Midnight. The President is about to speak. If only we could stop the flow of life for a moment, break down the moving film into stills, encompass the world in one vast panorama and catch all the actors at the moment of truth. Impossible task. The whole world is listening. Every relay station, every satellite, beamed onto the French transmission. The most we can do is shine a few spotlights here and there—through clouds, and rooftops, and cover of night—and ferret out this one and that, co-actors in our saga. Our curious epic. (We tried to come up with a more exact word. Something to describe an epic in reverse, or upside down, or loser-take-all. Like an antiepic. Yes, perhaps that’s the word …)

Albert Durfort, for example. He has stopped his car somewhere near Gex and pulled over to the side, too choked up with emotion to listen and drive, especially over the ice-glazed roads that wind through the La Faucille Pass. (He chose that dangerous route on purpose. Better to stick to untraveled paths when you’re heading for gold…) And when his young Martinican lovely, beginning to wilt, languidly asks for the umpteenth time if “we’re almost in Switzerland”—because she’s simply dying to take a shower, and slip into bed with her precious Albert—Durfort barks back, “Shut up, goddammit!” This roadside stop will prove their undoing. Durfort is going to be attacked and robbed by one of those roving bands that own the darkness and give no quarter. His body, stabbed over and over, will be tossed in the ditch. And the pretty, black, sleek-haired miss will submit to the sexual fancies of savages rid of society’s rules.

Like the reader, most likely, the chronicler of this drama has been struck by the simple Manichaean-style justice displayed by fate in meting out death. Well, maybe not all that simple, really. If we think the matter through, we see that this ethic, in fact, is a two-way street. The Good are at war with the Bad, true enough. But one man’s “Bad” is another man’s “Good,” and vice versa. It’s a question of sides. With this idea in mind, let’s shine our spotlight on another pair of characters: Élise, the wife of our friend Cadi One-Eye, Frenchwoman-turned-Arab, and Pierre Senconac. Senconac, at the moment, sits musing in the studios of Radio-East, mulling over the impromptu comments he’ll be making on the President’s speech. He knows, of course, that he’s going to preach violence. But exactly what. grounds will the President give him? What precise rationale? And so he sits, waiting, like a knight before the fray. Useless waste of time, in fact, if we move the clock forward by a mere twenty minutes. Because that’s when Élise, listening in the kitchen to Senconac’s curt, biting voice, will know that, finally, the days of contempt are over, and that redemption by blood is at hand to purge its last traces. And she’ll speed off in her car to the studios, all but deserted, with her husband’s razor hidden inside her right stocking, flat against the thigh. Senconac will gasp his last, throat slit in mid-sentence, as the last few technicians take to their heels. Manichaean ethic. Just a question of sides … And yet, in the over-all conflict, such jungle vendettas affected no more than a handful. Again we would have to conclude that, apart from a modest elite, Manichaean however we view it, the white race was little more now than a few million sheep. That has to be one explanation …

On the shore, facing the armada, Colonel Dragasès has stopped stuffing black corpses into the bellies of the great wooden pyres. The time has come to confront the living. He’s sitting in the garden of an abandoned seaside villa, on the low, columned railing just over the water, looking out at the ships, run aground in the darkness. Silhouette figures in a vast shadow show. “We bring you now an address by the President of the Republic Since nightfall, hour by hour, the colonel has been counting and re-counting his troops over this incredible front, some twenty kilometers long. From time to time, the radio crew, set up in the villa, fails to contact this unit or that. Yet another one lost. A day spent facing those million poor wretches. Then dusk, and the unit would still cling to life. But come night, by the light of the stars, it was dead. Phantom soldiers, already condemned for a crime not committed, running out on the scene of their wouldbe atrocities. Making off through grove and garden, fast as they could, for fear that daybreak might catch them still there

A little before midnight, Undersecretary Perret takes leave of the prefect—or the remnants thereof—and goes to join the colonel. Commander de Poudis is already there. They have only some ten thousand men left in all. Behind their lines stalk Panama Ranger and his motley band, their numbers swollen along the way. Here and there, on the fringes of the now deserted landscape—vague, shadowy battleground—dark, muted encounters have begun to take place. Low-whispered verbal duels, calls that rarely miss their mark.

Muffled calls to defect. And inside the ransacked houses, Panama Ranger himself greets each new defector with open arms, to the sounds of music and shouts of youthful joy. Sirens singing with a hi-fl voice, breath heavy with the best bourgeois Scotch. Things the colonel has no defense for. Still, Panama Ranger laments his five dead, shot down without warning when they opened their mouths. (Some units, it seems, have no taste for discussion. Especially certain marine commandos, just recently arrived, who plowed their way through his peace-loving legion. Their captain believes that rebirth and renewal can’t take place if there isn’t a good civil war, and that even if it’s destined to fail from the start, that’s all the more reason to give it a go. In a civil war, at least, you know whom you’re killing, and probably why. Something the captain finds very rewarding …”

The tidal wave fleeing the south has paused briefly to catch its collective breath in the soft underbelly of the nation. From Valence to Macon, the hotels are packed. And so are the schoolhouses, barns, gymnasiums, cinemas, restaurants, town halls and people’s culture centers. The prefects, caught in the flood, have appealed to their citizens for a show of cooperation. It’s one thing to mouth highsounding phrases about welcoming the Ganges refugees to our shores. Quite another to find yourself faced, in the flesh, with the hordes running off to escape them. No one counted on that! The local populations increase by leaps and bounds. And with them, their prices. Food suddenly costs ten times what it’s worth. A bath goes for two hundred francs. A nursing bottle, for a hundred. Gasoline is as hard to come by as the local Beaujolais, itself so scarce that the desperate entreaties of the bistro imbiber—a familiar new sound—make the groveling pleas of the addict for his drug seem a dull, tasteless prank. Wherever they’ve been hiding, the black-market vermin, long dormant on their dungheaps, are abuzz and astir, puffing and swelling like a ravenous frog. Exploitation unabashed, man done in by his brother. And the real thing, finally: white skinning white. Now, at last, it’s clear, in this fair Western land, that all we kept hearing about exploitation, all the whoop and the holler in every key, was nothing but so many meaningless words. Now we see it for what it is. And the victim pays. Without a peep. Soon the government moves in, decides it will have to ration bread. Like the good old days, isn’t it! There’s none to be had, but under the counter you can get all you want … Yes, France has come back to normal. Come to terms with herself. And what’s more, with her police. Now that she needs them—and needs them in a hurry-doubled up with that time-honored gnawing in the gut. Scared witless (or worse) … Terror on the highways. Shakedowns left and right, kidnappings, ransoms. This one’s daughter, abducted (“Corporal, let me lick your boots …”). This one’s bride, hardly paid for, carried off by some gang (“Sergeant, let me kiss your ass …”), whisked off by young toughs, like the rugged, handsome kind in the movies, and the whole scene out of a pornoshop film, free for the paying. This one, held up at gunpoint, robbed of his wallet, with all of his papers (“Captain, let me slobber on your big, hairy hands … I repent! I repent!”). Oh, the great rush policeward! Blessed minions of the law! (“No one’s safe anymore. Only you can protect us. Only strong, smart policemen, who want to do their duty. Open up, let us in. How about a cigar. Here, these are the best …”) And suddenly the station houses, headquarters, barracks—all yesterday’s “pigpens,” remember?—loom up to the poor fleeced lamb like remote medieval monasteries, secure and inviolate. The anti-epic, in all its glory! Time was, the people used to huddle in their churches, while the nasty old seigneur sent his surging tide of knighthood breaking over the lofty château walls. Today it’s the knights who are manning the ramparts, defending the refuge, while outside, the men of the cloth, with their latter- day saints, bay like wolves on the prowl. But the knights aren’t the same. The spring inside has snapped. Even in difficult times like these, you can’t take a bunch of broken puppets and turn them back into policemen just by waving a magic wand. Punch has come out on top. And the little children clap, loud and hard as they can. But if someone comes up and steals their lollipops after the show, it will serve the brats right! You can’t clap then complain. You can’t sneer then come begging. The knights take a certain snide pleasure in their revenge. “Well, we can’t keep you out,” they answer, standing at the doors of their secular sanctums, clouded in gloom, “but don’t count on us. You should have thought of that before!” Revenge is a tasty dish, even served cold. The police lick their chops with a kind of gross delight. A few of them spit at the poor, harried beggars. (“Sergeant, let me lick your boots …” “And let me spit in your goddamn eye!” Ah! Delightful exchange! …) But at midnight, intermission. Cops and lambs, fleecers and fleeced, everyone is listening …

On the other hand, over at RTZ, it’s one great big party. The main studio is jammed. Boris Vilsberg is there, by his microphone, waiting, people all around him. Maybe a few too many for comfort, judging by the somewhat anxious look on his face. Rosemonde Real has come and gone. Fifteen minutes ago she showed up at the station, stuck her head in the door, took one look at the squalor … (“Excuse me, may I get by?” Three hairy young creatures, lying sprawled over armchairs in the middle of the hall, and not budging an inch, sneering back a reply: “Go ahead. Crawl over.” And the sweet things adding: “What’s the matter? Afraid you’ll catch our crabs?”) Now, it’s all well and good to spout the leftist line to “the people”—bless their hearts—but she really wasn’t ready to face its results herself, and at such close range. “The American Embassy, please!” she tells her chauffeur. The ambassador is a friend of hers. And there, at least, the guards make sure not to let in the rabble. … (Strange, how every patrician-turned-prole has that critical threshold, where the old caste-consciousness comes to the fore. Right, Monsieur de La Fayette?…) Some hardier souls than Rosemonde Real did manage to wade through the scruffy, stinking mob. First and foremost, Fra Muttone, still all aquiver from the Pope’s brilliant message, having devoured it word by word, and dying to discuss it. Very elegant, as usual, with his slim, stately bearing, his silvery hair, curling slightly at the temples, his black alpaca suit (just right for a fancy première), his shirt with the ruffled front. No trouble for him to squeeze through. Slithering in and out, like an eel. And gently mopping his brow with a handkerchief, trimmed in lace. The heat, in fact, is unbearable. The studio, built for two hundred, must have five hundred packed in, at least. Though with so many camped on the floor, waiting for midnight, it seems more a mass of bodies than faces. As for the buffet, set up in back—a tradition at RTZ for special occasions—it’s long since empty. Not a drop left, not a crumb. One great big black, dressed to the hilt, is standing there roughing up the helpless waiter, as if trying to shake loose a few hidden bottles Well, what do you make of it?” asks Fra Muttone, finally working his way up to Vilsberg. “Not too good, I’m afraid,” Boris mutters. “After the President speaks, they’ll grab the mike and we won’t get a word in edgewise. The boss was thinking of going right off the air, but I begged him to change his mind. We’d never get out of this place in one piece!” And so, in today’s mass media empire, the role of a Kerenski doesn’t pay much anymore. A statement or two, and pffft!, that’s that! …

Among the Africans who clean up the slop and swill of Paris, deep in the filthy cellars where the creatures of light have stowed them by the thousands, an unchanging dialogue takes place, for the tenth time at least, intoned, almost chanted, mechanical refrain or plan of action, we can’t say for sure:

“If they manage to land in one piece, what then?” asks “the Chief,” “will you all climb out of your rat holes too?”

“All depends. Will there be enough rats?” chant another.

“By daylight,” the ragtag priest replies, “they’ll be thick as the trees in a giant forest, sprung up overnight in the darkness. Zimbawe!”

“Zimbawe!” blindly chant a thousand voices …

At the Arab bar, Café Oasis—lights dim, metal shutter pulled down—Cadi One-Eye holds forth on the telephone, tirelessly repeating his orders:

“Don’t hoard. Don’t be selfish. Share whatever you have, even with the ones who’ve done you dirt. Treat them all like brothers. Remember, the time for violence is over. Allah be praised, we’re not going to need it. They’re already dead. Unless their President’s speech revives them. Patience, patience. It won’t be long now.

The President of the French Republic presides at this moment over one hundred peoples. One hundred governments, around the globe, in each of the twenty-four time zones. All glued to their radios. In Rome, the Pope is kneeling before a cross, a Brazilian crucifix with a figure of Christ that looks like Saint Che himself, while in Paris, the Cardinal, apostle to the poor, wriggles and squirms on his hard wooden stool. … Colonel Zackaroff looks at his watch, and tries to rouse the general, asleep at his desk, head cradled in his arms between two bottles of vodka … “How beautiful and green your eyes are, darling!” whispers Norman Haller, through an alcoholic haze…. Minister Jean Orelle sits fingering an antique revolver, a handmade 1937 Soviet model. He gazes in fascination. God knows how often it must have jammed, back in that wonderful Spanish war! … Josiane shakes her head and keeps repeating, as she counts her furniture: “We’ll never get our things in the Arabs’ place upstairs. They won’t all fit Fugitive from justice, Luke Notaras roams the edge of the Esterel range, along the coast, in search of the French army. … But of all the actors lit up by our spotlights, piercing the darkness of this historic Easter Sunday, the strangest of all, without doubt, is Monsieur Hamadura, caught in the beam just as he’s loading his car to drive south. Steel glistens in the moonlight, as Monsieur Hamadura, with the greatest of care, places four rifles into his trunk, well padded with blankets. Magnificent rifles, with telescopic sights, relics of his Indian hunting days, shooting elephant and tiger. As for the long-awaited speech, Monsieur Hamadura couldn’t care less. He’s not going to listen. Gleaming whiter than ever in his swarthy face, his teeth open into a great, broad smile. Clearly Monsieur Hamadura is happy. He’s about to leave on his final hunt …

Old Monsieur Calguès looked at his empty glass, thought a bit, then slowly and deliberately poured himself another. The Mozart concerto had stopped abruptly. Then a moment of silence. That instant of grace, that brief instant of perfection, like the flash of a shooting star: the soft, cool wind just beginning to bathe the terrace; the delightful landscape glimpsed in the moonlight shadows; the garden heavy with the fragrance of pine; the church tower plainly seen from the terrace, reaching high, as if to seal a timeless pact with Heaven; and, with it all, God, so terribly close, laying a comforting, loving hand on the old man’s shoulder… The shooting star burned out as a voice announced:

“You will now hear an address by the President of the Republic.”


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