The Notaras affair had died down—too quickly for the mind masters’ liking, to be sure—when the South African scandal broke. The first had seen bloodshed. The second saw only threats, explicit enough, but not followed through. “Too bad about those South African bastards,” Clément Dio observed, at a meeting of his board. “What a shame they couldn’t give us a real good massacre while they were at it! Why couldn’t they play it the way it was written?” But the two affairs do have a good deal in common, especially the uses they were put to, and the incurable effects they both had on public opinion. Another point worth noting: if the fleet had passed through Suez, world conscience would have had far less time and incentive to set the West up for the kill. That could be one explanation …

The fleet was crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, into the waters off the Republic of South Africa, when certain moderate Western papers, most likely at the instigation of their respective governments—in France, it was a well-known evening daily—came up with an observation of geographic and economic import hitherto unnoticed. The Ganges fleet had been looking for a paradise. Fine! We were waiting with open arms, ready and willing to help. We weren’t heartless, after all! But why should they take such risks, why bear the martyr’s cross from sea to sea, with torments untold, when, after all, just one look at the map would show that paradise was a stone’s throw away: South Africa, of course! There ensued a round of unctuous mouthings in praise of South Africa’s numerous advantages: her area (almost three times that of France), her small population (one-third that of France), a climate made to order, a high level of technical and economic life, a huge store of untapped resources … Such being the case, why ask poor old Europe, far away as she was, to come to the aid of the armada, when certain basic climatic and demographic problems—not insurmountable, perhaps, but no less real—might very well prevent her, despite her best intentions, from offering adequate assistance? (For the record, in passing: the “climatic and demographic problems,” subtly euphemistic, were a direct, though top-secret inspiration of the President of the Republic. A timid attempt at moral backfire to stem the conflagration, but without success.) Then came the flood of figures, assessments, statistics, plans of all kinds: the computers can answer whatever we ask them. Financing? No problem. Europe would foot the bill. We would send them money, machines, technicians, entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers—whatever the South Africans thought they would need! (Notice: the first signs of panic. “Whatever you want, only keep them away! Away from us!” But panic isn’t the same as that good, healthy fear. It turns you to jelly, it melts you to nothing, as we’ll see before long …) At the end of his column, our editor had dispatched utopia southward, with a few flicks of the pen. A plausible hypothesis. Reasonable, humane, full of hope for the future. Of course, the first thing was to consult the South African government, and put out some feelers to the leaders of the fleet. Perhaps the International Ganges Refugee Commission …

What a hue and cry!

The servants of the beast flew into a rage. Apartheid! Blacks with passes! Racist dictatorship! Shame of the human race! The whole verbal barrage. With South Africa, that limitless scapegoat, that convenient target for the self-righteous conscience, the world had stopped wearing kid gloves long since. Entrust a million poor dark- skinned devils to protectors like that! Slavery, no less! Avast, you wishy-washy moderates! The Ganges rose up of its own free will, of its own free will it’s going to choose its fate! … There was only one danger: that the constant cries of welcome to our shores might frighten public opinion, and force it to take sides too soon. Better to do what was done in the past, get it softened up slowly, little by little, for its ultimate, fatal surrender. The prima-donna pros had sensed the danger. Following Clément Dio’s example, they shut their mouths, calmed down their rash and overanxious troops—another feeble chance that the Western World missed!—and bet on a violent South African reaction that had to pay off in their favor. Which is just what happened. Like the Australians and their Immigration Act, only magnified a hundredfold, and served up by the whites on a platter, this time with no mincing of words!

Under siege in their rightful homeland, the Afrikaners had turned their backs on Britain and the Commonwealth, and burned all their bridges behind them. With the buffer state of Rhodesia washed away in a sea of blood, with the weight of Africa pressing against their gates and the weight of world scorn bearing down on their conscience, sapped from within by armies of pastors and priests, singers and writers, the Afrikaners had stopped wearing kid gloves too. As the twentieth century wore itself out in an unremitting hatred of white supremacy, they persisted in offering up one atrocity after another. And they did it on purpose. They seemed to enjoy it. As long as they were going to be heaped with insults, they might as well deserve them! A planet apart, no question! … As for their reaction to the plan, no official communiqué was forthcoming, but the President did hold a brief news conference in person. We can only quote the highlights of it here. From the outset he was plainly on the offensive, as he spoke to the tightly packed crowd of foreign correspondents from the Western press:

“As always, gentlemen, I know that you’ve come here as enemies. In a few moments our telephones and teletypes will be at your disposal to let you spout your usual loathing of us to the rest of the world. Just let me make one thing clear: the Republic of South Africa is a white nation with eighty percent blacks, and not—as the world would like to think of us, in the name of some mythical equality—a black nation with twenty percent whites. That’s the subtle difference. And it’s one that we insist on. It’s a question of background, of outlook. You’ll never understand … But let’s get to the point. At this very moment there’s a fleet of Third World invaders heading for the Cape, a hundred miles off our shores. Just off Durban, to be exact, according to last reports. Its only arms are weakness, misery, a faculty for inspiring pity, and its strength as a symbol in the eyes of the world. A symbol of revenge. What puzzles us Afrikaners is the masochistic way the white world seems bent on taking revenge against itself. … No, I take that back, we’re not puzzled at all. It’s only too clear. That’s why we reject this symbol out of hand, because that’s all it is: a symbol … Gentlemen, not a single refugee from the Ganges will set foot alive on South African soil, under any pretext whatever. Now I’ll take your questions …”

Q.—“Are you suggesting, Mister President, that you won’t hesitate to open fire on defenseless women and children?”

A.—“I expected that question. No, of course we won’t hesitate. We’ll shoot without giving it a second thought. In this high-minded racial war, all the rage these days, nonviolence is the weapon of the masses. Violence is all the attacked minority has to fight back with. Yes, we’ll defend ourselves. And yes, we’ll use violence.”

Q.—“Supposing the fleet has decided, in fact, to land en masse on the shores of your country. Will you give orders to have it blown up?”

A.—“I think that the threat will discourage an invasion. Frankly, gentlemen, it’s my impression that the fleet is heading for Europe, and that you’ll have to be asking yourselves that question in just a few weeks. But I’m willing to answer in principle, since I’m sure that’s what you want. … Yes, if need be, we would bomb the fleet out of the water. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Hamburg … Think of all the cities razed to the ground back then. … Who cared what it cost to pry victory loose? Who worried then about the price, the millions of unarmed civilians—yes, women and children then, too—burned, dismembered, buried in the rubble! War was war! I was only a baby, but I remember. Everyone cheered! … Well, today it’s still war, just a different kind! All I can say is, if we have to do it, we won’t enjoy it, believe me …”

That last was probably the one spontaneous comment the President let slip, once his temper had cooled. And he meant it sincerely. Like the sensitive man complaining that he’s going to have to kill his rabid dog. The phrase circled the globe. Clunch, the satirical English weekly—especially nasty—published its best cartoon in years. It pictured a dungeon cell, and in the middle, the President, butcher knife in hand, bending over a naked Hindu, all skin and bones, stretched out on the rack. On the walls of the cell, an array of giant pincers, cat-o’-nine-tails, spiked collars, thumb- screws, an electrical device, and a soldering iron. On the ground, a tub, a wheel, and an iron cage crawling with rats. The prisoner, dripping with blood, his one good eye staring in terror at the knife- wielding white. Tears streaming down the President’s face. And underneath, the caption: “Tsk, tsk, poor thing! War is war! Now I’ve got to kill you, but believe me, I won’t enjoy it …” Reprinted in color, the Clunch cartoon spent a week spread over every newsstand in France, on the cover of La Pensée Nouvelle. La Grenouille went one better, with a cartoon plastered across page one. The President appeared as a jaunty, bearded peasant, in a Boer general’s uniform, potbelly spangled with cartridges and loaded down with guns, pipe between his lips, brimmed hat turned up on one side. Sitting by the ocean, looking out at the water. All around, behind him, the landscape strewn with corpses. Bodies hanging from gallows galore. Black figures huddled behind barbed-wire fences. The President, big and fat, sitting on a mound of living creatures, smothering them under his bulk. In the background, off in the distance, the Ganges fleet sailing by, caricatures of ships, with human arms stretching toward the shore. And the caption: “So sorry we can’t let you in. But we already have our share of happy blacks!” 

Enlarged and put on posters, the two cartoons made the rounds of the South African embassies in all the capitals of the Western World, draped in black crepe and held up by demonstrators who, this time, added silence to their nonviolent arsenal. No slogans, no shouts. Just long lines, filing past, slowly, without a word. Some had even tied up their arms and legs, like the chaingangs of years gone by. In Paris, at an official reception, Jean Orelle refused to shake hands with the South African ambassador, and made quite a point of turning his back. “What a shame,” murmured the ambassador, who spoke our language like a native, “that the minister from France should be such a deadly boor!” The quip was picked up, and it soon spread through Paris, blown out of proportion by the media. It had already begun to set off a diplomatic row, when Albert Durfort saw fit to reply, “And what a shame, Mister Ambassador, that the Boer from South Africa should be so deadly too!” Boris Vilsberg, of course, tossed in his two cents’ worth: “Our faces will always be white with shame!” (“White?” Marcel objected. “He means red! Doesn’t that guy know how to talk?” “No, no,” Josiane explained a moment later, “that’s what he means. White with shame. Because after a terrible thing like this, we should all be ashamed that we’re white!” And that’s that …) Three of the best-known salons, in the city’s most fashionable quarter, closed their doors to South African diplomats. One of the hostesses shrugged off the problem in these charming terms: “Bah! We’ll take in some blacks instead, that’s all! Do you think there are any in Paris who are poor enough to help us? To teach us, I mean? Really, I think their diplomats here dress much too nicely. They should be more careful of their image. Frankly, I’m beginning to find them a little shocking Even old Esther Bacouba sprang up fully armed from the depths of her bygone vogue. By now she no longer sang, only warbled, her golden voice cracking with age. But her head of tight white ringlets, and her handsome, stately face worked miracles. At the Palais des Sports people came in droves to hear her. Just for her, Clément Dio came out of artistic retirement. Known once upon a time for his lyrics of a certain social bent, he had written such popular ditties as “Paris, You’re a Bitch!” or “I’m the Guy They Call Dirty Old Ahmed,” not to mention the lilting little samba “My Milk-White Breasts, Your Coffee-Brown Thighs” … For Esther Bacouba’s return, he penned “The Ballad of Man’s Last Chance,” set to a three-note melody by a certain Indian sitarist. Twenty-five verses. A good fifteen minutes, beginning to end … A Palais des Sports gripped in silence, stock-still with emotion, plunged in darkness. And, standing alone on the platform, as if suspended in a thin beam of light, the aged black singer, eyes closed, hands joined together, warbling:

“Buddha and Allah went off to visit
The nice little god of the Christians
Pulled out the nails
Took him down from his cross
Mopped his disappointed brow
Sat him in their midst.
‘You owe us your life, you nice little god
What will you give us in return?’
‘In return I’ll give you my kingdom
For now the thousand years are ended
Yes, the thousand years are ended now …’
… Pulled the nice little god into a circle
A circle around the empty cross
Then carpenters three
They all went to work
With the pieces of the cross
Built themselves a boat
For now the thousand years are ended
Yes, the thousand years are ended now …”

And so the thousand years ended, and the Ganges armada wafted its way on the hoarse three-note twang of a sitar, and a broken, breathy, once-great voice, through a hundred thousand jukeboxes, prize-winning song, number-one record all over the world, ingenious (and infamous) hit, sailing out in the neon glare of supermarket drugstores and over the hi-fi’s of weary bourgeois, chanted in vaulted cathedrals by choirs of guitar-strumming pagans (as the old priest looks up at the band of young toughs, resignation in his eye), danced to the nighttime rhythms of melancholy love, smoked to the puffs of hashish and pot, droned by young beggars haunting streets and subways, floating the airwaves’ prevailing winds ten times a day, and at night hummed along on the lips of long-distance truckers, of children about to fall asleep, of couples undressing without a glance: “Yes, the thousand years are ended now …” Ah! The power of a beautiful song! Lyrics by the Great Unknown, as set down by the inspired pen of our own Clément Dio. That could be one explanation …

What chance, after that, of ferreting out from some inner recess of the self, from the deep maze of ready-made thoughts and emotions, some hateful remnant of a dauntless courage to throw against pity? No need to rehearse all the pastoral letters, the newspaper columns, the group petitions, the students’ themes, the professors’ sermons, the moral stands of every description, the panels of blithering fools, the parlor chitchat, the salon clichés, the weeping and wailing: it’s all there, in one giant swell, even more than after the Australian affair or the case of Captain Notaras. But the beast is careful to keep hands off, and not jostle public opinion unduly. Just let it go on, content with itself, in passive acceptance. If it grows too active and lets itself think, who knows how it might be shocked into panic? The South African affair has played its role, doctored up and deformed like the ones before it, wrenched out of its context. The monster’s minions gloat behind the scenes. Now everything is ready for the final act …

And yet, well oiled though it was, the machine did misfire. But only once, and with no real damage. Which shows how clever the beast can be when nasty little obstacles spring up in its path. After their President’s violent declarations, what on earth made those same Afrikaners, a few days later, try to pass for Sisters of Charity, out of a clear blue sky? The fleet was rounding the Cape of Good Hope, heading north-northwest up into the Atlantic, leaving the coast behind, when all of a sudden it was peacefully intercepted by a flotilla of barges from the South African navy. At the government’s invitation, reporters and photographers were watching the maneuver. It lasted no more than a quarter of an hour. On strictest orders from the South African admiral, not a soul set foot on the ships of the armada, not a word was exchanged. (And besides, the apathy of the refugees, and their unbending silence, would have doomed any contact from the start.) No, South Africa, quite simply, was furnishing the Ganges fleet with provisions! The operation had been worked out to the letter: sacks of rice hoisted up in great loads, giant tanks of fresh water, crates full of medical supplies—all placed on board in record time. After which each side proceeded on its way, the armada out to sea and heading toward Senegal, the South African craft back to port on the Cape … And then the incredible happened. It took every officer, every reporter, training all their binoculars on the Ganges fleet, to admit the impossible: the armada was dumping everything into the water! The anthill, suddenly roused, had been stirred up to almost a frenzy. On deck the crowds formed human chains. Sacks of rice passed down the line, from hand to hand, and plunged into the sea, one after another. Groups of men by the dozens pitted shoulders and crowbars against the huge tanks, and toppled them overboard, one by one. And everything sank to the bottom, except for the crates of medicines, lighter than the rest, bobbing along on the waves like a dotted line marking the wake of the fleet. Then the dotted line stopped. There was nothing left to dump. … On board the South African craft, jaws dropped and hung agape in disbelief. Was that any way for a starving mob to act? Of all the explanations offered on the spot, the South African admiral’s probably made the most sense. Landing at the Cape, surrounded by a pack of reporters bombarding him with questions, the admiral, hands in pockets, could only shrug his shoulders with a look of profound disgust …

But you have to give the beast credit. You have to admire its cleverness and skill! All at once it gets wind of something unpleasant, something barring its route. An act of charity, of all things! Conscience money? Long overdue? Ulterior motives? Say what you like, it was still a humane gesture. With some kind of contact, or at least an attempt. A helping hand held out, in the flesh. Enough to risk making those Afrikaner types seem like downright nice people to a flabby world opinion! … Those racists, nice people? Careful now! Enough is enough! After fifty-odd years of flimflam and claptrap, the West could slide back to its racist past, throw up new defenses against the present peril … The beast smells disaster, sees its prey escaping! … The whites could wake up, surprised and relieved to find themselves drawn to those once loathsome racists, so much like themselves! … Oh no, not a chance! Wouldn’t that be just lovely! … But the West is no phoenix rising from its ashes. Hardly more than a fragile fly, buzzing on the loose. With one flick of its claw, the beast catches it, crushes it to death. South Africans? Nice people? … Just enough for one gulp! …

The Western press, at its eloquent best, makes sure we get the word. No need to read through all the small print. The headlines will suffice: “South African Generosity, True or False? Five Questions and Answers” (moderate, London). “Bon Voyage, Pretoria! Goodbye and Good Riddance!” (moderate, Paris). “Blackmail in Human Despair” (left of center, The Hague). “Was Poison Their Real Motive?” (lurid left, Paris). “Handouts Won’t Help” (moderate, Turin). “Charity South African Style: A Slap in the Face” (far left, Paris). “Go Peddle Your Stuff Somewhere Else!” (left of center, Frankfurt). “Armada: Poison Plot Fails” (far left, Rome). “Lunch à la Pontius Pilate” (moderate, Brussels). “Armada Dumps South African Rice, Keeps Self Respect” (moderate, New York). “No Compromise for the Ganges Refugees” (Paris, far left) …

The last was the headline over Clément Dio’s column. Not a word in his paper about the poison nonsense. That wasn’t his cup of tea. But he didn’t mind a bit if, through no fault of his own, it sent shockwaves through the low-rent flats. As usual, he hewed pretty close to the truth. (Though, of course, not too close. The unvarnished truth isn’t something you publish. Just enough to keep his reporter’s conscience all in one piece. A delicate balance that he played really well, and that made him so deadly whenever he turned his sincerity loose …) He had hit on the truth. He alone, or almost. He had flushed it out with no trouble at all, since it sprang from the very same source as his hatred. Yes, that was it. The Last Chance Armada, en route to the West, was feeding on hatred. A hatred of almost philosophical proportions, so utter, so absolute, that it had no thoughts of revenge, or blood, or death, but merely consigned its objects to the ultimate void. In this case, the whites. For the Ganges refugees, on their way to Europe, the whites had simply ceased to be. They no longer existed. Paradise had already changed hands, and hatred made faith all the stronger. Which was what Clément Dio was trying to suggest, without showing his colors or theirs: “No Compromise for the Ganges Refugees …”

That same day, Jules Machefer got another anonymous packet. One hundred thousand francs this time. A note was pinned to the first sheaf of bills. A slip of white paper, unsigned, with four typed words: “Don’t wait too long!” Added at the bottom, a hastily handwritten “Please!” And he wasn’t alone. The new underground was bristling with many such efforts, all secret of course. The owner of Radio-East, for example, where Albert Durfort held forth in all his glory, was sent two hundred thousand francs at home. (It came as no surprise, we might add.) Inside, a note asked, “Will we have to pay through the nose to hear a different tune?” But he couldn’t do anything either. Not yet. And he hinted as much, as subtly as he could.

As for Machefer, he kept playing dead in his foxhole, according to plan. That day, the front page of La Pensée Nationale showed its usual map of the fleet’s itinerary: a solid line for the distance covered, a dotted line for the route still ahead. And above it, a boldface eight- column caption:


Ten thousand kilometers …

How far is that, really? Very? Not too? One day? Maybe never? … What’s on TV tonight? A good comedy, maybe? …


Popular Posts