In the wake of the good feelings sparked by J.M.G. Le Clézio`s receipt of this year`s Nobel Proze in Literature, my thoughts soon turned to the career of another French writer who has given serious thought to some of the same issues as Le Clézio, and whose decidedly different conclusions have made him a persona non grata in most literary discussions, Jean Raspail.
Here’s a liitle thought experiment for you: Take a white child, raise him in an isolated town where life seems closer to the ninteenth than the twenty-first century, permit him to read nothing but the Bible until he attains the age of reason, then feed him a steady diet of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Émile Zola (carefully omitting the Dreyfus affair), Carl Schmitt and Joseph de Maistre, throw in theodd beating for no apparent reason, and then drop him in the middle of London or Paris, or Washington or Toronto, with a “Kick Me” sign on his back and only $20 in his pocket, then in a matter of days one would have… someone very much like Jean Raspail!
Raspail is not well-known in North America, and most of those people one meets who have read him are cranks, white power nuts, or worse, to put it mildly. And indeed, in his best-known book, The Camp of the Saints, Raspail seems to take a perverse delight in forcing us to look at material that borders on the intolerable, and then steps across that border as if steeping out for a stroll in the summer evening. And yet to simply dismiss Raspail as a racist is to do exactly what he would expect you to do—and by commiting that act of dismissal one would both evade and unwittingly manifest the thrust of his book.
There is an integrity in Raspail’s novel that goes beyond his social commentary and political digressions, an integrity that stems from his calling our attention to material we find intolerable—not because he wishes to shock us for his own amusement, but because he honestly believes the matter at hand is so serious, so dire, that it requires our sustained thought immediately: and that desperate effort to have us look at something we don’t want to look at is something so few novelists try to do anymore.
Whatever one thinks of Raspail’s socio-political observations, one must concede—if not admire—the fact that his writing carries the courage of his convictions so openly. To fail to grant Raspail at least that much is to fail to properly enter Raspail’s novelistic world—in other words, it is a failure to read in the fullest sense.
A few years ago an obscure right-wing journal offered this brief accounting of The Camp of the Saints:
In 1973, France saw the original publication of The Camp of the Saints, a novel about the perils of third-world overpopulation taking over the wealthy first-world nations. It was translated into several languages, including English, in 1975. One hundred rusty, dilapidated boats leave India crammed with starving would-be immigrants. Indians, like so many other third-world citizens, are desperate and bitter about their lives. The first worlders know the boats are en route to France, yet they make little effort to prevent the ships from landing. The French citizens feel guilty for having so many material goods and empathize with the miserable, starving masses. The liberal press, churches and students have helped instill a sense of guilt. The people don’t have the will to defend and preserve their culture. Many French try to flee to Switzerland. Leaders of first-world countries watch the progress of the rickety boats and cannot muster the political will to prevent invasions. The new politically correct statement is ”We are all from the Ganges now.” The success of the Indian boats encourages millions of Third Worlders to take over other European nations. The reader is given a glimpse of what happens in New York City. Though the author considered his work a parable, it seems to be a prophecy. Population is increasing, the rusty freighters are arriving and we do not have the political will to control our borders. The mainstream liberal press condemned Jean Raspail’s book as racist, a tirade and preposterous, but such remarks only appeared to increase sales figures. The Atlantic Monthly called it ”one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century” in a December 1994 review. The Social Contract Press reprinted the book in 1994, and used on its cover a photo of the Golden Venture passengers gathered on the beach in Queens, New York, in 1993. The author has written 19 other books including Seven Horsemen.
—Carol Joyal, review of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, The Social Contract (Summer 2000).
If Lawrence’s dictum that “the novel is the one big bright book of life” is true, then The Camp of the Saints is an anti-novel—not by virtue of its aesthetics, which are straightforwardly conventional (no Robbe-Grillet-style experimentation here)—but because of its unrelenting commitment to follow its own internal—and infernal—logic into the dark, life-denying places no normal person wishes to go.
And yet, after a certain point, one cannot elect to simply shut the book and put it back on the shelf: some furious impulse latent in the narrative forces one to go right through to the novel’s appalling conclusion. Acknowledging a book’s ability to force one to read almost against one’s will—that must be one of the highest tributes one can pay to the power of a novelist’s art.
To conclude: finding oneself in The Camp of the Saints is bracing experience. It can force you to look at your own accumulated stores of received wisdom and what we think of as common sense, and defend your assumptions and suppositions—or reject them. This is not always a pleasant process. Jean Raspail’s France, in fact, the whole of the Western world as he conceives it, is not a very nice place to visit… but in many ways we are already living there. Read him.
THE CAMP OF THE SAINTS
By Jean Raspail
Translated by Norman Shapiro
Originally published in French as Le Camp Des Saints, 1973
And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison, and will go forth and deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, and will gather them together for the battle; the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth and encompassed the camp of the saints, and the beloved city. —APOCALYPSE 20
My spirit turns more and more toward the West, toward the old heritage. There are, perhaps, some treasures to retrieve among its ruins … I don’t know. —LAWRENCE DURRELL
As seen from the outside, the massive upheaval in Western society is approaching the limit beyond which it will become “meta-stable” and must collapse. —SOLZHENITSYN
I HAD WANTED TO WRITE a lengthy preface to explain my position and show that this is no wild-eyed dream; that even if the specific action, symbolic as it is, may seem farfetched, the fact remains that we are inevitably heading for something of the sort. We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.
But what good would it do?
I should at least point out, though, that many of the texts I have put into my characters’ mouths or pens—editorials, speeches, pastoral letters, laws, news stories, statements of every description—are, in fact, authentic. Perhaps the reader will spot them as they go by. In terms of the fictional situation I have presented, they become all the more revealing.
The old professor had a rather simple thought. Given the wholly abnormal conditions, he had read, and reasoned, and even written too much—versed as he was in the workings of the mind—to dare propose anything, even to himself, but the most banal of reflections, worthy of a schoolboy’s theme. It was a lovely day, warm but not hot, with a cool spring breeze rolling gently and noiselessly over the covered terrace outside the house. His was one of the last houses up toward the crest of the hill, perched on the rocky slope like an outpost guarding the old brown-hued village that stood out above the landscape, towering over it all, as far as the tourist resort down below; as far as the sumptuous boulevard along the water, with its green palms, tips barely visible, and its fine white homes; as far as the sea itself, calm and blue, the rich man’s sea, now suddenly stripped of all the opulent veneer that usually overspread its surface—the chrome-covered yachts, the muscle-bulging skiers, the gold-skinned girls, the fat bellies lining the decks of sailboats, large but discreet—and now, stretching over that empty sea, aground some fifty yards out, the incredible fleet from the other side of the globe, the rusty, creaking fleet that the old professor had been eyeing since morning. The stench had faded away at last, the terrible stench of latrines, that had heralded the fleet’s arrival, like thunder before a storm. The old man took his eye from the spyglass, moved back from the tripod. The amazing invasion had loomed up so close that it already seemed to be swarming over the hill and into his house. He rubbed his weary eye, looked toward the door. It was a door of solid oak, like some deathless mass, jointed with fortress hinges. The ancestral name was carved in somber wood, and the year that one of the old man’s forebears, in uninterrupted line, had completed the house: 1673. The door opened out on the terrace from the large main room that served as his library, parlor, and study, all in one. There was no other door in the house. The terrace, in fact, ran right to the road, down five little steps, with nothing like a gate to close them off, open to any and every passerby who felt like walking up and saying hello, the way they did so often in the village. Each day, from dawn to dusk, that door stood open. And on this particular evening, as the sun was beginning to sink down to its daily demise, it was open as well—a fact that seemed to strike the old man for the very first time. It was then that he had this fleeting thought, whose utter banality brought a kind of rapturous smile to his lips: “I wonder,” he said to himself, “if, under the circumstances, the proverb is right, and if a door really has to be open or shut …”
Then he took up his watch again, eye to glass, to make the most of the sun’s last, low-skimming rays, as they lit the unlikely sight one more time before dark. How many of them were there, out on those grounded wrecks? If the figures could be believed—the horrendous figures that each terse news bulletin had announced through the day, one after another—then the decks and holds must be piled high with layer on layer of human bodies, clustered in heaps around smokestacks and gangways, with the dead underneath supporting the living, like one of those columns of ants on the march, teeming with life on top, exposed to view, and below, a kind of ant-paved path, with millions of trampled cadavers. The old professor—Calgues by name—aimed his glass at one of the ships still lit by the sun, then patiently focused the lens until the image was as sharp as he could make it, like a scientist over his microscope, peering in to find his culture swarming with the microbes that he knew all the time must be there. The ship was a steamer, a good sixty years old. Her five stacks, straight up, like pipes, showed how very old she was. Four of them were lopped off at different levels, by time, by rust, by lack of care, by chance—in short, by gradual decay. She had run aground just off the beach, and lay there, listing at some ten degrees. Like all the ships in this phantom fleet, there wasn’t a light to be seen on her once it was dark, not even a glimmer. Everything must have gone dead—boilers, generators, everything, all at once—as she ran to meet her self-imposed disaster. Perhaps there had been just fuel enough for this one and only voyage. Or perhaps there was no one on board anymore who felt the need to take care of such things—or of anything else—now that the exodus had finally led to the gates of the newfound paradise. Old Monsieur Calguès took careful note of all he saw, of each and every detail, unaware of the slightest emotion within him. Except, that is, for his interest; a prodigious interest in this vanguard of an antiworld bent on coming in the flesh to knock, at long last, at the gates of abundance. He pressed his eye to the glass, and the first things he saw were arms. As best he could tell, his range of vision described a circle on deck ten yards or so in diameter. Then he started to count. Calm and unhurried. But it was like trying to count all the trees in the forest, those arms raised high in the air, waving and shaking together, all outstretched toward the nearby shore. Scraggy branches, brown and black, quickened by a breath of hope. All bare, those fleshless Gandhi-arms. And they rose up out of scraps of cloth, white cloth that must have been tunics once, and togas, and pilgrims’ saris. The professor reached two hundred, then stopped. He had counted as far as he could within the bounds of the circle. Then he did some rapid calculation. Given the length and breadth of the deck, it was likely that more than thirty such circles could be laid out side by side, and that between every pair of tangent circumferences there would be two spaces, more or less triangular in shape, opposite one another, vertex to vertex, each with an area roughly equal to one-third of a circle, which would give a total of 30 + 10 = 40 circles, 40 x 200 arms = 8,000 arms. Or four thousand bodies! On this one deck alone! Now, assuming that they might be several layers thick, or at least no less thick on each of the decks—and between decks and below decks too—then the figure, astounding enough as it was, would have to be multiplied by eight. Or thirty thousand creatures on a single ship! Not to mention the dead, floating here and there around the hull, trailing their white rags over the water, corpses that the living had been throwing overboard since morning. A curious act, all in all, and one not inspired by reasons of hygiene, to be sure. Otherwise, why wait for the end of the voyage? But Monsieur Calgues felt certain he had hit on the one explanation. He believed in God. He believed in all the rest: eternal life, redemption, heavenly mercy, hope and faith. He believed as well, with firm conviction, that the corpses thrown out on the shores of France had reached their paradise too to waft their way through it, unconstrained, forevermore. Even more blessed than the living themselves, who, throwing them into the sea, had offered their dead, then and there, the gift of salvation, joy, and all eternity. Such an act was called love. At least that was how the old professor understood it.
And so night settled in, but not until daylight had glimmered its last red rays once more on the grounded fleet. There were better than a hundred ships in all, each one caked with rust, unfit for the sea, and each one proof of the miracle that had somehow guided them, safe and sound, from the other side of the earth. All but one, that is, wrecked off the coast of Ceylon. They had lined up in almost mannerly fashion, one after the other, stuck in the sand or in among the rocks, bows upraised in one final yearning thrust toward shore.
And all around, thousands of floating, white-clad corpses, that daylight’s last waves were beginning to wash aground, laying them gently down on the beach, then rolling back to sea to look for more. A hundred ships! The old professor felt a shudder well up within him, that quiver of exaltation and humility combined, the feeling we sometimes get when we turn our minds, hard as we can, to notions of the infinite and the eternal. On this Easter Sunday evening, eight hundred thousand living beings, and thousands of dead ones, were making their peaceful assault on the Western World. Tomorrow it would all be over. And now, rising up from the coast to the hills, to the village, to the house and its terrace, a gentle chanting, yet so very strong for all its gentleness, like a kind of singsong, droned by a chorus of eight hundred thousand voices. Long, long ago, the Crusaders had sung as they circled Jerusalem, on the eve of their last attack. And Jericho’s walls had crumbled without a fight when the trumpets sounded for the seventh time. Perhaps when all was silent, when the chanting was finally stilled, the chosen people too would feel the force of divine displeasure. … There were other sounds as well. The roar of hundreds of trucks. Since morning, the army had taken up positions on the Mediterranean beaches. But there in the darkness there was nothing beyond the terrace but sky and stars.
It was cool in the house when the professor went inside, but he left the door open all the same. Can a door protect a world that has lived too long? Even a marvel of workmanship, three hundred years old, and one carved out of such utterly respectable Western oak? … There was no electricity. Obviously, the technicians from the power plants along the coast had fled north too, with all the others, the petrified mob, turning tail and running off without a word, so as not to have to look, not see a thing, which meant they wouldn’t have to understand, or even try. The professor lit the oil lamps that he always kept on hand in case the lights went out. He threw one of the matches into the fireplace. The kindling, carefully arranged, flashed up with a roar, crackled, and spread its light and warmth over the room. Then he turned on his transistor, tuned all day long to the national chain. Gone now the pop and the jazz, the crooning ladies and the vapid babblers, the black saxophonists, the gurus, the smug stars of stage and screen, the experts on health and love and sex. All gone from the airwaves, all suddenly judged indecent, as if the threatened West were concerned with the last acoustic image it presented of itself. Nothing but Mozart, the same on every station. Eine kleine Nachtmusik, no less. And the old professor had a kindly thought for the program director, there in his studio in Paris. He couldn’t possibly see or know, and yet he had understood. For those eight hundred thousand singsong voices that he couldn’t even hear, he had found, instinctively, the most fitting reply. What was there in the world more Western than Mozart, more civilized, more perfect? No eight hundred thousand voices could drone their chant to Mozart’s notes. Mozart had never written to stir the masses, but to touch the heart of each single human being, in his private self. What a lovely symbol, really! The Western World summed up in its ultimate truth … An announcer’s voice roused the old professor from his musings:
“The President of the Republic has been meeting all day at the Élysée Palace with government leaders. Also present, in view of the gravity of the situation, are the chiefs of staff of the three branches of the armed forces, as well as the heads of the local and state police, the prefects of the departments of Var and Alpes-Maritimes, and, in a strictly advisory capacity, His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, the papal nuncio, and most of the Western ambassadors currently stationed in the capital. At present the meeting is still in progress. A government spokesman, however, has just announced that this evening, at about midnight, the President of the Republic will go on the air with an address of utmost importance to the nation. According to reports reaching us from the south, all still seems quiet on board the ships of the refugee fleet. A communiqué from army headquarters confirms that two divisions have been deployed along the coast in the face … in the face of …” (The announcer hesitated. And who could blame him? Just what should one call that numberless, miserable mass? The enemy? The horde? The invasion? The Third World on the march?) “… in the face of this unprecedented incursion (There! Not too bad at all!) “… and that three divisions of reinforcements are heading south at this moment, despite considerable difficulty of movement. In another communiqué, issued not more than five minutes ago, army chief of staff Colonel Dragasès has reported that troops under his command have begun setting fire to some twenty immense wooden piles along the shore, in order to … (Another hesitation. The announcer seemed to gasp. The old professor even thought he heard him mutter “My God!”) “… in order to burn the thousands of dead bodies thrown overboard from all the ships …”
And that was all. A moment later, with hardly a break, Mozart was back, replacing those three divisions hurtling southward, and the score of funeral pyres that must have begun to crackle by now in the crisp air down by the coast. The West doesn’t like to burn its dead. It tucks away its cremation urns, hides them out in the hinterlands of its cemeteries. The Seine, the Rhine, the Loire, the Rhône, the Thames are no Ganges or Indus. Not even the Guadalquivir and the Tiber. Their shores never stank with the stench of roasting corpses. Yes, they have flowed with blood, their waters have run red, and many a peasant has crossed himself as he used his pitchfork to push aside the human carcasses floating downstream. But in Western times, on their bridges and banks, people danced and drank their wine and beer, men tickled the fresh, young laughing lasses, and everyone laughed at the wretch on the rack, laughed in his face, and the wretch on the gallows, tongue dangling, and the wretch on the block, neck severed—because, indeed, the Western World, staid as it was, knew how to laugh as well as cry—and then, as their belfreys called them to prayer, they would all go partake of their fleshly god, secure in the knowledge that their dead were there, protecting them, safe as could be, laid out in rows beneath their timeless slabs and crosses, in graveyards nestled against the hills, since burning, after all, was only for devilish fiends, or wizards, or poor souls with the plague. … The professor stepped out on the terrace. Down below, the shoreline was lit with a score of reddish glows, ringed round with billows of smoke. He opened his binoculars and trained them on the highest of the piles, flaming neatly along like a wooden tower, loaded with corpses from bottom to top. The soldiers had stacked it with care, first a layer of wood, then a layer of flesh, and so on all the way up. At least some trace of respect for death seemed to show in its tidy construction. Then all at once, down it crashed, still burning, nothing now but a loathsome mass, like a heap of smoking rubble along the public way. And no one troubled to build the nice neat tower again. Bulldozers rolled up, driven by men in diving suits, then other machines fitted with great jointed claws and shovels, pushing the bodies together into soft, slimy mounds, scooping a load in the air and pouring it onto the fire, as arms and legs and heads, and even whole cadavers overflowed around them and fell to the ground. It was then that the professor saw the first soldier turn and run, calling to mind yet another cliché, arms and legs flapping like a puppet on a string, in perfect pantomime of unbridled panic. The young man had dropped the corpse he was dragging. He had wildly thrown down his helmet and mask, ripped off his safety gloves. Then, hands clutched to temples, he dashed off, zigzag, like a terrified jackrabbit, into the ring of darkness beyond the burning pile. Five minutes more, and ten other soldiers had done the same. The professor closed his binoculars. He understood. That scorn of a people for other races, the knowledge that one’s own is best, the triumphant joy at feeling oneself to be part of humanity’s finest—none of that had ever filled these youngsters’ addled brains, or at least so little that the monstrous cancer implanted in the Western conscience had quashed it in no time at all. In their case it wasn’t a matter of tender heart, but a morbid, contagious excess of sentiment, most interesting to find in the flesh and observe, at last, in action. The real men of heart would be toiling that night, and nobody else. Just a moment before, as the nice young man was running away, old Calguès had turned his glasses briefly on a figure that looked like some uniformed giant, standing at the foot of the burning pile, legs spread, and hurling up each corpse passed over to him, one by one, with a powerful, rhythmic fling, like a stoker of yesteryear deep belowdecks, feeding his boiler with shovelfuls of coal. Perhaps he too was pained at the sight, but if so, his pain didn’t leave much room for pity. In fact, he probably didn’t think of it at all, convinced that now, finally, the human race no longer formed one great fraternal whole—as the popes, philosophers, intellects, politicos, and priests of the West had been claiming for much too long. Unless, that is, the old professor, watching “the stoker” and his calm resolve—the one he called “the stoker” was really Colonel Dragases, the chief of staff, up front to set his men an example—was simply ascribing to him his own ideas. … That night, love too was not of one mind. Man never has really loved humanity all of a piece—all its races, its peoples, its religions—but only those creatures he feels are his kin, a part of his clan, no matter how vast. As far as the rest are concerned, he forces himself, and lets the world force him. And then, when he does, when the damage is done, he himself falls apart. In this curious war taking shape, those who loved themselves best were the ones who would triumph. How many would they be, next morning, still joyously standing their ground on the beach, as the hideous army slipped down by the thousands, down into the water, for the onslaught by the living, in the wake of their dead? Joyously! That was what mattered the most. A moment before, as he watched “the stoker,” the professor had thought he could see him move his lips, wide open, as if he were singing. Yes, by God, singing! If even just the two of them could stand there and sing, perhaps they could wake up the rest from their deathly sleep. … But no other sound came rising from the shore, no sound but the soft, foreboding chant welling up out of eight hundred thousand throats.
“Pretty cool, man, huh!” exclaimed a voice in the shadows.
Noiselessly, the young man had come up the five little steps from the road and onto the terrace. Feet bare, hair long and dirty, flowered tunic, Hindu collar, Afghan vest.
“I’ve just been down there,” he said. “Fantastic! I’ve been waiting five years for something like this!”
“Are you alone?”
“So far. Except for the ones who were already here. But there’s lots more on the way. They’re all coming down. And walking, too. All the pigs are pulling out and heading north! I didn’t see a single car in this direction! Man, they’re going to be bushed, but this is too good to miss. Going to smoke, and shoot dope, and walk all the way. Make it down here on their feet, not on their butts.”
“Did you get a close look down there?”
“Real close. Only not for long. I got smashed a couple of times. Some soldier, with his gun. Like I was trash. But I saw a bunch of other soldiers crying. It’s great! I’m telling you, tomorrow this country’s going to be something else. You won’t know it. It’s going to be born all over.”
“Did you see the people on the boats?”
“You bet I did!”
“And you think you’re anything like them? Look, your skin is white. You’re a Christian, I imagine. You speak our language, you have our accent. You probably even have family hereabouts, don’t you?”
“So what! My real family’s all the people coming off those boats. Here I am with a million of my brothers, and sisters, and fathers, and mothers. And wives if I want them. I’ll sleep with the first one that lets me, and I’ll give her a baby. A nice dark baby. And after a while I’ll melt into the crowd.”
“Yes, you’ll disappear. You’ll be lost in that mass. They won’t even know you exist.”
“Good! That’s just what I’m after. I’m sick of being a tool of the middle class, and I’m sick of making tools of people just like me, if that’s what you mean by existing. My parents took off this morning. And my two sisters with them. Afraid of getting raped, all of a sudden. They went and dressed up like everyone else. These real square clothes, I mean. Things they haven’t put on in years, like neat little skirts, and blouses with buttons. So scared, you wouldn’t know them. Well, they won’t get away. Nobody’s going to get away. Let them try to save their ass. They’re finished, all of them. Man, you should have seen it! My father, with his arms full of shoes from his store, piling them into his nice little truck. And my mother, bawling her head off, figuring out which ones to take, picking out the expensive ones and leaving the rest. And my sisters, already up front, huddling together and staring at me, scared to death, like maybe I was the first one in line to rape them. And meanwhile I’m laughing and having myself a ball, like when my old man pulls down the grille in front of the store and sticks the key in his pocket. ‘Listen,’ I told him, ‘a lot of good that’s going to do! I can open your door myself without a key. And I will, tomorrow. And you know what they’ll do with your goddamn shoes? They’ll probably use them to piss in. Or maybe they’ll eat them. Because they all go barefoot!’ Then he gave me a look, and he spit on me. So I spit back and got him in the eye with a big one. And that’s how we said good-bye.”
“And what brings you here? Why this village? Why my house?”
“I’m looting, that’s why. I sponged off society while it was alive, so now that it’s dead, I’m going to pick its bones. It’s a change. I like it. Because everything’s dead. Except for the army, and you, and a few of my friends, there’s no one around for miles. So I’m looting, man. But don’t worry, I’m not hungry. I’ve already stuffed myself. And anyway, I don’t need much. Besides, everything’s mine now. And tomorrow I’m going to stand here and let them have it all. I’m like a king, man, and I’m going to give away my kingdom. Today’s Easter, right? Well, this is the last time your Christ’s going to rise. And it won’t do you any good this time, either, just like all the rest.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow
“There’s a million Christs on those boats out there. And first thing in the morning they’re all going to rise. The million of them. So your Christ, all by himself … Well, he’s had it, see?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“Of course not!”
“And those million Christs? Is that your own idea?”
“No, but I thought it was kind of cool. For padre talk, I mean. I got it from this priest. One of those worker types from the wrong side of town. I ran into him an hour ago. I was on my way up here, and he was running like crazy down the hill. Not in rags or anything, but kind of weird. He kept stopping and lifting his arms in the air, like the ones down there, and he’d yell out: ‘Thank you, God! Thank you!’ And then he’d take off again, down to the beach. They say there’s more on the way.”
“More priests, just like him … Say listen, man, I’m getting tired of you. I didn’t come here to talk. Besides, you’re just a ghost. How come you’re still around?”
“I want to hear what you have to say.”
“You mean my bullshit interests you?”
“Then I’ll tell you something: you’re through. Dried up. You keep thinking and talking, but there’s no more time for that. It’s over. So beat it!”
“Oh? I daresay …”
“Listen. You and this house, you’re both the same. You look like you’ve both been around here for a thousand years.”
“Since 1673, to be exact,” the old gentleman answered, smiling for the first time.
“Three centuries, father to son. And always so sure of yourselves, so damn sure of everything. Man, that’s sick!”
“Quite true. But I find your concern a trifle surprising. Perhaps you’re still one of us after all. Perhaps just a little?”
“Shut up before you make me puke! Maybe you’ve got a pretty house. So what? And maybe you’re not a bad old guy. Smart, and refined, and everything just right. But smug, man, so sure of your place. So sure that you fit right in. With everything around you. Like this village of yours, with its twenty generations of ancestors just like you. Twenty generations without a conscience, without a heart. What a family tree! And now here you are, the last, perfect branch. Because you are, you’re perfect. And that’s why I hate you. That’s why I’m going to bring them here, tomorrow. The grubbiest ones in the bunch. Here, to your house. You’re nothing to them, you and all you stand for. Your world doesn’t mean a thing. They won’t even try to understand it. They’ll be tired, man. Tired and cold. And they’ll build a fire with your big wooden door. And they’ll crap all over your terrace, and wipe their hands on your shelves full of books. And they’ll spit out your wine, and eat with their fingers from all that nice pewter hanging inside on your wall. Then they’ll squat on their heels and watch your easy chairs go up in smoke. And they’ll use your fancy bedsheets to pretty themselves up in. All your things will lose their meaning. Your meaning, man. What’s beautiful won’t be, what’s useful they’ll laugh at, what’s useless they won’t even bother with. Nothing’s going to be worth a thing. Except maybe a piece of string on the floor. And they’ll fight over it, and tear the whole damn place apart. … Yes, it’s going to be tremendous! So go on, beat it. Fuck off!”
“One moment, if I may. You told me there was no more time for thinking and talking, yet you seem to be doing a good deal of both.”
“I’m not thinking, man. I’m just telling you where I stand on things Ithought of long ago. I’m through thinking. So fuck off, you hear me?”
“One last question. When they go smashing everything to bits, they won’t know any better. But why you?”
“Why? Because I’ve learned to hate all this. Because the conscience of the world makes me hate all this, that’s why. Now fuck off! You’re beginning to get on my ass!”
“If you insist. There’s really no point in staying. You’re not making very much sense. I’m sure you have an excellent brain, but I do think it’s been a trifle muddled. Someone has done a fine job. Well now, I’ll be on my way. Just let me get my hat.”
The old gentleman stepped inside. He came out a moment later with a shotgun.
“What’s that for?” the young man asked.
“Why, I’m going to kill you, of course! My world won’t live past morning, more than likely, and I fully intend to enjoy its final moments. And enjoy them I shall, more than you can possibly imagine! I’m going to live myself a second life. Tonight, right here. And I think it should be even better than the first. Of course, since all of my kind have left, I intend to live it alone.”
“You? Why, you’re not my kind. We couldn’t be more unlike. Surely I don’t want to ruin this one last night, this quintessential night, with someone like you. Oh no, I’m going to kill you.”
“You can’t. You won’t know how. I bet you’ve never killed anyone.”
“Precisely. I’ve always led a rather quiet life. A professor of literature who loved his work, that’s all. No war ever called me to serve, and, frankly, the spectacle of pointless butchery makes me ill. I wouldn’t have made a very good soldier, I’m afraid. Still, had I been with Actius, once upon a time, I think I would have reveled in killing my share of Hun. And with the likes of Charles Martel, and Godfrey of Bouillon, and Baldwin the Leper, I’m sure I would have shown a certain zeal in poking my blade through Arab flesh. I might have fallen before Byzantium, fighting by Constantine Dragasès’s side. But God, what a horde of Turks I would have cut down before I gasped my last! Besides, when a man is convinced of his cause, he doesn’t die quite so easily! See, there I am, springing back to life in the ranks of the Teutons, hacking the Slav to shreds. And there, leaving Rhodes with Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and his peerless little band, my white cloak blazoned with the cross, my sword dripping blood. Then sailing with Don Juan of Austria, off to even the score at Lepanto. Ah, what a splendid slaughter! … But soon there’s nothing left for me to do. A few trifling skirmishes now and again, none of them too well thought of these days. Like the War Between the States, when my side is defeated and I join the Ku Klux Klan to murder myself some blacks. A nasty business, I admit. Not quite so bad with Kitchener, though, skewering the Mahdi’s Moslem fanatics, spilling their guts. … But the rest is all current events, a sad little joke. Most of it has already slipped my mind. Perhaps I’ve done my bit, killing a pinch of Oriental at the Berlin gates. A dash of Vietcong here, of Mau Mau there. A touch of Algerian rebel to boot. At worst, some leftist or other, finished off in a police van, or some vicious Black Panther. Yes, it’s all become so terribly ugly. No fanfares anymore, no flags, no hosannas … Oh well, you’ll have to excuse an old professor’s pedantic prattle. But you see, I too have stopped thinking and just want to tell you where I stand. You’re right, I’ve never killed a soul. Much less any of the types I’ve just conjured up, all of them standing here before me, at last, in your flesh, all rolled into one. But now I’m going to live those battles over, all at once, those battles that I feel so much a part of, deep in my soul, and I’m going to act them out, right here, all by myself, with one single shot. Like this!”
The young man collapsed in a graceful glide along the railing where he had been leaning, and wound up in a squat, arms hanging by his sides, in a position that seemed quite natural for him. The red spot over his left breast spread out a little, but the blood stopped quickly. It was a nice, tidy death. As his eyes closed beneath the professor’s gentle thumb and finger, they didn’t even look surprised. No flags, no fanfares. Just a victory Western style, as complete as it was absurd and useless. And, utterly at peace with himself—more exquisitely at peace than he remembered ever being—old Monsieur Calgues turned his back on the corpse and went inside.
Now, all at once, with his mind at ease, the professor’s stomach began to feel great pangs of hunger. And suddenly he remembered other ravenous flashes, especially those colossal appetites that man falls prey to after nights of well-requited love. Those distant passions were nothing but vague sensations now, recalled without regret. But the meals that had followed in their wake—improvised meals for two, consumed on this very spot—still stood out in his memory, sharp and clear. Great, flat slices of country bread, dark-smoked ham from up the mountain, dried goat cheese from the village, olives from the terraced groves, apricots from the garden, steeped in sunlight, and that wine from the rocky slopes, just a little too tart. It was all still there in the house, all right within reach: the bread, in the cupboard with the cross carved into its lid; the olives, in a stoneware pot; the ham, hanging from the beams in the kitchen; the wine and cheese, outside, under the stairs, like rows of books lined up on dimly lit shelves. … In no time at all it was set out, spread over the massive table. For a moment the cork in the bottle held fast. When it finally let go, with a sharp little pop, the familiar sound filled the room with a kind of sensual joy. And it occurred to the old professor that once again, tonight, he was celebrating an act of love.
He poured himself some wine, one hearty glass for his thirst, then one for his pleasure, smacking his lips with a touch of ostentation at the obvious excess. He cut up the ham into fine, thin slices, arranged them neatly on a pewter plate, put out a few olives, laid the cheese on a bed of grape leaves and the fruit on a large, flat basket. Then he sat down before his supper and smiled a contented smile. He was in love. And like any successful suitor, he found himself face to face now with the one he loved, alone. Yet tonight that one was no woman, no living creature at all, but a myriad kindred images formed into a kind of projection of his own inner being. Like that silver fork, for example, with the well-worn prongs, and some maternal ancestor’s initials, now rubbed almost smooth. A curious object, really, when you think that the Western World invented it for propriety’s sake, though a third of the human race still grubs up its food with its fingers. And the crystal, always set out in a row of four, so utterly useless. Well, why not? Why do without glasses, like boors Why stop setting them out, simply because the Brazilian backwood was dying of thirst, or because India was gulping down typhus with every swallow of muck from its dried-up wells? Let the cuckold come pound at the door with their threats of revenge. There’s no sharing in love. The rest of the world can go hang. They don’t even exist. So what if those thousands were all on the march, cuckolded out of the pleasures of life? All the better! … And so, the professor set out the four glasses, lined them up in a row. Then he moved the lamp a little to give more light, and they sparkled like stars. Further over, a rustic chest, huge and immovable. Three centuries, father to son, as the young man said, and so sure of it all. And in that chest such an endless store of tablecloths and napkins, of pillow slips and sheets, of dustcloths and fine linen, product of another age, linen that would last forever, in great thick piles, so tightly packed on the outside alone that he never had to use the other household treasures hidden behind them, all lavender-scented, that his mother, or hers, had stacked away so very long ago, never parting with a stitch for their poor until it was worn out and decently patched, but with lots of good use in it yet, convinced—dear, prudent souls that they were—that unbridled charity is, after all, a sin against oneself. Then, after a while, there were too many poor. Altogether too many. Folk you didn’t even know. Not even from here. Just nameless people. Swarming all over. And so terribly clever! Spreading through cities, and houses, and homes. Worming their way by the thousands, in thousands of foolproof ways. Through the slits in your mailboxes, begging for help, with their frightful pictures bursting from envelopes day after day, claiming their due in the name of some organization or other. Slithering in. Through newspapers, radio, churches, through this faction or that, until they were all around you, wherever you looked. Whole countries full, bristling with poignant appeals, pleas that seemed more like threats, and not begging now for linen, but for checks to their account. And in time it got worse. Soon you saw them on television, hordes of them, churning up, dying by the thousands, and nameless butchery became a feature, a continuous show, with its masters of ceremonies and its full-time hucksters. The poor had overrun the earth. Self-reproach was the order of the day; happiness, a sign of decadence. Any pleasure? Beneath discussion. Even in Monsieur Calgues’s own village, if you did try to give some good linen away, they would just think you were beingcondescending. No, charity couldn’t allay your guilt. It could only make you feel meaner and more ashamed. And so, on that day he remembered so well, the professor had shut up his cupboards and chests, his cellar and larder, closed them once and for all to the outside world. The very same day that the last pope had sold out the Vatican. Treasures, library, paintings, frescoes, tiara, furniture, statues—yes, the pontiff had sold it all, as Christendom cheered, and the most high-strung among them, caught up in the contagion, had wondered if they shouldn’t go do likewise, and turn into paupers as well. Useless heroics in the eternal scheme of things. He had thrown it all into a bottomless pit: it didn’t take care of so much as the rural budget of Pakistan for a single year! Morally, he had only proved how rich he really was, like some maharaja dispossessed by official decree. The Third World was quick to throw it up to him, and in no time at all he had fallen from grace. From that moment on, His Holiness had rattled around in a shabby, deserted palace, stripped to the walls by his own design. And he died, at length, in his empty chambers, in a plain iron bed, between a kitchen table and three wicker chairs, like any simple priest from the outskirts of town. Too bad, no crucifixion on demand before an assembled throng. The new pope had been elected at about the time Monsieur Calgues retired. One man, wistfully taking his place on the Vatican’s throne of straw. The other one, back in his village to stay, with only one thought: to enjoy to the fullest his earthly possessions, here in the setting that suited him best … So thank God for the tender ham, and the fragrant bread, and the lightly chilled wine! And let’s drink to the bygone world, and to those who can still feel at home in it all!
While the old man sat there, eating and drinking, savoring swallow after swallow, he set his eyes wandering over the spacious room. A time-consuming task, since his glance stopped to linger on everything it touched, and since every confrontation was a new act of love. Now and then his eyes would fill with tears, but they were tears of joy. Each object in this house proclaimed the dignity of those who had lived here—their discretion, their propriety, their reserve, their taste for those solid traditions that one generation can pass on to the next, so long as it still takes pride in itself. And the old man’s soul was in everything, too. In the fine old bindings, the rustic benches, the Virgin carved in wood, the big cane chairs, the hexagonal tiles, the beams in the ceiling, the ivory crucifix with its sprig of dried boxwood, and a hundred other things as well … It’s man’s things that really define him, far more than the play of ideas; which is why the Western World had come to lose its self-respect, and why it was clogging the highways at that very moment, fleeing north in droves, no doubt vaguely aware that it was already doomed, done in by its over-secretion, as it were, of ugly monstrosities no longer worth defending. Could that, perhaps, have been one explanation? …
At eleven o’clock that night an announcer on the national chain read a new communiqué:
“Government sources note with some dismay the mass exodus of population currently under way throughout the south. While they view this movement with concern, they do not feel justified in advising against it, given the unprecedented nature of the situation. Army and police have been put on maximum alert to help maintain order, and tosee to it that the migration does not interfere with the flow of essential military materiel en route from the north. A state of emergency has been declared in the four departments bordering the coast, under the command of the undersecretary, Monsieur Jean Perret, personal representative of the President of the Republic. The army will make every effort to protect all property left behind, insofar as its other duties permit. Government sources confirm that the President of the Republic will address the nation at midnight, tonight, with a message of grave concern …”
And again, that was all. In a world long exposed to verbal frenzy, such terseness was most impressive. “Do windbags always die without a word?” the professor mused. Then he picked out a book, poured himself a drink, lit up his pipe, and waited for midnight …
It was a curious night for New York, more calm and peaceful than the city had been in well over thirty years. Central Park stood deserted, drained of its thousands of Cams on the prowl. Little girls could have gone there to play, pert towheads, soft and pink in tiny skirts, delighted that, finally, they could romp through its grass. The black and Puerto Rican ghettos were quiet as churches …
Dr. Norman Hailer had opened his windows. He was listening to the city, but there wasn’t a sound. It was that time of night when he would always hear the dreadful notes of what he called the “infernal symphony” rising up from the street below: the cries for help; the click-clack of running heels; the frantic screams; the gunshots, one by one, or in bursts; the wail of police cars; the savage, less-than-human howls; the whimpering children; the vicious laughter; the shatter of glass; the horns of distress as some Cadillac, sleek and air-conditioned, would stop for a light and find itself buried in a sea of black silhouettes, brandishing picks; and then the shouts of no! no! no!, those desperate shouts shrieked into the darkness and suddenly stilled, snuffed out by a knife, a razor, a chain, by a club full of spikes, by a pounding fist, or fingers, or phallus …
It had been that way for thirty years. Statistics in sound, and each year louder than the one before. That is, until those last few days, when the graph had taken a sudden plunge, down to an unheard-of zero on the night in question. Thirty years for Dr. Norman Haller! Frustrating years, through no fault of his own. As consulting sociologist to the city of New York, he had seen it coming, predicted it to the letter. The proof was there, in his lucid reports, ignored one and all. There was really no solution. Black would be black, and white would be white. There was no changing either, except by a total mix, a blend into tan. They were enemies on sight, and their hatred and scorn only grew as they came to know each other better. Now they both felt the same utter loathing. … And so the consulting sociologist would give his opinion and pocket his money. The city had paid him a handsome price for his monumental study of social upheaval, with its forecast of ultimate doom. “No hope, Doctor Hailer?” “No hope, Mr. Mayor. Unless you kill them all, that is, because you’ll never change them. How about that?” “Good God, man, hardly! Let’s just wait and see what happens, and try to do the best we can …
Plush as could be, that suite of Dr. Norman Hailer’s, on the twenty- sixth floor of Central Park’s most elegant apartment building. Protected from the jungle, cut off from the outside world, with its dozen armed guards in the lobby, electronic sensors in every corner, invisible rays, and alarms, and attack dogs. And the garage, like a kind of hermetic chamber. Drawbridge between life and death, between love and hate. Ivory tower, moon base, bunker de luxe. At quite a price. Thousands and thousands of dollars for a few hundred pages, written for the city of New York by the pen of America’s most eminent consulting sociologist. Dr. Norman Haller had built himself a perfect world in the eye of the cyclone, and through that eye he could watch the storm that would sweep it all away. … Whiskey, crushed ice, soft music Go on, darling, go put on that nice expensive little thing you call a dress A telephone call. The mayor of New York.
“Don’t tell me, Jack, let me guess. You’re sitting there, all dressed up. You in your tux, Betty in a gown. Almost takes your breath away, she looks so good. Never better … On your third drink, I’d say … Fancy glasses … Just the two of you, nice and cozy … No special reason … Spur of the moment … Right?”
“Exactly! But how on earth.
“Look. The old familiar jungle shuts up tight. The white man gets scared. What else can he do? One last fling for his white prestige. One final tribute to his useless millions, to his precious position above it all! So here’s to you, Jack! Hear the tinkle? Hear the ice in my glass? My most expensive crystal. Scotch at a hundred bucks a throw! And my wife’s eyes … Never been greener! … So green, I’m going to jump in and drown .
“Listen, Norman. It’s all up to the French now, right? Do you really think they can kill off a million poor, defenseless bastards, just like that? I don’t. And frankly, I hope they can’t tell you something else. The ghettos here in the city don’t think so either. Or in L.A., or Chicago … They may be caged like wildcats, but believe me, they’re quiet as lambs. Calm as can be. They just sit at their radios and listen to the news. That is, when they’re not in their churches, singing up a storm and praying like crazy for those goddamn ships … Ever been swept off your feet by a herd of stampeding lambs? No, I tell you, Norman, the Third World’s turned into a bunch of lambs, that’s all.”
“And the wolf is tired of being a wolf, is that what you’re saying? Well, do like me, Jack. Have yourself another drink, and run your fingers up and down your wife’s white skin, nice and slow, like something very precious. And wait …”
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