation. No one ever knew that the President himself was one of the unknown troopers.

Machefer’s paper was neither right nor left, nor even lukewarm middle of the road. It would lash out, often where least expected, tilting at the windmills of hackneyed opinion, rather dogmatically sometimes, to be sure, though Machefer’s followers always felt that he hit the mark. And he probably did,judging by the hatred he never failed to stir, far out of proportion with his real importance. But the press takes great pride in its objectivity—no personal hate, just personal opinion!—and so it pretended to treat Machefer’s paper like a kind ofjournalistic joke, the Punch and Judy show of the trade. When all of them had had their laugh in Machefer’s direction—no Punch- puppet he, this tall old man with the deep-blue eyes, nattily dressed, white close-cropped hair, white drooping mustache—the minister called the class to order, making it clear that their playtime was over:

“Well I think that’s enough of that!” he announced. “Monsieur Machefer, I assume that you didn’t raise your hand to subject us to your petty quibbles. If you don’t mind, please get to your question.”

“Monsieur Orelle,” Machefer began, “let’s suppose that the Western nations go along with the government’s proposal and provide for the refugee fleet as long as it’s off in mid-ocean. Can’t you see that you’ll simply be feeding your enemy, fattening up a million invaders? And if this fleet (His tone, deliberately businesslike at first, grew more and more accusing, and shut up the lingering laughs of the last few fools)”… should reach the coast of France, and throw those million invaders out onto the beach, would the government have the courage to stand up against the very same hordes that its kindness had rescued?”

“Now that’s the real question!” thought Dio, who had tossed out the first only to provoke the second. And he knew that Machefer wouldn’t fail him. But he also knew, when he launched the debate on a lofty, altruistic note, that any other point of view would be seen as revolting, or at least overruled on the spot. For, when man is convinced of his noble nature, he’ll never so much as flirt with evil— which usually does him in, in the end, ripped apart by both sides, like Buridan’s ass, forced to choose between his water and his oats. “Monsieur Machefer,” the minister replied, “your question is revolting! Do you ask a drowning man where he was going and why, before you pull him out of the water? Do you throw him back in if, assuming the worst, he admits he was swimming to your private beach to break into your cottage?”

“No, you pull him out and hand him over to the police,” Machefer answered. “With a million thieves pulled out of the water, how many police do you think you can muster?” Monsieur Jean Orelle, the writer, beat an orderly retreat, as the minister in him came back to the fore:

“There’s no reason to suppose,” he said, “that the fleet will come anywhere near the coast of France, or even near Europe, for that matter. But assuming the possibility of such a hypothesis, and since nothing on earth could give us the right to stand in its way—even if we conceivably could—the government has decided, as it says here in the communiqué, to work out, with its Western partners, some kind of appropriate welcome, in a framework of international cooperation, to allow us, should the need arise, to share the burden of our generosity.”

“At five knots,” Machefer argued, “they could sail around Africa and still reach the coast of Provence in roughly a month and a half.

That should give your commission just enough time to study such vital matters as when and where to meet, and how to proceed. They won’t be in any hurry, you can bet. They’ll take their sweet time to see where the fleet is heading. Then each one will tiptoe out, and leave the lucky winner to shift for himself. And what if we pick the right number? What then, Monsieur Orelle? Believe me, our friends will be simply delighted to see us left with that crowd on our hands! No, I repeat my question …”

“You won’t repeat anything, Monsieur Machefer. You don’t have the floor!”

“But for God’s sake, a million immigrants!” Machefer shouted, over the rising commotion.

Camp of the Saints 26 Back in the twentieth row, unobtrusive, Clément Dio sat calmly by, quite still except for the rhythmic clack of his heels on the floor.

And in no time five hundred reporters sat stamping their feet. Well, let’s be exact. There were at least seven abstainers, with a total readership of forty-two thousand.

“You don’t have the floor anymore, Monsieur Machefer! Now don’t force me to have you ejected. It would be the first time in a press conference, I assure you! Your attitude is intolerable. Wholly out of keeping with our goals, with our mission of humanity and mercy. The mission that the government of France has entrusted me to set forth to you here, this evening. (“Drumroll, please!”

said the President to himself.) I trust that the gentlemen of the Third World press will do France the honor of ignoring the comments—so utterly at odds with the unanimous views of her people—that I’m sure you’ll be printing tomorrow, in no uncertain terms.”

“We’re in for quite a match,” Dio whispered to his aide. “Gentlemen, pens in place! And let the one who beats his breast the loudest come out the winner!”

All at once the minister’s voice dropped down a few notches, as if something were draining him of his faith, like the blood ebbing out of a wounded man. And, indeed, something was. He was being drained dry to the sound of a word, a lovely word spoken just moments before, now echoing back in his brain, like water, dripping, dripping, constant and tormenting: Provence, Provence, Provence … Yes, there in Provence, nestled against a sweet-smelling hill, an old country farmhouse, transformed by the Nobel millions into a touch of paradise, welcomed the minister summer after summer, and Christmas, and Easter, and Trinity Sunday. … But when your name is Jean Orelle, prophet of your time, hero of great revolutions past, friend of the fallen leaders, adviser to the worthies of this world, and when age is upon you, ready to rub the slate clean in the name of a well-earned rest—when the moment has come to stop dealing in great ideas, and to loll in the shade of a hundred-year pine—don’t you owe it to yourself to raise your head one last time, faithful to your image of yourself, that image so hazy and naive that you almost have to smile at the thought, but a smile mixed with tears at the emptiness of it all … The minister raised his head:

“Any more questions?” he asked in a weary voice.

And there were a few more, in fact, though none very important, since everything really had already been said. The only one to attract some attention came from a Gabonese reporter, anxious to learn what they planned to feed “our brothers in the refugee fleet, since, Monsieur Orelle, the important thing isn’t just giving, but knowing the right things to give.” Someone, at least, had understood …

Dio made sure that he had the last word:

“Monsieur Orelle, all other questions aside, a0 you think they have a chance?”

“A chance! A chance!” the minister exclaimed. “Can we ever be sure whether man has a chance?”

It was a clever dodge. And Dio picked it up, past master that he was:

“It’s the Last Chance Armada…

Pronounced in a murmur, just loud enough to be heard, the expression struck home. Repeated thousands and thousands of times, can it be that its impact paralyzed the West? Is a last chance something to turn your back on? Perhaps that might be one explanation …


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