On that day and the days that followed, in all the ports along the Ganges, a hundred ships were stormed in the very same way, and not without a certain collusion by captains and crews. The turd eater had only to appear before the crowd and speak. On more than one occasion, local police had reported him standing on the bridges of two ships at once, which would tend to prove that even they were the victims of mob hysteria. To tell the truth, the human tide had swept this frenzied city clean of every vestige of authority. When one crack regiment, in fact, was ordered to shut off all roads to the port, the soldiers replied by throwing their rifles into the Ganges, and lost themselves deep in the crowd. The government wouldn’t have risked even that token gesture if not for the pressure that all the Western consuls had brought to bear. Soon afterwards, the ministers holed themselves up, way out in their villas, and every department chief seemed to vanish from sight. All but one, that is, the head of Information, whom the Belgian consul, dean of the corps, managed to reach by telephone, one last time, before he too disappeared. That high official, a man of taste and breeding, seemed strangely composed, as if this assault on the Western World were as normal a thing as could be:
“Look here, my friend. Why cling to the hope that my government still has some say in all this? What’s happening out on those docks is the fringe of the problem, the part we can see. Like the lava that shoots up out of the crater. Or the wave that breaks on the beach … Yes, that’s what it is, a wave, with another one rolling behind it, and one behind that, and another, and another. And so on, out to sea, back to the storm that’s the cause of it all. This mob of poor devils attacking the ships is just the first wave. You’ve seen their kind before. Their misery is nothing new, it doesn’t upset you. But what about the second wave, the one right behind? Would it shock you to learn that thousands more are on the move? Half the country, in fact. Young ones, handsome ones, the ones that haven’t even begun to starve … The second wave, my friend. The beautiful creatures. God’s perfect specimens, these people of ours. Like statues, in all their naked glory, out of our temples and onto the road, streaming toward the port. Yes, ugliness bowing to beauty at last … And behind them, the third wave, fear. And the fourth wave, famine. Two months, my friend, and five million dead already! … Then the wave we call flood, stripping the country, destroying the crops, laying waste the land for five long years. And another one, off in the distance, the wave of war. More famine in its wake, more millions dead. And another, still nearer the storm, the wave of shame. The shame of those days when the West was master of our land … But through it all, through wave after wave, these people of ours, rubbing bellies for all they’re worth, to their bodies’ and souls’ content, to bring more millions into the world to die … Yes, that’s where it all begins. That’s the eye of the storm, no matter how it’s hidden. And you know, it’s really not a storm at all, but a great, triumphant surge of life. … There’s no Third World. No, not anymore. That’s only a phrase you coined to keep us in our place. There’s one world, only one, and it’s going to be flooded with life, submerged. This country of mine is a roaring river. A river of sperm. Now, all of a sudden, it’s shifting course, my friend, and heading west …”
As he held the phone, the Consul’s hand was so close to his nose that he gave it a quick, unthinking sniff. And he thought of those many times—press conferences, cocktails, and such—when this same official would shake his hand and steep his palm and fingers in a heavy scent, so stubborn that it took three days and twenty scrubbings with a good strong soap to wash it out. “The stink of the East!” the Consul would murmur to himself as he rubbed his hands under the tap. And he used to wonder if, just at that moment, his counterpart too wasn’t washing his hands for the twentieth time, and thinking, “Good God, the stink of the West!”
“May I ask you something, my friend?” the Consul interjected. “What kind of cologne do you use?”
The official let out a surprised little gasp. Then something of a laugh, as if he had caught the meaning behind the question. And he had, in fact, subtle mind that he was.
“Do you really think that’s a burning issue at a time like this, my friend?”
“Frankly,” the Consul laughed back, “at the moment I can’t think of any more burning.”
“In that case, I’ll tell you. I never use cologne. None at all … And you, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I don’t either. None at all.”
“I thought as much.”
“I thought so too,” the Consul replied.
Their laughter subsided. For a moment there was silence. Then the Consul continued:
“Well now, there’s a good solid fact I can wire my government. Uncoded, of course! It should satisfy their frantic need to know what’s going on here, and why. Aside from that, though, there’s not too much point to our chat, I’m afraid. Not that I really expected there would be. As always, you’ve tried to explain away that congenital habit you people have of closing your eyes … Oh, you’re a bright, clever man, I’m sure. Your whole country is bursting with bright, clever men. Men who knew what was going to happen. Your nice little speech laid it all out pat: the famines, wars, floods, epidemics, the mighty myths and superstitions, the population growing by leaps and bounds … No need for a computer to predict the future here—though you people do have computers, I’m sure. … Oh no, you knew! You saw all those waves that you described so well. You knew they were coming! And what did you do? Not a thing!”
“Now, now, you’re just being nasty!” the official interrupted. “But I don’t mind, I understand. You’re getting a taste of fear, that’s all. Yes, fear—you bright, clever man! Well, five minutes more and I’ll hang up the phone, and that will be that. Then you can go shift for yourself, my friend, with your precious Western future behind you. Nobody here will give a good goddamn—myself, anymore than our outcast scum! And I’ll thumb my nose good-bye, if you want to know, even though I can’t see you. If my government still cared, that’s one thing I’d be sure to tell them. It would be the neatest way to wrap up the whole affair. … You say we didn’t do a thing? And what about you? God knows, we begged you for help, but that wasn’t enough! You wanted to see us fall at your feet, you wanted to make us grovel. Besides, you couldn’t have stopped it. The world had plenty of warning. … Your part of the world, that is. The only part that mattered … All those times, wherever they had me stationed—London, Paris—those times I’d be sitting over a drink with friends, and have to watch your television screens and see my own people dying! Or open your high-class papers and read the reporters who knew what was going on, but didn’t let it spoil their dinner or keep them up at night. With headlines like: ‘Affluent Nations’ Conscience Unmoved by Third World Plight … Western and UN Aid Falling Far Short … Future of Third World Seen at Stake …’ You people all know how to read. You’re not deaf. You’ve heard the same tune for ten years now, in every key. But only from all your bleeding hearts, and plenty of them at that. So what did you do? You treated your conscience to a dose of guilt and then prayed to someone or other that things would stay the way they were as long as they could. That’s where you went wrong. You should have held fast to your Western contempt. It might have steeled you against disaster. Because that’s what’s brewing for you now, my friend, and you can’t do a thing about it. When all is said and done, it will serve you right, and no one will stand up and fight it. Not even your own. Which just goes to show what a decadent lot you really are.”
“My conscience is clear,” the Consul replied. “No guilt, I assure you. And no contempt either. I won’t deny a few pangs of fear, but fear is the only emotion this country of yours has ever made me feel. That’s why I’m going to rout it out by doing my duty, pure and simple. Will I see you at the docks?”
“My good man, you must be joking …”
It wasn’t a joking matter, but the conversation did break off, in fact, with a kind of laugh. From that moment on, until the fleet was about to set sail, every last official from around the Ganges seemed to dissolve and disappear in silence.
Later, when the world learned that the fleet had sailed, and heard the circumstances surrounding the Consul’s death, not a single voice was raised to explain or defend his action. People talked about “Consul Himmans and his foolish heroics,” but without the slightest concern for the little man trampled by the mob until he was nothing but a puddle of blood on the Ganges shore. The word “pathetic,” which would have been far more fitting, never even so much as rose to the lips of the antiracists out beating the drum. Yes, the fleet was pathetic. The passengers were pathetic. But the Consul was foolish. One journalist, and only one, came close to the truth, and then on a sadly humorous note. His article was entitled: “Last Popgun Blast from a Dying Regime.” It reviewed the major times that the West had sent its armies meddling in the lives of once-second-class nations, and traced its progressively weakening role down to that single symbolic shot from the Consul’s rifle, fired in the name of a superiority that was no more.
In its outward appearance, at least, the Consul’s heroic gesture was something of a prototype after the fact; an epitome, synthesis, conclusion all in one, as perfect and pure as the final creation of some terribly famous artist, who paints a single line on his canvas, or dabs one dot, and calls it his crowning achievement. The Consul, poor man, didn’t know what a pose he had struck. He had looked for no models to follow. He had felt no epic grandeur in his soul, no taste for theatrics. And yet, his death was theater at its best. His army, for example, reduced to a single soldier—the faithful Sikh—was one of those comic theatrical symbols, the shabby, half-starved actor loping across the stage and awkwardly showing a sign with the words: “His Excellency the Western Consul’s Troops.” Worth noting, too, was the fact that the army in question respected the age-old tradition that, over the years, had cemented the power and might of the West beyond its borders: it was a native army, conditioned to abhor its own the way the white man’s dog abhors the black’s. More noteworthy still, the fact that this army—venal to the core, hired out to maintain the Western hold on a worldwide domain—was reduced to a single man. And so, with one soldier behind him, the Consul stepped forward, a wizened figure in his English shorts, his half-sleeve shirt flapping over a gaunt, gray chest, to confront a million flailing savages. Not that there really was, to be sure, in that crowd as we know it, a single wildly flailing savage, but simply because in all the glorious tales of Western conquerors—from Cortés and Pizarro to our own Bournazel and his African exploits—the white man is pictured alone (or almost), advancing against the unbridled, menacing hordes, and putting them all to flight by his imposing presence. The charm, however, had long since been broken. The poor little Consul looked rather like a tired old magician, who knows that he’s going to bungle his trick, and does, but who tries it on the audience all the same, not for his honor or anything of the sort, but because even a worn-out magician deserves an orderly end, however absurd, just as a worn-out hero of the Western World deserves to perform one last bizarre, eccentric feat for the public that used to applaud him. Once admiration gives way to disdain, the bizarre, after all, is the only way out that makes much sense. And why not? Weren’t jesters always cleverer than their kings? So be it. In this new swarthy reign, the white man will be the jester. It’s as simple as that …
High noon, and there by the docks the little Western Consul appeared, at the head of his army. To say that the army’s morale was low would be rather an understatement; it was catastrophic. The army was in utter disarray. Its antique rifle trembled in time with its panic. But careful to refrain from introspection, and strutting, puppet like, close behind its cadaverous, knobby-kneed commander, it still caused enough of a stir—with its Belgian drill step, English style, head high and vacant stare (“Whatever you do, never look at a thing!”)—that it made the crowd give way and let them through. The mob was sizzling in the noonday sun, and the Consul sniffed. Then he took a big white kerchief from his pocket and tied it around his nose and mouth, like Marshal Bugeaud and his desert legionnaires. No doubt this act of instinctiverevulsion, quite unintended, struck those up front as openly hostile. It was in that spirit that they described it to the ones behind them, who passed it down the line, and into the heart of the crowd. In no time a murderous cry had gone up. The army tightened ranks. That is to say, the Sikh guard tightened his rump, and felt a cold sweat trickling down his thighs, as his gun barrel trembled madly against a sky turned black with shaking fists. The Consul struggled to push his way through the mass of flesh, growing denser and denser, and managed to reach the pier. A big ship sat at her moorings, almost as high as the India Star. Three gangplanks connected her to land. Three teeming human anthills on the move. At the foot of one, with his back to the crowd and his face toward the sea, stood a mournful-looking white man, arms upraised.
“What are you doing here?” the Consul asked the bishop. “Do you think it’s time for us relics to die? … On different sides, of course! …”
The bishop smiled and completed his blessing.
“You remind me of Christ,” the Consul went on, “but a dead Christ at that. I’ve lost my job, but I’m willing to admit it. That’s where we’re different, you and I. You want to keep fooling yourself in the name of some meaningless God. A God that’s in your head, and nowhere else … Well, take a good look at the rabble around us, then draw your own conclusions. You’re nothing to them. Just a broken-down padre spreading a useless gospel. Whereas I … Well, at least for a moment they’ll know I exist, and sooner than they think! … No, Your Grace, I’m afraid you’re all alone. They don’t have the vaguest idea what you’re up to. But you go ahead and bless them all the same. That was what I saw you doing, wasn’t it? You were actually giving that mob your blessing …”
“Quite so,” said the bishop. “As prefect apostolic to the entire Ganges region, I’m wishing my flock a bon voyage, and praying for God’s help to speed them on their way.”
“What meaningless mumbo jumbo!” the Consul replied. “Bishop or not, you’re still a simple priest at heart! Time was when bishops were born, not made, and priests were just priests. Now nobody draws any lines anymore, and it’s all mixed up. … Really, who do you think will fall for such talk? A bishop for this Ganges scum! That’s just what they needed! And you think God will bother to help the likes of them? Maybe yours, but not mine. I’m damn sure of that!”
The Sikh had turned a deathly green, twitching and squirming about, convulsed with fear. He looked toward the two men having their calm salon chat in the midst of the crowd, then pivoted around in a flash, like a tank’s revolving turret in a slapstick film, his gun barrel grazing the wall of faces huddling thick about them. Then, completing his turn, he faced the Consul again, like a dervish whirling in a circle of fear, hoping that the next time around his master would finally listen:
“Consul Sahib! Please, let’s go! They’re not afraid of me anymore. They’re almost on top of us. A few seconds, and they won’t be afraid of you either. Then we’ll never get out of here alive! Please, Consul Sahib! I’ve served your country all these years. Now save me! Please, for Heaven’s sake, save me!”
“Is your rifle loaded?”
“No, Consul Sahib. What good would it do?”
“Well then, load it, you idiot!”
Shame on the Sikh guards, glory and pride of empires past! After four fruitless tries, the order was carried out, finally, by a warrior fallen from grace, beard and turban atremble, who looked like a drunkard struggling to find the keyhole with his key. It was then that the bishop replied to the Consul’s remarks:
“God won’t help them, you say? … Well, listen. He’s doing just that! Impossible, but true. See? They’re on their way!”
The whistle on the India Star gave out such a mournful wail that it would have brought a shudder to even the most mildly superstitious of captains. It was like the orgasmic groaning of some deaf-mute colossus, some giant in heat, unaware of the frenzy of sounds he was forcing from his throat. First a few short blasts, some high, some low. Then all of them blending into one immense gasp, each note of the scale scraping against the next without snuffing it out. The great organ pipe of the India Star, rusted through here and there in holes of various sizes, booming out the chant of its last divine office. After which, it proceeded to burst, just as the monster totem, up on the bridge, was closing his toothless mouth … The Calcutta Star sat at dockside—decayed, once-shining symbol of a decaying city. Her captain had draped himself in a kind of pilgrim cloak, but still had on his braided cap. He looked for all the world like a glove puppet, standing there on board, arms waving at the sailors hauling up the gangplanks. Two of them were up already. The Western Consul and his army had taken their positions at the foot of the third. At the top, a small patch of empty deck appeared to the waiting hordes on the pier quite able to hold them all. And so they began to edge forward, slowly at first, in a single, solid mass, like some gigantic beast with a million legs and a hundred heads, the closest of which was a handsome young man’s, the picture of sublime inspiration, whose face seemed consumed by a pair of shining eyes, and who found himself suddenly barrel to brow with the Western artillery, such as it was.
“Fire!” the Consul ordered.
He had never used that word before in similar context, and it startled him a little to hear himself utter it now for the very first time. It was then, on the threshold of death, that the poor little man discovered the joy of personal contact with soldierly lore. … Fire! One more colony falls at your feet, Sir! Fire! Tahiti surrenders, run up the colors! Fire! The Sultan of Patakahuet implores the Republic’s protection! Fire! Fire! Fire! The Arab rebel bastards bite the dust of the desert stockades. … We’re a great and generous people, after all, but still … So ready, aim, fire! …
The Consul emerged from his daydream, jarred awake as the army drew back without a shot.
“What are you waiting for? Fire, you idiot!”
At which point the army deserted. It did so in the disarray of utter defeat, in its usual cowardly manner. Will God ever show us a conquering army turn tail and desert? No doubt, especially if the shabby lot that pretend to speak in His name ever get their way. … The Sikh thrust his rifle into the Consul’s hands, and dove into the Ganges.
“You’re not really going to shoot!” said the bishop.
“Oh yes I am! And I’m going to shoot to kill,” said the Consul, leveling his gun at the doe-eyed multi-beast before him.
“But what on earth for?”
The Consul was staring right into the eyes of the handsome, dark young man at the end of his rifle. The crowd paused a moment before the final push.
“What do you want me to say?” the Consul answered. “For glory? Honor? Some principle or other? For Christian civilization, or nonsense like that? Well, not at all! I’m going to turn off those bright, shining eyes just for the pleasure it gives me! I have no brothers in this mob of Martians. They’re nothing to me. And now, finally, I’m going to prove it!”
He fired. One of the beast’s hundred heads disappeared, a bloody hole between its eyes. But it grew right back in the shape of a square, black face, with massive jaws and a hate-filled look. The Consul was thrown to the ground in a frenzy of blows. The bishop bent over his scrawny, prostrate form.
“In the name of the Lord, I forgive you,” he said.
“In the name of the Lord, eat shit!” the Consul gasped.
Then the hundred heads plunged forward, as the surging beast, compressed within the confines of the gangplank, climbed on its thousands of legs to the deck of the Calcutta Star. Swept along in the tide, absorbed and digested, the bishop found himself lifted aboard and dropped down in place by the great human wave, alive but inert, like a shipwrecked sailor who, by some miracle, washes ashore on the sands of an unknown island. In that crushing welter of flesh, however, that horde exuding its mystic fervor through each of its pores, he had lost almost all sense of who and what he was. And when, in turn, the Calcutta Star sailed out of port, the bishop thought he saw, there on the deserted dock by the Ganges, a score of stray dogs lapping up a shining pool of blood, with a hundred others racing through the empty streets to join in the feast. “Really! Is that all that’s left of the Consul?” he wondered—the only coherent idea that managed to muddle its way through his head. He even thought he saw one of the dogs spelling words in the blood with his tongue. But the ship was already out too far, and he couldn’t read what they said, or even be sure that they really were words (though it seemed for a moment he could make out a few Latin syllables). For days on end he would sit transfixed on deck, in the stench of a yogi-style squat, racking his brain to the rhythmic swish of the water along the hull, trying to recall what his eyes had dimly seen. So doing, he soon took leave of his senses.
At the mouth of the Ganges, the delta’s reddened waters paled abruptly as they emptied into the vast Gulf of Bengal, and the hundred ships of the refugee fleet steered a sluggish southwesterly course toward the Straits of Ceylon. The captains had agreed to limp feebly along for the sake of one moribund vessel, the shoddiest of the lot, a big river tugboat used to far calmer waters, the most pitiful cripple in this whole floating slum. Like the rest of her flat deck, her low-slung bow was piled white with pilgrims. With every wave it plunged into the water, paying the sea a ransom of surplus souls, carried off in the mists. A kind of pathetic Hop-o’-my-thumb, struggling to keep pace, and strewing a store of human pebbles over a path of no return. On the lead ship, the India Star, the captain’s fancy cap had changed heads, and sat perched now on a bald, shapeless stump. Gold braid wreathed the monster’s brow; the polished visor shaded his frozen gaze from the ocean sun, as he stood on board commanding the ship and, indeed, the whole fleet. He was like some oracle, consulted before any weighty decision, dispensing his orders. So long as someone could read the flash and flicker of his lidless eyes. In time it became quite clear that, more than once, the fleet owed much to those silent commands …
Some of the actors in the drama were soon to learn how superfluous they were. From the moment the India Star blew her very first blast, in fact. And it came as something of a shock. Ostracized, victims of racial hate or simple indifference—especially indifference—they found themselves prisoners unpenned, yet hemmed in by walls of human flesh deep in the mazes belowdecks, or stuck in some dark, stifling, cubby hole next to the engines. Forgotten outsiders, like captives won in battle, destined now only for the last triumphal march. A few helpless Chinese, and even some whites, squatting on their haunches, huddling together like primitive tribes, alone and hungry. Talking and talking, for a week on end … The event they had shared in, the event they were forced to sit idly by and watch, plunged them deep into raptures of reasoned delight, heightened no doubt by fatigue, and filled with each one’s concept of a bright new world, like something from the glossy pages of any leftist weekly in the West. Experts one and all among themselves, always on the verge, despite their woeful state, of taking self-indulgent credit for their harangues, like satisfied signers of innocuous petitions, ready to bandy back and forth their names, their ideals, their principles—things that mean terribly little, really, when someone is wallowing down in a ship’s dark hold. With no food to sink their teeth into, they chewed the West to shreds with words. Hunger was turning them mean. Already they saw it their mission to guide the flock’s first steps on Western soil. One would empty out all our hospital beds so that cholera-ridden and leprous wretches could sprawl between their clean white sheets. Another wouldcram our brightest, cheeriest nurseries full of monster children. Another would preach unlimited sex, in the name of the one, single race of the future—“a simple matter,” he added, “since unlike skins attract,” which was something he claimed to know all about. Still another would turn our supermarkets over to the barefoot, swarthy horde: “Can’t you see it now! Hundreds of thousands of women and children, smashing their way through those gigantic stores, stuffing their mouths with food, beside themselves with pleasure …”
Now and then one of those viperous tongues stopped wagging long enough to lick a few droplets of moisture condensed on the sheet-iron wall. “Nothing to drink, poor devils!” cried the renegade writer. “Well, decadent world, get ready to share your treasure! Your tubs will be filled to the brim, and the water boy, poor crook-necked bugger, will splash around to his heart’s content, and maybe he’ll even go out of his mind just thinking how heavy it all would be, hanging in buckets from a stick across his shoulders. And you know what? You’ll have to knock at your door, your very own door, to beg for a glass of water!” So saying, he collapsed, not to be heard from again. By the ninth day they had all stopped talking, one by one: militants with a cause, lay missionaries, apostate priests, idealist quacks, activist thinkers, the whole brigade of antiworld thugs that had set sail with the fleet. Somehow they managed to keep alive. From time to time a child brought them rice, prompted, more than likely, by the memory of Ballan and his pocketful of sticky sweets…
It was only when the fleet sailed into the Straits of Ceylon, around the tip of India and then northwest toward the Red Sea and Suez, that the whole world sat up all at once and began to take notice. From that point on, words flowed and flowed from every thoughtful mouth—streaming over radio, coursing over television, and flooding in a swelling tide of print.
“… In a communiqué from Paris received just moments ago, the French government confirms the earlier announcement that a state of emergency has been declared in the four departments bordering the coast, and that reinforcements are being deployed to the south. It has also been confirmed that the President of the Republic will address the French people at midnight, tonight, Paris time, with a message of grave concern. The Soviet government has decided to make public the statements contained in that message, as soon as they have all been reviewed by the Central Committee of the Party, presently meeting in Moscow, in extraordinary plenary session …”
“Ah, Zackaroff! I can see myself now. Hero of the Soviet Union, from grenadier cadet at Stalingrad to general in the artillery, commander of the northern bank of this blasted Amur … And all of a sudden, a year before I’m supposed to retire, they’re going to turn me into a butcher of women and children! … Well, all we can do now is figure how much vodka we’ll need to make those Chinese look as if they all have uniforms. Then we can shoot them without a second thought. … What do you see? What’s happening over there?”
Colonel Zackaroff repliedwithout turning his head. Through the peephole in the command-post bunker, he had his sights trained across the river, watching the Chinese swarming in silence since morning along the Amur’s southern bank.
“We’re going to have our hands full, General! We knew what to expect, but it’s still pretty hard to believe! So many of them, squatting on the ground, lined up in rows as far as the eye can see. Like a giant collective, with Chinamen sprouting wherever you look. On the right, the babies. In the middle, the women. On the left, the young ones. And behind them all, the men. From here, if you count them in squares, like cabbage, I’d say there are two or three million. From a plane, maybe five. And still they keep coming! … Are they just going to pile up in the river? Or do you think they can swim?”
“They’re like dogs, these Chinese,” the general answered. “They know how to swim from the minute they’re born. … Listen, Zackaroff, don’t stop watching. You’ve got to be my eyes. I can’t bear to look. I never could pull the trigger when an animal looked me in the face. … Anyway, don’t waste your pity. Don’t be fooled by those sweet little tots, those clean-cut girls and boys, those helpless-looking women! You can bet when we shoot up that crowd each one we kill will find just the right dramatic pose before they fall in a heap. Anything to impress us. With that faraway look in their eyes that they do so well. And the wounded ones will writhe at our feet, like no other wounded bastard you ever saw. Twenty lessons to learn the whole act, with group drills and practice sessions, and special instructors in make-believe. They love all that. And the ones that put on the biggest show, the ones that seem to be hurting the most, maybe won’t have a scratch. You won’t know who’s wounded and who isn’t. A real Chinese opera! You’ll see how much fun it’s going to be! … What are they up to now, Zackaroff?”
“Nothing’s moving over there. No talking. No singing. No laughing. No nothing. I haven’t seen one of them take a bite to eat all day. Or even move their jaws … You know, there’s one thing that puzzles me: do they pee while they’re squatting like that?”
“Tell a Chinaman ‘don’t,’ and he won’t eat, or drink, or piss, or screw, or think. … Give me the vodka, Zackaroff. Those characters are beginning to get me down. I think I’ll put them all in the Chinese army.”
“I can see something else, General. Every hundred yards or so … Trucks, with loudspeakers on top, aimed this way.”
“Of course. And in each one there’s a damn little Chinaman who speaks Russian, and thinks he’s the star of some second-rate play. A few words from him, and we’re all going to burst into tears! ‘Proletarian comrades of the great Soviet Union, the time has come to return to the Chinese people, in a spirit of brotherly love, these Siberian lands so long a part of their sacred ancestral home. Our women, our children, our peasants stand before you, helpless and unprotected, your brothers and sisters, here to open your eyes, to show you the truth and reclaim what is theirs. Please don’t shoot. We’re unarmed. We’re just poor, humble folk trying to make our way …’ And blahblahblah, and more of the same! … Well I’ll tell you, you have to watch out when you talk about poor, humble folk to other poor, humble folk who haven’t heard anything else but poor, humble folk for some sixty-odd years. You might just take in a few, don’t you know! Then all of a sudden we’ll be sitting by the Urals, across from an unarmed army of pathetic old men, all ten years old, and yellow peons squatting on their haunches! … Give me my bottle, Zackaroff. I’ve got to get uniforms on them all, and stripes!”
“I’m not worried about you,” said the colonel. “I know you can do it. Just like in Berlin, when your vodka turned that crowd of young fraüleins into an SS company of panzer grenadiers … I remember … But here you have two hundred thousand men, General. If the order comes down to shoot, what will you do? Will you get them all drunk? All two hundred thousand?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time. The armies of Peter the Great weren’t sober for a second. The sailors on board the Poteinkin were terrible drunkards. Stalin himself used to dictate his finest maneuvers while he rolled around under the table each night. Yes, I’ve given it some thought, my friend. But the drunk soldier has no prestige anymore. Not in this world of ours, mucked up with brotherly love the way it is. Or the soldier, period. We’re caught in the clutches of the great hermaphrodite, Zackaroff. We’re all its serfs. And we can’t even cut off its balls!”
“Sir?” the colonel queried. “I’m not sure I …”
“World conscience, illiterate prole! World conscience! Imagine how shocked it would be at a piece of news like this: ‘Drunk Russian army slaughters five million unarmed peasants, women and children …’ Anyway, if the French decide to shoot, that mob over there will take the hint and stay where they are. But frankly I don’t think the French can do it. They’ve always been the fair-haired boys of something or other—of the Church, of logic, of love, of revolution. And now, of that blasted hermaphrodite, the dears! So it’s going to be up to us. We’ll have to be the ones to shoot. Thank Heaven our garden-variety muzhik is still the same good-natured oaf he’s always been. Both feet on the ground, head screwed on straight. You see, being slaves to tradition isn’t all that bad! By the time I show up, the hunt will be over. They’ll have bagged themselves five or six thousand Chinese, maybe more. Unfortunately, on an empty stomach, even a muzhik gets tired of splashing around in blood …”
The general closed his eyes and rubbed his lids, as if he were trying to shake off a weariness, heavy and deep.
“Zackaroff,” he said, in a strangely different voice, “tell me again what you see over there. Are there really women and children? Women with breasts? With long, slender necks, and delicate wrists? With pants that hug their bellies and outline their sex? And children too, with those great big eyes? So serious-looking, the way only children can be … You know what I mean, don’t you, Zackaroff? You know how serious children can be when they make up their minds, and play it for all it’s worth …”
“There are women and children, all right! And the way they look from here, General, you’re going to need plenty of vodka. Just like Berlin.”
All at once a voice boomed over from the southern bank, the metallic voice of the damn little Chinaman, star of the second-rate play, mouthing the opening lines of his part:
“Proletarian comrades of the great Soviet Union.
“What did I tell you!” the general smirked. “Time was, we would soften the enemy up with a few rounds of fire. Today they just pound you to hell with their bullshit. The world has had enough of us, Zackaroff. I think it’s time we quit …”
The roaring voice rolled across the river, from one bank to the other:
“You see here before you our women, our children, our peasants, helpless and unprotected, your brothers and sisters, here to open your eyes, to show you the truth. Soon we’ll start to cross the river. Please don’t shoot. We have no arms. We’re just poor, humble folk trying to make our way …”
“What time is it, Zackaroff?”
“Then it’s ten past midnight in Paris. That means their president has just finished his speech, and Peking has made up its mind. They’ll be at it like this for the rest of the day, and all through the night, until morning. Call the field marshal, Zackaroff. Ask him for permission to shut up those loudspeakers once and for all …”
“Permission denied,” said the colonel, setting the general’s red phone back on his desk. “Not a drop of blood, except on specific orders from the Kremlin,” he added, with a laugh.
“And you think that’s funny? Can’t you see that those windbags in Moscow have decided not to act, but to keep on arguing, back and forth, in the name of a bunch of principles they think it’s their sacred duty to protect! We’re caught in a crossfire of words, Zackaroff. That’s no good for a soldier. It spoils his final bow!”
“I’m laughing at something else he said, General. He told me to tell you that ‘no blood’ doesn’t mean ‘no vodka’!”
“Ah, him too!” he sighed. “He must wonder what in hell he was doing in China when the first war was over. You should have known him then. A rabble-rousing cutthroat if ever there was one! Well, choke down your regrets, old friend! Come dawn, we’ll all be plastered!” He shook his fist. “Three sensible drunks at your service, Mother Russia! … Come, Zackaroff, let’s drink! And close up that peephole. I don’t want to have to hear that loudmouth! He sounds like a priest, and he’s getting on my nerves. Now that every last padre has his pen or his mike, you can’t even hear yourself drink anymore. Yes, it’s padre time, Zackaroff, that’s what it is. All over the world. They’re oozing out of every country. Thousands of everyday priests, ready and willing to poison the minds of millions of idiots. Bleeding hearts puking out gospels galore … Ready, Zackarofli Forward, march! One, two! One, two! One, two! Keep in step! Head up! Eyes front! Stare vacant! Head empty! Amen!”
“If you don’t mind, General, I’ll pour myself a drink first. I can see we’re in for a good long night.”
To claim that the news of the fleet’s departure caused any great alarm in the Western World when it first became known, would be plainly untrue. Which is doubtless why there was no lack of clever folk, willing, from the start, to spread endless layers of verbal cream, spurting thick and unctuous from the udders of their minds. The obliging bovines of contemporary Western thought, tails all aquiver, acquiesced with delight to the daily milking, especially since, for the moment, there was no cause to think that a serious problem was actually at hand. To appreciate the West’s opinion of the refugee fleet—or, for that matter, of anything new and unfamiliar—one essential fact must be borne in mind: it really couldn’t give less of a damn. Incredible but true. The more it discovers about such things, the more fathomless its ignorance, feeble its interest, and vulgar its own self-concern. The more crass and tasteless, too, its sporadic outbursts, fewer and farther between. Oh yes, to be sure, it indulges in flights of sentiment now and again, but cinema style, like watching a film, or sitting in front of the TV screen, poised for the serial’s weekly installment. Always those spur-of-the-moment emotions or secondhand feelings, pandered by middlemen. Real-world drama, served in the comfort of home by that whore called Mass Media, only stirs up the void where Western opinion has long been submerged. Someone drools at a current event, and mistakes his drivel for meaningful thought. Still, let’s not be too quick to spit our scorn its way. Empty drivel indeed, but it shows nonetheless how reading the papers or watching the news can provoke at least the appearance of thinking. Like Pavlov’s dog, whose slobber revealed the mechanics of instinct. Opinion shakes up its sloth, nothing more. Does anyone really believe that the average Western man, coming home from his ofiice or factory job, and faced with the world’s great upheavals, can eke out much more than a moment’s pause in the monumental boredom of his daily routine? Even Worker Power, that saving grace of our society today, is nothing but a parlor game, and played in a parlor too shabby and worn to stand up to more serious frolics. Risk a few, and the floor will cave in and go crashing to bits. The Moon, Biafra, a murderous earthquake, a campaign against pollution, a six-day war, a Bay of Pigs, the death of a Mao—mere Christmas parties one and all, with the great thoughtless void suddenly wreathed in flowers, and tooting its two-penny whistle. For a little while no one is bored, which is something at least. Quite a bit, in fact, if only it would last! But life isn’t always Sunday, and we can’t have famine in Pakistan or war in Israel every day of the week. (Thank Heaven, by the way, for the Israelis, those entertainers of the Western World. No danger of getting bored as long as they’re on stage. Our jokers can all go to bed and rest easy. When they wake up next morning their café au lait will be steaming, brisk and fresh, to the boom of Israeli guns …) But give a damn? Never! What for? And so, when the first news helicopter flew low over the fleet, off Ceylon, and got a worldwide scoop with a series of staggering pictures, what do you suppose our Western joker thought? That his life was in danger? That time had just started his countdown to death? Not a bit. All he thought was that now, as the fleet limped along on its hopeless course, strewing corpses in its wake, he would finally be able to watch a first-rate serial, week after week.
But now let’s imagine a rude awakening, a plunge into reality, with everyone caught in the soup, like nothing since World War II. The serial suddenly breaks through the screen, smashing it to pieces into the steak and fries. And all at once the hordes of characters stream into the living room, looking the way they did in the fishbowl, doing their tricks a few moments before, only now they’re not acting, and the glass wall is shattered, and they’re armed with their .voes, their wounds, their groans, their grievance, their hate. Their machine guns too. Now they rip through the apartment, jar it out of its orderly calm, stun the families caught short in mid-digestion, spread through the town, the country, the world, pictures come to life, living, breathing problems on the march, newsfilm actors turning on their director in unbridled frenzy, suddenly telling him “shit!” to his face. … Now our poor little friend sees only too well that he should have paid closer attention. He read it all wrong, he heard it all wrong. The story, this time, wasn’t published and aired for his leisurely, private delight. In fact, what he’s going to hear now is this: “A million refugees from the banks of the Ganges set to invade France in the morning. Five more fleets on the way, from Africa, India and Asia.” Then hell run off to lay in supplies, to stock up on sugar, and oil, and sausage, and noodles. And he’ll stick a sockful of gold coins under a board in the floor. He’ll go to his local garage and lick His Lordship’s greasy boots for two jerrycans full, set aside for the periodic evacuation. Then, eyes moist with manly tenderness, he’ll look at his wife, his daughter, his aged mother, and see them already haloed in the nasty aura of self-sacrifice. After which, having belched up the last gaseous echo of the last sumptuous banquet of the Veterans of Gourmet Dining, he’ll declare himself “ready to confront the situation.” With the look on his face somewhat changed, a little more sly and resigned. Prepared to sell out, if need be … But things haven’t gone quite that far for our little friend yet. For the moment, with millions of others, he’s dozing off, ready to drown in the drivel, ears peacefully cocked toward his mind master’s tinkling bells.
What a concert! What talent! All solidly classic, steeped in the noblest tradition of the music of brotherly love. With maestros too numerous to name, loosing a flood of notes, those first few days, a torrent of heavenly voices, angelic enough to make you weep. But still, let’s try. We’ll get tired of reading about them in no time—much sooner than they themselves got tired of their broadsides and speeches—but we mustn’t forget the weight of blame they bear. They took our poor little friend and twisted him around their finger. Not many on purpose, to be sure. But the minions who fawned on the monster, though few, knew what they were doing. And they did their job well. The rest of them spewed out their words and their ink for other irksome reasons; most common of which, a certain aversion to violence, like the beast on the edge of his lush, fragrant forest, threatened with attack, but suddenly loath to growl or bare his fangs, when the merest snarl would be more than enough to protect him. Try to figure it out! Then too, there was more than a goodly dose of moral misgivings—or cowardice, if you will—in the spreading contagion of their spineless pronouncements. Like the fear of not sneering in tune with the other hyenas, of not weeping in time with the pharisee chorus, of not bleating with the fools, of unwittingly proving you can think for yourself; or the fear, above all, that world conscience would point its accusing finger, and single you out as the spoilsport troubling their treasonous revels. Oh what fine scribblers and spouters we had back then, in those early days of borrowed calm before the storm!
One name on the roll of honor has to stand out above the rest: the unspeakable Jean Orelle. Official spokesman of the French Republic, it was he whose babblings broke the silence, in charge, as he was, of starting the auction off. Everyone hoped he would set the bidding high. And he did. Eternal France, in keeping with time-honored custom, owed it to herself to stand up, solo, and squeal out sublime and noble notes of love, with no thought of how she would get off the hook once the die had been cast …