Thirty- two

Hurtling southward goes Clément Dio, fast as his powerful car will take him. He speeds past long infantry convoys, truck after truck, their canvas flaps open in back, and sitting inside, young soldiers lined up on benches. The army has certainly changed. It reeks of gloom. The soldiers don’t even lean out to admire his magnificent, sleek red bomb, with its endless hood. And Iris Nan-Chan, that beautiful lady… Why, they don’t even blow her kisses, or laugh to catch her eye, or slap their thighs in a flurry of off-color comments.

Not so much as one dawdling private flashing an obscene gesture, as that strictly untouchable ivory flesh passes close to his truck.

“The army looks good!” says Dio. “Not exactly singing their way to the front!” He’s delighted. His handiwork, partly. How well he remembers his noble battle, dragging the army through the courts, forcing it to lift its ban on publications of a certain persuasion. And winning the case, hands down! For ten years now La Pensée Nouvelle, La Grenouille, and the rest, had been read in the barracks of every French regiment under the sun. Prisons, too, for that matter. They had taken advantage and gotten into the act. Our friend Ben Suad, alias Dio, had had his revenge. Revenge for that bill of sale, found in his family papers. The one that showed his grandmother, a black harem slavegirl, sold to a brothel for French officers in Rabat. Why on earth had his Moroccan father, mild-mannered civil servant under the French, held on to that odious proof of his past? To keep his hatred alive, that’s why! …”

At the tollbooths, squadrons of security police in black, helmeted and massive, and not in too good a mood either: “I wouldn’t go south if I were you.” “You wouldn’t? What do you mean, Lieutenant?” “Just what I said!” growls the bemedaled lieutenant, eyeing the long red hood, the beautiful Eurasian, the driver’s swarthy skin and elegant crop of kinky hair. “Back where you came from, and on the double!” “You wouldn’t be a racist, would you, Lieutenant?” “Me? A racist? You’ve got to be kidding!” No, no one is a racist today anymore. That’s the official word, everyone agrees. The police even less so than the rest. They’re paid to remember… A glimpse of the press card, and open sesame: “Go ahead, monsieur. Sorry for the trouble!” (A press card works wonders in the right hands these days. Though not that it came without a struggle, mind you! …) Across the highway, traffic is on the move. Dio looks at his watch: a few hours until Saturday. The day before Easter! And the road is crammed with cars streaming up from the south, away from the sun! A weekend turned around. Clément Dio loathes that crowd of sheep, as much as he loathed them before, in reverse, when they flocked to the sun, like convicts to their feed. He smiles. His wife smiles. Their hands meet for a moment. They’re bucking the current, turning the tide. The south is draining dry, spewing its stinking, self-indulgent slime. And soon a different kind of slime will surge in to take its place. All perfectly clear? Apocalypse or birth? A new breed of man, a new social order? Or the death of all bearable life as we know it?

Dio couldn’t give less of a damn. He admits it. “… human ideals, above governments, and economic systems, and religions, and races …” Yes, that’s what he said. But what does it mean? Not a blessed thing, really. There’s nothing at all above those things. An absolute void, like the splitting of the atom, or a great empty nothingness, let loose all at once. A show too good to miss. A sight to send even the horrible mushroom back to the prop room … Through the Morvan. Burgundy. And Dio, crooning as he drives, “For now the thousand years are ended, yes, the thousand years are ended now Master of mankind, even for a moment. Enough to make a whole life worth living. Like the killer at Sarajevo, but suddenly with the gift to see into the future, going through with his action instead of holding back, spellbound by the vision of the cataclysm he’s unleashing …

Beyond Macon, a rest area with a lot of bright lights, and a column of tanks, standing still, lined up like huge toys. Dio slows down, turns off the road, and pulls up next to the tank at the head of the line. “Get the fuck out of here!” cries a voice. A colonel, none too pleased. Second Hussars, Chamborant Regiment. Three centuries of military tradition. Grouped around him, in silence, a few flustered officers. In front of the tanks, the men, much more vocal. Arguing back and forth. “Let’s take a vote,” says one of the hussars …

Chamborant! Three centuries of glory! And this is how it ends: in a mutiny, no less! “Press,” explains Dio. “Kiss my ass!” replies the colonel. Great khaki colossus, lumbering toward him, murder in his eye, fists clenched. An officer comes between them, with all due respect. “Drop dead!” roars the colonel, and he turns and climbs into his tank. Only his chest, ablaze with ribbons, and his glowering, helmeted face, stick up from the turret. Lovely military tableau, washed in a flood of almost eerie light. The tank bears the name Bir Hacheim. Relic of battle glories past! Suddenly its motor begins to growl. An officer shouts out, “But Colonel, they’re still there! You can’t do it! You can’t!” “Bullshit I can’t!” cries the colonel, in his frontline voice. “If the bastards don’t get up, I’ll run them all over!”

Dio moves around to the front of the tank. He sees “the bastards,” some twenty or so, lying across the exit ramp leading back to the highway. Most of them are in uniform. Red shoulder braid, Chamborant, three centuries, etc. Five are in civilian clothes. One, stretched out almost under the tracks of the tank. Long beard, curly hair, the face of a sculptured Italian Christ. “Who are you?” Dio asks him. “G.L.A.,” the prone figure replies. Gay Liberation Alliance. “And you?” he asks another. “Just people,” is the answer. “Proletarians. No special name.” The purest of the pure in Dio’s book. “He’s going to mow you all down,” he tells them. “Not a chance, he won’t dare,” the homosexual answers. “Me, he wouldn’t mind, but not his own men.” “For God’s sake, get up!” an officer pleads. “Can’t you see, here he comes!” The mass of steel has started to move. Imperceptibly at first, as the tracks nibble forward, inch by inch. “Colonel!”

screams the officer. “Balls!” replies the colonel. Iris Nan-Chan shuts her eyes. Her Western half can’t take any more. A few moments later, when she opens them again—to please her Oriental half—the Italian Christ has disappeared, and the tank tracks are dragging chunks of shredded, bloody flesh. And all without a sound … One after another, each one of the figures gets out of the way, but only at the very last moment. The bullfighter’s elegant dodge, just out of reach of the metallic beast. Quick and agile, one by one, the soldiers roll over on their sides. Like a training maneuver, an obstacle course. Crack regiment! The best! … The tank, Bir Hacheim, has begun to speed up and head for the highway. The colonel doesn’t even turn around. Three tanks roll along behind it with a roar. Then a fourth. And that’s all. Back from the Russian campaign, in 1813, the Chamborant Hussars had twice that many survivors … Dio can’t take his eyes off the patch of bloody muck on the pavement. Beside him, an officer is silently choking back his tears. “And what’s that hero’s name?” Dio asks him. The officer misunderstands. “Him?” he asks, shaken, pointing to the pool of blood. “I’m not sure … I think he said his name was Paul.” “No, not him. Not Paul. The other one, the one who just left. The killer with all the stripes!” “Oh, you mean the colonel? Colonel Constantine Dragasès …” “ Strange name,” thinks Dio, and he muses to himself: “Fall of Constantinople … May 29, 1453 … Constantine XI Palaeologus, last emperor of Byzantium … Known as Dragasès…“ The officer hadn’t flinched at the epithet “killer.” Why should he? Why not call the colonel a killer, after all? And the notion begins to make the rounds… The officer, meanwhile, as if on maneuvers too, hurdles the barrier, and plunges, on foot, headlong into the moonlit countryside before him … Dio is back behind the wheel. Straight ahead, full speed. The car is flying. But this is no night to wind up dead in a stupid pile of twisted wreckage! Oh no! Tonight he feels he could live forever … Not far down the road, he passes Colonel Dragasès, five tanks and all. He laughs. He’s happy. The Villefranche tollbooth looms up into view, oasis of harsh, raw light. Lots of motorcycles parked in a row. Shadow figures with helmets and boots. Strange helmets for police! White, red, bright blue. Colorful, phosphorescent stripes. “Who are you, gents?” “We’re the Rhodio-Chemical People’s Strike Force.” The purest of the pure, all out on this glorious night of nights. Sitdown strikes, hunger strikes, ransom demands, sabotage, laboratory smashups, antiracist purges, anti-antiprotest pogroms, ready to loot shops, to struggle against all forms of oppression, available for all kinds of action, running on nothing but cycles, girls, tobacco, and slogans, ready to break up everything in sight when they lose their temper, often fired but always rehired, because, after all, they have everyone terrified, political delinquents, since that’s the term we found that fits them best, and that covers—and excuses—their multitude of sins … “And what are you doing here? Where are the cops?” “Left an hour ago,” a magnificent specimen answers. (Tall young man in jeans and surplus U.S. Army jacket, with a sleeve full of stripes and a shoulder patch marked “Panama Rangers.”) “Not too many of them. But …” (He sweeps his arm around in an arc.) “… like, there’s two hundred of us, maybe more! Besides, they’re all a bunch of pussies. No guts. Company Three, out of Macon. Old pals of ours! They’re the ones who shot us up last year. Like I mean, it was just a peaceful demonstration, you know? Of course, they had it tough I guess. Kind of outnumbered, the stupid assholes! Anyway, they got two of us. But man, what a funeral! I mean, great! A hundred thousand people, all the plants and factories shut down, and the workers marching behind the bodies. Since then, people spit when they go by their barracks. Like, when they go into a store in town, they get treated worse than a black in South Africa. And their kids don’t have any friends. Nobody’ll talk to them at school. And their women can’t walk out in the street. There’s even this priest who says from now on he’ll go say mass at their place, so as not to screw things up in his church. Like, their captain even got the boot, you know? Poor bastards! They’ve had it. All they can do now is wait to retire. Not even much good for directing traffic. So, I mean, when they saw us coming this time, they turned around and split. Said they’d come back with more men. Meantime we’re having a ball!” When Panama Ranger laughs, he’s charming beyond belief. Like a handsome young god, striding free and victorious, from the deep, dark forest of machines. Of the race of conquering heroes. Who cares what conquest, what cause? No difference! … Dio tells him who he is. And again he asks, “What are you doing here?” “All kinds of stuff,” Panama Ranger answers. “Today’s our day to have a blast! Like first, scrounge up a little bread. We’ve got ourselves a tollbooth, so, I mean, people have to pay us, right? For everyone leaving the south and going up north, it’s ten times the price. Two hundred francs.

A real bargain! They cough it up and never even bitch. Too much of a hurry to get the hell out. For the ones going south, we’ve got ways to slow them down. I mean, unless they’re some of ours. Like, we found a roadblock the cops left behind. The kind that folds out. You know, with long spikes. The first batch of army trucks managed to slip right by, they were going so damn fast. Before we could get set up, I mean. But the second one was something else! We got them, but good! The officer’s jeep and the first three trucks plunked down right on the spikes. All four wheels. So I said: ‘Chowtime, folks. Everybody out!’ The soldiers thought it was funny, but the officer was a tough-assed son of a bitch. He had his men line up, like for real, and he yelled, ‘Clear out this crap!’ Then I piped up and said, ‘Listen, you guys. Take a look at us. We’re just about your age. Let’s see all you factory workers step forward, and all you farmers, and students. All you laborers in the struggle of the people against oppression!’ Well, you should have seen the rush! When it was over, the officer stood there with five poor bastards. And in no time they ran off and left him high and dry. They’re probably still running!” “And the officer?” Dio asks. “He’s down the road trying to thumb a ride. But I don’t think he’s going to have much luck. Like I mean, before he left, we ripped off all his clothes!” Dio laughs a hearty laugh … In the midst of the parking area, in front of the police building, a crowd of young men—in chaotic array of uniforms and jackets, helmets ajumble in fraternal mélange—sit warming themselves around giant campfires. On all sides, the sounds of joy, voices singing, jokes about “the captain’s big, bare ass,” raised to Rabelaisian proportions. No harm intended. Wooden benches and panels, stripped from the trucks, standing idle, crackle gaily in the flames. “I guess we’ll pull out and take the backroads south,” says Panama Ranger. “Like, they say the cops down there are prett9’ tough. But we’ve made out our will, and we’re leaving it behind.” He raises his arm and points to the tollbooth. “See?” Spread across the façade, a broad streamer, shining in the light. And on it the words:


“Beautiful!” Dio exclaims. “But you’d better get going. In a little while five tanks will be coming this way, with a colonel who’s out of his head. And believe me, he won’t think twice about shooting.” “Thanks,” says the young man, “see you on the Riviera!” “When?” Dio asks him. Panama Ranger smiles back his reply: “No rush. With so many pigs running north, we’ll have our pick of fancy places to take ourselves a vacation in the sun! I just hope they haven’t emptied their pools. Like I mean, now that the revolution’s finally here, the first thing to do is enjoy ourselves, right?” Dio’s thoughts exactly … In a moment, a great, friendly hubbub, a couple offenders merrily scraped in a flurry of pretended insults, hurled back and forth from driver to driver, in the best French style, then off into the darkness, young men, trucks, and all, as a tune goes running through Clément Dio’s brain, lyrics by himself: “For now the thousand years are ended, yes, the thousand years are ended now For a few moments, silence, only to be broken by the ominous rumble of Dragasès’s tanks looming out of the shadows and into the light of the tollbooth. The gun on the lead tank points up a few degrees and fires off four rounds. In a cloud of dust the façade comes crumbling down, and with it the pretty streamer, Panama Ranger’s last will and testament. The colonel was never a big one for slogans. And the five tanks roll on, pushing doggedly forward, up over the mound of debris, and off into the night, further south, further south …

On the outskirts of Lyon, Dio takes the boulevard circling the city—deserted in these wee, small hours, while convoys of army trucks rattle along the river, through the heart of town—and turns left on the road to Grenoble. Via the “Tourist Route,” as a sign announces. Toward Nice, on the road Napoleon took when he came back from Elba, and marched up to Paris. Iris Nan-Chan finds it rather amusing, and drawls out a long, exultant laugh. “Napoleon Dio! My own little eagle! Flying in triumph from steeple to steeple. Only we’re going to land in the plush Negresco towers!” When they reach Grenoble, one of the suburbs by the banks of the Isère is aglow with flames. “Press!” declares Iris Nan-Chan’s little eagle. “What’s up?” A captain of the security police is standing in the highway, in front of a roadblock of trucks, lined up zigzag. “The prison. It’s on fire.” “And the prisoners?” “Escaped, every damn one.

At least two thousand. If you folks are driving farther down, watch out. From Grenoble on we can’t be responsible.” “How did it happen?” Dio asks him. “Oh, it wasn’t hard,” the captain replies. Standing there with his fifty-odd years behind him, his drooping gray mustache, and the downcast look of a faithful public servant who suddenly feels the trap door of anarchy fall open beneath his big booted feet. “I was sure it would end this way,” he says. “I was sure too,” echoes Dio, in his most concerned voice. “It happened just like I expected. A hundred guys come and attack, blow in the doors, knock them down … Yelling something like: ‘Workers, prisoners, Ganges refugees, united!’ Then all of a sudden fire breaks out in the section where they keep the political prisoners. And the guards just open up the gates and take off. Put yourself in their shoes, after all. For ten years now everyone’s been down on them, blaming them for everything. The same with us. So why risk their necks? If you want to know, I think it was a put-up job. The Ganges, that’s all they ever talked about. This idea they had that when the fleet finally got here, all the prisons would fall in a heap. Last year it was the Pope! They were sure he was going to show up at Christmas, in person, and open all the gates. And why not, with things the way they are! You don’t know what to expect these days. Everything’s upside down. The world’s on its head.” “Exactly, captain,” Dio replies, the picture of composure. “That’s why you have to be careful whose head you’re kicking.” The captain turns to ask him a question: “Say you, what paper do you write for anyway?” But Dio has already gone speeding off… Gap. Sisteron. Digne … In no special hurry, the mountain garrisons have come down from their Vauban-built forts, and are combing the valleys for the escapees. And when, in the fading darkness, the net closes around an occasional catch, strange whispered dialogues take place:

“Who are you?” “Prisoners. Victims, just like you! Come on, you guys, give us a break!” “Go on, beat it! You’ve sweated enough. School’s out, have a ball!” “A ball is right! Thanks a million…“ Next morning, a total of four have been recaptured, and put back under lock and key. One of them, a famous criminal: twenty years at hard labor for kidnapping the little daughter of a wealthy perfume magnate of the region. The early risers stand around and cheer him on: “Don’t worry, Bébert, you won’t be in long. Damn army pigs! They’re working for the cops!” Deathly pale, an officer flings down his cap and elbows his way through the crowd, suddenly hushed and still, as if waiting for a funeral to pass …

At Barrême, Dio stops at a station and fills his tank. “You’re my last customer,” the attendant tells him. “After you, I’m closing up and getting the hell out. It’s too dangerous. Between here and Grasse, five stations I know of have already been hit, and the cops won’t even answer when you call anymore. I had a dog, but since last night he’s practically gone nuts. Like he could sniff out that gang already, all eight hundred thousand… Oh, you mean you’re paying? Say, thanks! The last car, the one before you, ran out on the bill. Just like that. No bones about it. Eight of them inside, dressed like a bunch of tramps, crammed in like sardines. The kind you see heading for the coast in the summer. The driver looks at me and says: ‘Listen, man, no sweat about the bread! From now on everything belongs to the people!’ Does that make sense? Anyway, I’m getting out. I’ll come back later when things settle down In the dim light of dawn, as he shifts into gear, Dio spots a big German shepherd, like a sentinel at his post, left behind in the debacle. He’s trembling all over. And whining. Then, all at once, rearing up on his hind legs, he faces the south, opens his jaws, and lets out a long, mournful wail. “Nasty dog!” Iris Nan-Chan remarks with a shudder. “Let’s hurry, darling, or that dreadful beast is going to spoil my whole day …” At the La Faye Pass, another stop. More trucks blocking the road. The army this time. Dio recognizes the insignia of the marine commandos. A unit never seen in France, but one that the reporters of La Pensée Nouvelle follow step by step all over the world, like a dung beetle sticking to the bull that feeds it. An uprising to put down in Chad, or Guiana, or Djibouti, or Madagascar? They’re the spearhead sent on loan overseas, to those presidents beset by the hatred of their people … An officer steps forward. Elegant and polite. The living image of that soldier in the posters, the ones ripped to shreds so often of late: “Young Men With Ideals! Enlist! Reenlist!” Dio really has forgotten that such creatures still exist. “Your press card, please,” the officer asks. “Well, well!” he exclaims, “Monsieur Clément Dio! After loathing you all these years, I finally get to meet you in the flesh!” Some paratroopers come over. They surround the red car and stare silently at Dio. They haven’t forgotten that such creatures still exist, but off on their distant campaigns they’ve never seen one in person, that’s all. “Take a good look, men,” the officer tells them. “If you’ve never seen a swine close up, here’s your chance. Now maybe you can see why we’re crawling with assholes.” His voice is so matter-of-fact and calm, that Dio, past master himself at composure, wonders if this is the end of the road. “Impossible!” he thinks, stifling the urge to laugh at the thought. “Not here!

It would be too stupid!” Meanwhile, Iris Nan-Chan has turned toward the officer, trying to taunt him in her most honeyed tones: “Why, Monsieur Brontosaurus! We thought your breed died out eons ago, and now here you are. And you can even talk! My, my!” But the confrontation doesn’t last long. Strangely enough, it’s the soldiers who lose interest, like a living organism that begins to reject a foreign body. “You see?” says the officer. “They don’t give a damn about you. All right, you can go. I have no orders to do anything with you. In fact, I have no orders at all, and that’s how I like it. My unit is all alone in the world, and that suits us fine. Just one word of advice.

From here south the country is dead. The people who should have stayed, left. And the ones who did stay, or the ones who are coming, shouldn’t be here at all. You’ll find plenty of friends in Saint-Vallier, down over the pass. But I’m not too sure you’ll like them. Especially Madame Nan-Chan. There’s a little bit of everything. The whole of the Draguignan prison, in fact. Sex criminals and babykillers included. Not to mention the pack of striking workers from some stinking factory in Nice, a bunch of Arabs from Boumedienne Village, a few dyed-in-the-wool blacks who can only speak Wolof, and, just for good measure, some student unionist cell or other, though I really couldn’t tell you what they stand for. You can’t miss them all. They’ve taken over the Hotel Prejoly—forty rooms, baths and toilets, bar, elevator, grill, phone in every room, heated pool, tennis courts. At least, that’s what it says in the Guide Michelin. Of course, now …” (He gives a doubtful shrug.) “Well, at least I can tell you that your friends are nice and clean. With my glasses it’s easy to see the pool. They’ve all been bathing, and the water is filthy. I should really go in there and clear them out, so my men can move on.

… Oh yes, I forgot to tell you: they all have sawed-off shotguns. There isn’t a gun store for miles around that hasn’t been broken into.

… But I’d rather wait until they’re all dead drunk. It won’t take long. You can hear them from here. … Well, my friends—monsieur, madame—so much for our chat. I hope you have a delightful trip!”

And what do you do after that, when your name is Clément Dio?

Shift into gear and drive off, resolutely, to Saint-Valuer. Which is just what he did …


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