The President had just turned his radio up again:

“… Immediately after making his statement,” the reporter’s voice was saying, “Monsieur Clément Dio left Paris, accompanied by his wife—the well-known writer Iris Nan-Chan—and a number of friends, inviting the cheering crowd to come join him on the coast. Interesting too is the marked difference between the reaction of the evening press, in its late editorials, and the spontaneous reaction of public opinion, apparent in the mass migration from the south. While all roads leading north are quickly becoming the scene of huge tieups, growing worse by the hour, the press, both right and left, is virtually of one voice in calling for a humane solution to this unprecedented problem. The conservative Le Monde, in an article signed by …”

“Yes,” the President observed, “‘marked difference’ indeed! Go try and explain it. And yet, who here in the government didn’t suspect it? Even those who wouldn’t admit it. Not even to themselves.”

“Accepted notions die hard, monsieur,” said Jean Perret. “Like straitjackets, stifling our minds. You remember the national poll they took two weeks ago? You remember the questions? ‘To maintain a proper balance in present-day society, do you consider racism to be: (1) Essential? (4%), (2) Somewhat necessary? (17%), (3) Moderately objectionable? (32%), (4) Revolting and inhuman? (43%), () No opinion? (4%). Would you be willing, if need be, to take the consequences of your opinion? Yes (67%), No (i8%), No opinion (15%)…‘ And yet, monsieur, no one is pressured to answer one way or the other. And the people they poll come from every social class, across the board. If there is any pressure, I suppose it comes from what people are made to believe they should think. But certainly that’s nothing new. What is new, though, is the kind of prestige, the status these polls give a weak, lazy mind.”

“Yes, I know,” the President replied. “Then again, maybe I’ve been a little weak and lazy myself. Until now we’ve been governing by what the polls told us. It was all very easy. But maybe we’ve really been governing in thin air. I’m afraid it’s too late to find out .

“… It’s true,” the reporter’s voice went on, “that none of these journalists has, as yet, gone beyond mere words, to offer any concrete proposals. Only Monsieur Jules Machefer, editor in chief of La Pensée Nationale, has, in fact, come forward with a serious suggestion. I quote: ‘Unless the government orders the army to take all possible steps to prevent this landing, it’s the duty of every citizen with any feeling for his culture, his race, his religion and traditions, not to think twice, but to take up arms himself. Even Paris, our own beloved Paris, has already been besieged by the henchmen of the invader. My offices have been ransacked by bands of mindless thugs, among them the vilest dregs of the capital’s foreign populations. My newsboys have been harassed, day in day out, chased through the streets by groups of extremists, without the police even lifting a finger, and before the very eyes of an unconcerned public. Under such conditions, I have no choice but to suspend publication of La Pensée Nationale until better days. But I’m not going to give up the fight. I’m just changing my style. Peace-loving old man that I am, I serve notice nonetheless, here and now, that I’m going to be waiting down south, hunting rifle in hand, to welcome those threadbare legions of the Antichrist. And I hope that a lot of you will join me!’ End of quote …”

“They’ve finally gotten to him,” the President murmured. “Well what’s the difference … ‘Before the very eyes of an unconcerned public …‘ Thin air. Thin air …”

“… In another development,” the voice continued, “Vatican sources have just released to the media, no more than ten minutes ago, a statement by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, the official text of which reads as follows. I quote: ‘On this Good Friday, day of hope for Christians the world over, we beseech our brethren in Jesus Christ to open their hearts, souls, and worldly wealth to all these poor unfortunates whom God has sent knocking at our doors. There is no road save charity for a Christian to follow. And charity is no vain word. Nor can it be divided, or meted out little by little. It is all, or it is nothing. Now, at last, the hour is upon us. The hour when all of us must cast aside that halfway spirit that has long caused our faith to founder. The hour when all of us must answer the call of that universal love for which Our Lord died on the cross, and in whose name He rose from the dead.’ End of quote … It has also been learned that His Holiness has ordered all objects of value still contained in the palaces and museums of the Vatican to be placed on immediate sale, with the proceeds going entirely to aid and settle the Ganges refugees once they have landed. … This concludes our eight o’clock summary of the news. Our next bulletin in fifteen minutes …”

“How do you like that!” the President exclaimed, over the concerto that followed. “I can just hear the good Lord above, complaining: ‘Et tu, fili?’ What else could you expect from a Brazilian? The cardinals wanted a new-style pope. For the universal Church, they said. Well, they certainly got one! I knew him well when he was still a bishop, badgering Europe with his pitiful tales of Third World despair. I remember telling him one day that by wearing down the wayward mother he would only harm the children all the more. You know what he answered? That poverty is all there is worth sharing! Well, he’s keeping his promise. … Are you a Christian, Monsieur Perret?”

“Not a Christian, monsieur, a Catholic. It’s a basic nuance I insist on.

“I guess I don’t believe in much myself. Maybe a mass from time to time. Like Henry IV. That’s why I need you. Now that I have to make a choice, I need something to base it on, something to believe in. I’m afraid my choice is bound to be wrong. … And something else too. Now that you’ve become ‘that fascist puppet’ there’s one thing you can count on. With this pope in the Vatican, you’ll be excommunicated for sure.” “I couldn’t care less, monsieur. In the Middle Ages they would have kicked a few cardinals in the rump, elected a new pope, and declared this one an antipope, just like that. Which is just what I’m doing in my own heart of hearts. Besides, it’s all nothing but words. For six weeks now we’ve been drowning in a flood of words. Your staff is up to their necks, monsieur. Look, in just the last hour alone …” (He was holding up a sheaf of wires.) “This one is from thirty Nobel winners, in support of the armada. Without Jean Orelle, by the way, but who cares about him anymore? They whipped together all the peace prize names they could find, with old Kenyatta and Fra Muttone leading the pack! … Here’s one from Boris Vilsberg and ten thousand intellectuals, with a petition calling for equal justice … One from the French National Committee for the Encouragement of Immigration from the Ganges, to let you know they’ve got more than two million signatures … The Archbishop of Aix is offering to empty out his schools to house the refugees, and his seminaries too—which, between you and me, are empty already. … And this one from the UN, where they’ve just passed a unanimous resolution to abolish the concept of race. Which means ours, you can bet. And we voted for that? Well, I’m not surprised, what with everything else we’ve voted for in that three-ring circus! … One from Geneva. A hunger strike by the founder of The Brotherhood of Man. Listen to this: ‘Edgar Wentzwiller, Calvinist leader and eminent humanitarian, continuing the hunger strike he began after the disaster at São Tomé, has stated that he will abstain from all nourishment until such time as Western Europe has taken in all of the Ganges refugees, to provide them with food, with care, and salvation …’ This is his third starvation campaign, monsieur. Remember Gandhi and his endless hunger strikes? Still, he lived to a ripe old age, and it took an assassin to get him, after all! … Here’s another good one: ‘Ten thousand souls spent the day Good Friday in fasting and prayer, with Dom Vincent Laréole, at the people’s abbey at Boquen. Dom Vincent, returning from a Buddhist congress in Kyoto expressly for the occasion, recalled a quotation from Gandhi …’ Immortal, monsieur, no doubt about it How can one bask in the warmth of divine sunlight when so many human beings are starving to death?” At the end of the session, a motion was passed by acclamation requesting the government of France to make a firm commitment to the Ganges refugees, and to welcome them en masse …’ The wire doesn’t tell us, monsieur, if, after their flesh was properly scourged, our pilgrims went back home for supper … Well, I’ll spare you the rest …” (The wires went flying all over the carpet.) “Suffice it to say, everyone’s atwitter.

Church leaders, labor leaders, groups of every sort. Why, we’ve even had word from a nursery school in Sarcelles. The brats are staging a marble strike, if you can imagine! ‘In sympathy with all those poor little Ganges children, who can’t feel very much like playing …’ And just one more. The last one, monsieur. It’s worth its weight in God, so to speak: ‘His Eminence the Cardinal, Archbishop of Paris, the President of the Council of Protestant Churches, the Grand Rabbi of Paris, and the Mufti of the great mosque Si Hadj El Kebir, wish to announce that they have formed themselves into a permanent committee …’ ”

“Oh, that bunch!” said the President. “I had to put up with them this morning. The Moslem was the only one who managed to keep still. He seemed very uncomfortable, as if he knew more than the others. But not a word out of him. Not like the Cardinal. He rattled on and on about all the injustices here in Paris. As if I didn’t have my hands full in the south! ‘Hundreds of thousands of foreigners …,‘ he told me. ‘Laborers, workers, waiting to be treated like human beings … Suddenly feeling their patience running out …’ He even quoted that remark of Sartre’s—yes, Sartre from a Prince of the Church, if you can believe it!—that quotation that caused such a stir not long ago, and that gave rise to so many avant-garde theatrics, all subsidized of course. You remember: ‘There are two and a half billion people in the world: five hundred million human beings, and two billion natives …’ And even through that the Mufti didn’t bat an eye. He just sat with the same impenetrable expression. A moment or two later, the Cardinal stuffed a paper in my hand, with a statement their permanent committee had cooked up …”

Perret went digging through the wires.

“Yes, I think this is it, monsieur. It came out at noon: ‘… Their only crime is that they belong to a different race. Therefore, it becomes no mere question of basic human charity to accord them our respect, but a question of justice. Whatever violence we do them, great or small, whatever breach of respect we commit, it is all the more appalling, in the light of the painful and difficult position the various hardships of their refugee status have imposed upon them …’ ”

“Yes, that’s it. That’s it. That’s the one. I felt like screaming: ‘And how about us, Your Eminence? How about our painful and difficult position!’” (The President seldom, if ever, raised his voice, but now he was clearly enraged.) “It was all so absurd! I kept watching the Mufti’s inscrutable gaze. And I said to myself, ‘If that hypocrite could sign a thing like that, such a solemn admission that the races are unequal, he certainly must have had other things in mind.’ I suppose he feels they’re unequal all right, but with different ones on top at different times. Just a question of rotation… Well, finally I couldn’t keep quiet anymore, and I said to the Cardinal, ‘Who’s the patron saint of Paris?’ He mumbled something. I’m not too sure what. ‘Saint Genevieve,’ I told him, in case there was any doubt. And I said, ‘When the Huns attacked Paris, she showed up at the gates, in style. And your precursor, the archbishop, was with her, delighted to get such unexpected help, and such holy help at that!’ Do you know what he told me? That there never really was a Saint Genevieve. That all that was only a fairy tale, a myth, and that Rome had scratched her name off long ago. ‘Officially nonexistent,’ it seems. I’d forgotten all about it. It’s true that, at the time, no one in Paris raised much of a fuss, except for one of the City Fathers. A pleasant, wide-eyed dreamer type whose name hasn’t even come down … Well, anyway, at that point I showed the four holy gentlemen the door. I was absolutely beside myself. There’s only one consolation, I’m afraid. The fact that this permanent committee of theirs meets at the archbishop’s palace. Since the Cardinal sold all the furniture for some worthy cause or other, he’s been living in a hovel that even our friend the Red Bishop of Bahia would turn up his nose at. It’s got to be the most uncomfortable place in Paris. I just hope those wooden stools they sit on, day after day, give them all a good pain you know where. Some consolation! But we have to grasp at straws … Well, anything else, Monsieur Perret?”

“Everything and nothing, monsieur. It’s all over, and yet it goes on. For six weeks now all those who thought that they knew how to think have been taking a stand. Always the same one. Governments, too. Madly trying to work out some scheme or other. And all for what? For nothing! We live in an age when language corrupts. Words absolved us from actions, and we sat back and waited for what was bound to happen, what we knew was beyond the power of our words. Now we’re faced with the only actions that matter, the ones that point out a very basic fact: Christian or not, they’re all calling it quits. They’re all giving up. And unless you and I can make do with words too, I’m afraid we’re all alone, monsieur, just the two of us.” “Well, not quite alone. We still have that old madman Machefer. And Pierre Senconac, who’s at Radio-East, now, according to what the owner tells me. Even Jean Orelle has come over, though there’s not much left of his sanity, poor man. Of course, on the other side there’s Clément Dio, that activist of the intellect. And all those barroom idealists, those campus and cloister visionaries, heading down south, finally practicing what they’ve preached for so long … I almost envy them for it, too. … And don’t forget the army. The professionals, I mean. The finest, crack units. Since morning, on my orders, they’ve begun to dig in …”

“Ah yes, the army! All those thousands of men, and officers, and generals! Words, monsieur, that’s all! Words dressed in uniforms, hiding their weakness behind that veneer of soldierly steel, and ready to run at the first sign of action. For ages it’s been nothing but a make-believe army. No one really knows what it can or can’t do. Because no one dares use it, for fear of showing up what a worthless farce it is. You’ll see, monsieur, the army will let you down too.”

“You weren’t talking this way last Sunday, Monsieur Perret.”

“No, monsieur. But all this week I’ve had secret meetings with the handful of generals who still know how to think, and I’ve had my eyes opened on a big, gaping void. The West thinks it has great, powerful armies. Well, it hasn’t. It has no armies at all anymore. For years now, our people have been taught to despise their armies. Every possible way. Take the films, for example. All those films seen by millions and millions, based on massacres long since forgotten, and dug up after a hundred years for the sake of the cause. Blacks, Indians, Arabs, biting the dust, scene after scene. Wars of survival, but changed for the occasion into merciless attempts to impose the white man’s rule. Even though, in the long run, the West lost them all. There weren’t enough flesh and blood soldiers left to hate, so they fell back on phantoms from the past. All you could want, no limit to how many. And what’s more, too dead to protest. Served up for public indictment with no risk at all … Forget the serious works of art—the fiction, the plays, the music—things aimed at a small intellectual elite. Let’s just talk about the media, so called, and the shameless way certain people, under the guise of freedom, took a tool meant for mass communication, twisted and warped it, and used it to bully the minds of the public. The few clear thinkers left tried to warn us. But we wouldn’t listen. We gave way to one huge masochistic frenzy, dragged from nightmare to nightmare. We never said no. We wanted to show how permissive we could be, despite the foolish risk that, one day, we would have to face everything, all at once, and all alone. You remember, monsieur! You remember those clever campaigns worked out with such devilish skill to demoralize the nation and break down its spirit. No more colonial wars. Vietnam and all that. But that was just the beginning. We’ve come a long way, and there’s no turning back. The people despise their army. They’ve heard it accused of genocide too often. And as for the police… Well, ever since Punch first felt the policeman’s club, their fate has been sealed. You wonder how they managed to last this long without making themselves sick. Now, finally, they have. And the army right behind them. Enlistees or not, career men or not, they can’t stomach themselves. So don’t count on the army, monsieur. Not if you’ve got more genocide in mind.”

“Who then?”

“No one, monsieur. We’ve had it.”

“Then it just means another kind of genocide, that’s all. Our own. It’s the end.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right, monsieur. But you’ll never be able to get the word out, because no one’s in any condition to listen. We’re going to die slowly, eaten away from the inside by millions of microbes injected into our body. Little by little. Easily, quietly. No pain, no blood. Which is what makes the difference between our death and theirs … But it seems that our mental midgets in the West see it all in terms of the rights of man. Just try to explain to the people, or the army—or to world opinion and the universal conscience—that on Easter Sunday, or maybe the day after, they’re going to have to butcher a million black-skinned refugees, or else they’ll all die themselves, only later, much later …”

“Maybe so, Monsieur Perret, but that’s just what I’m going to say. And it’s up to you to go down south and help me. Now tell me, when are you leaving?”

“Tonight, monsieur. I managed to lay my hands on a jet—a fighter—whose pilot wasn’t on retreat, or at prayer, or doing some other mental or moral gymnastics, painfully trying to square his career in the military with the existence of the Ganges fleet. My pilot isn’t too squeamish yet. He’s agreed to fly me down south, straight to the headquarters of the regional prefect. The poor man just called a little while ago. He was out of his mind. He’s practically all alone down there. Most of his staff ran out on him this afternoon. I’m taking Commander de Poudis along, to act as my aide. He seems to have thought things over. I think he looks on his son’s death now as something of a score to settle. If we had a few more men like him, stirred up by good, constructive grief, who knows?, maybe we could still be saved. Unfortunately, grief doesn’t stir up much these days. Just labor demands and things like that …”

“I’ve been thinking a lot too, Monsieur Perret,” the President broke in. “In the long run, whatever I do, I certainly can’t let that starving mob come and land on our shores. We could put them in camps, we could try to assimilate them. But the result would be the same: they would be here to stay. And once w had opened the door and shown how weak we are, others would come. Then more, and more. In fact, it’s already beginning …”

“They’ll come, monsieur, no matter what you do.”

“Yes, I know. But I’ll tell you something. Something that’s going to sound very old hat, so trite that no politician today would dare say it, not even the most inept. But for a change, it’s the absolute truth: my conscience is clear. Good-bye, Monsieur Perret. I don’t know if we’re going to be meeting again, you and I …”


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