Two weeks later, just the caption had changed: “Only 5,000 Kilometers to the Moment of Truth!” In the meantime, nothing new. Total silence. Clear, blue skies. Off in the distance, the armada, plying its unseen path over sea-lanes long deserted. An old friend by now. And world opinion, cruising on course, taken in by the universal brotherhood myth, singing “The Ballad of Man’s Last Chance,” and listening to Rosemonde Real as she chirped the results of her children’s art contest, based on the theme “Our Guests from the Ganges.” Under the aegis of Monsieur Jean Orelle—Nobel laureate in literature, Minister of Information, and official government spokesman—the best of the entries were put on exhibit. At the Petit Palais, no less. Framed, lighted, catalogued on vellum, titled in gold, arranged by subject: at home, at school, in the hospital, the factory, the country, the street … It costs a small fortune. Mammoth publicity. With every important voice in Paris dying to chime in. The opening was the social event of the season. Thick with celebrities, everywhere you looked. Five famous recluse painters, millionaire Marxists, aloof from the honors heaped on their work, even left their châteaux in the sun for that one special night. The Petit Palais, acrawl with reporters and their ever- present mikes, rang to the rafters with their chorus of “oohs” and “ahs.” The young artists had outdone themselves! Never had youth, by nature so flighty, poured forth such a wealth of talent! … And no one with enough good sense to observe that these masterly works from the brushes of children, grotesque little gnomes, were the proper concern of psychiatry, not art. The Minister set the tone, standing in rapt attention before a gouache, particularly garish. Against a red background, it pictured a kind of arm-waving harlequin, one black foot, one white, one white calf, one black, one black thigh, one white, and so on, up to the face, divided in quarters. “Ah!” he exclaimed. “Now there’s a painting! See? All talent comes from the heart. It takes soul to produce real genius. … Yes, we should ponder the lesson these children want to teach us …” And Jean Orelle pondered. Monsieur Jean Orelle. Minister, winner of the Nobel millions, adviser to the worthies of this world. And all the while, that deep, gnawing ache, that twinge in the pit of his stomach, reminding him of his farmhouse in Provence, with its twelve rooms furnished in his image, its shaded garden, the chaise longue under the tamarisk trees, and a million fist-shaking skeletons ready to storm the gate … He fell suddenly silent. But no one thought it strange. They were used to his moods. The press described him as “speechless with emotion, true to his lofty ideals.” His ideals indeed! At the price of what anguish! Standing there ready to chuck it all over and finally speak his mind, yet faced with his past, armed sentinel guarding the narrow pathway from brain to tongue, holding back the words, not letting them break … As for the painting, it was sold for a hundred thousand francs, to help raise money for the Ganges refugees. And at that, there were twenty collectors at each other’s throats to get it. God knows where it might be today, and how its lucky owner views it now …

From that point on, not much to report. Until the São Tomé airlift, that is. Airlift: specialty of the Western World, for use whenever it gets the urge to take up the cause of a neighbor in distress. Presents the great advantage of bridging the vast expanse between the hardput neighbor in question, beside himself with gratitude, and the generous West, safely ensconced, cheering the planes on their way with gestures of friendly concern. Very useful, especially in serious cases, since it salves the conscience. Might even conceivably do some good, though that wasn’t the profound intent of its inventors. As for the São Tomé airlift, it did no good at all, and only sent world opinion plunging into confusion. It was spawned by the Rome Commission, tired of chasing its tail around sterile debates, and deciding that the time was ripe to risk making a move. It was now or never. The UN was talking about taking the matter in hand. And who knows what mischief those types might whip up, if left to themselves and their Third World majority, with toys like imperialism, racism, and such to play with! Only Western nations sat on the Rome Commission, and they were the ones who were holding the ball. Hot as it was, the time hadn’t come to pass it to the Third World just yet! … At any rate, the São Tomé airlift ought to go down in history. A useless monument, like a kind of Eiffel Tower …

It had become clear that, as it crossed the equator, the Ganges fleet would pass close to the African coast. Or, more precisely, to the island republic of São Tomé, that former Portuguese colony that the United States Air Force had used until recently as a base, and whose airport was still pretty much intact. The Commission decided that supplies would be airlifted out of São Tomé, and dropped to the armada. Where South Africa had failed, there would be another try, but this time by selfless and generous people, acting in good faith. They would show those poor wretches—and the whole world, in fact—what the white race was really like! In no time the São Tomé airport was buzzing, besieged from all sides. The great mercy-go-round. A hundred planes circling the leaden equatorial sky, waiting their turn to land. The mad scramble was on! Choice morsel of noble emotions. Monumental confection of selfless ideals. Magnificent antiracist pastry, filled with the cream of human kindness, spread with a sweet egalitarian frosting, sprinkled with bits of vanilla remorse, and on top, this graceful inscription, in flowery caramel arabesques: “Mea Culpa!” A cake to tug at the heartstrings, if ever there was one. And everyone wanted to get the first bite … Don’t push! There’s enough to go around! … What a party! As long as you were there, as long as you were seen, that’s all that really counted …

The white Vatican plane was the first to touch down, winner by several lengths. No matter where or when, it always managed to get there first. As if they kept it ready, night and day, for instant takeoff, loaded with medicines, with Dominicans in jeans, and with pious pronouncements. It must have flown faster than sound, at the speed of symbols, no doubt. To equip it, Pope Benedict XVI, impoverished by his predecessor’s whim, would sell his tiara and his Cadillac. But there still were places, here and there, full of simple, superstitious Catholics who couldn’t conceive of a pope without a tiara or a fancy car—the really backward parishes of Corsica, Brittany, Ireland, Louisiana, Galicia, Calabria, and the like—and it never took long for the money to pour in. The Pope, dejected, would give in to those poor, dear souls, and buy back his car and tiara, only to sell them again with great delight—humble saint that he was—the moment world opinion or the pressure of events called for the white plane to fly a new mission. But alas! They kept making him rich. How distressing. He did so truly want to be poor! Lucky for him that the white plane was there to help him out in his hour of need! … A pope in tune with the times, congenial to the press. What a fine front-page story! They described him living on a can of sardines, eating with a plain tin fork, in a makeshift kitchenette up under the Vatican eaves. When you realize that he was living in Rome, that city bursting with health and wealth, chock-full of centuries’ worth of well-gotten gain, you have to admit that this one and only malnourished Roman was giving his all for the cause. (A few diehards in the city even held it against him, for some vague reason …) And so, his plane was the first to arrive at São Tomé. And the Breton villages, with their roadside shrines and their crosses of stone, took up a collection to buy him a tiara even finer than the rest.

Coming in second, but not far behind, the eternal runner-up: the gray World Council of Churches plane. Unlike its papist counterpart, the Protestant craft was very selective in its choice of flights. Each one was a battle, with its planeload of shock-troop pastors, righteous in their loathing of anything and everything that smacked of present- day Western society, and boundless in their love of whatever might destroy it. In a recent message that caused something of a stir, the Council had voiced its conviction that “present-day Western society can’t be saved, but has to be torn down so that we can build a new world of justice on its ruins, with the help of God …” Charity is a very convenient weapon, especially when used with singleness of purpose. You never saw the pastors fly their missions of mercy when no radical issue was at stake. For an earthquake in Turkey, say, or a flood in Tunisia. But they would always be there to answer the call, with supplies for the Palestine refugee camps, the Angola freedom fighters, the Bantu liberation armies—in fact, wherever the voice of hate was as loud as the voice of distress. And if most of the pastors had long since stopped packing in copies of the Gospels with their cases of food, they didn’t bat an eye. No, this was their Gospel. They were living it now. As the Council explained, “Christ spent his life in a struggle against established religion and temporal power.” So the pastors, too. Espousing vicarious woe and despair. Marching against white power and the Church. While off São Tomé an army was sailing to wage a great war … The Protestant plane touched down with a thump, crammed full of calories to the tips of its rudders …

Next came the aircraft of neutral persuasion, flying in the name of universal conscience. First and foremost, the Red Cross plane, then the Swiss and Swedish duo—charity unbounded: gilt-edged neutrality’s surest defense—and the big air freighters of the European powers, whose minions were really all agents on the same secret mission. Namely, to spy on the fleet and see where it was heading. (“Anywhere they want, only not near us!”) And bringing up the rear, closing the circle, the eccentrics, the wags of the flying flotilla. The best of the lot: a Boeing from the sovereign and benevolent Order of Malta, shining like a knight in armor, four-triangled cross emblazoned on tail and wings, and the Grand Master’s crest, in all its colors, spread like a mustache under the nose. As the black customs men of the Republic of São Tomé were checking its cargo with a somewhat wary eye, enjoying their moment of glory to the fullest, there alighted from the plane—rather spryly, all in all—a lieutenant-general (fugitive from the Jockey Club of Paris), a commander of the order (forgoing his weekend on the links), three officers, including one old duke (all titled like Spanish grandees), and a princess of the blood, nurse’s kerchief on her head (noble and pious lady, lips lit in a radiant smile), whose first words, as her delicate foot touched African soil, expressed her unselfish impatience: “Take me to the poor dears! I want to hug and kiss each one!” It had to be explained that the poor dears were sailing the vast ocean deep, somewhere off the coast. “Good Heavens,” she replied, “I do hope they’re not seasick!” And she turned to the old duke. “You see, Georges, we always forget something! All that medicine, and not a single package of dramamine!” Good-hearted for all her naïveté, she was known the world over, turning up here and there, anywhere suffering reared its aching head, always perfectly at ease, dashing after “the poor dears” like the game hunter, off on safari, mad for a kill. As for the touching knights-errant along with her, no question in their minds what they were after. No more charity, no more sovereign and benevolent Order of Malta! Simple as that! Eight centuries of tradition and a caste to preserve. As good a reason as any, Georges old man! Yes, innocents and clowns. The salt of humanity. That is, if humanity lasts …

And speaking of clowns … That airplane, covered with painted flowers and Hindu sayings, like a neighborhood hippie’s cheap little buggy! A twin-engine rig, flown in by an English singing group … The young millionaire performers, unloading the cartons and crates themselves. A cargo beyond belief! “Everyone else is bringing them life,” they said, as they took off from London. “We’re bringing them pleasure!” And so, piled up along the runway on São Tomé: two cases of tricks and jokes, a box of harmonicas, fifty Indian sitars, a load of portable tape recorders, perfume for the women, incense, thirty kilos of marijuana, fancy chocolates from London Candies and Co., a box of erotic picture books, another full of comic strips, and a complete supply of fireworks (with instructions in Hindi) “to set off on board when you catch sight of Europe.” The young idols ran from crate to crate, beaming with joy. Publicity stunt of a juvenile mind? Camp of the Saints 46 Fruit of sober reflection? No one ever found out why they really had come. In no time, the West had more serious fish to fry … But just for the record, a few words about the high point of the São Tomé air show: last but not least, in all its glory, the four-engine Air France jet, decked out with the colors and letters of the French National Radio and Television Network!

Ah, the endless talk about that plane! Paid for, lock, stock, and barrel, in just one night! Trip and all. One wild, unbelievable night. Madness en masse. Two hundred film stars, singers, orchestras, writers, actors, skiers, designers, playboys, dancers—even that bishop who was all the rage, the one who had found himself a wife in Saint-Germain—they were all there, swarming through the streets, in Paris and provinces alike, to the deafening din of a circus parade, complete with battalions of pretty girls taking up collections, patriotic style. (Tricolors spread out fiat, under a rain of money, pitched from all sides …) Never had there been such a fine time in the streets, especially in Paris. At least, not since the fall of the Bastille! Meanwhile, that night, on every radio station and television channel in the country, one program and only one: the handsome and talented Leo Béon—idol of the airwaves, toast of every living room in France— giving his crowning performance. Just for the record again, we took down his kickoff remarks: “Yes, friends, our government is sending its planes to São Tomé. And it’s only right that it should. It’s doing its duty. But duty is dry as dust. Now it’s up to us to go one step further. It’s up to us to send brotherhood and love! That’s right, my friends. We, the people of France … We’re going to send our own plane to São Tomé. Yes, the people’s plane! … We have two hours to raise the money. And two hours to say what’s in our hearts. So please … Please, friends, send in what you can, no matter how little. And add a message, of twenty-five words or less, telling just how you feel. The writer of the best message will win an all-expense trip to São Tomé …” (Ah! Leo Béon! How he does let himself get carried away!) “… to present, in person, to our friends from the Ganges, a collection of all your choicest sentiments, specially translated … It’s one thing to give. It’s something else to tell why …” And on and on. Drumroll, please! … Of course, it was a triumph. A million people out in the streets. Traffic tied up in the heart of twenty cities. While Leo the handsome sat in front of his ten white phones … (“Place de la Bastille? … Huge crowd, you say? A regular stampede? Tremendous! Fantastic! Our old Bastille, still the beating pulse of Paris! … Hello, Marseille? … Up and down the Canebière? In every direction? Fantastic! The pulse of Marseille, beating right in time!”) … and read some of the choicest sentiments in question over the air between calls. Weeping, no less. Yes, weeping real tears, the swine! And up in his garret, Machefer was weeping too. But only because he was laughing so hard! … By ten o’clock it was over. France will always come through! And a hoarse-voiced Leo Béon, a dozen pounds thinner, sent everyone beddy-bye, tucking them in with “thanks from the bottom of my heart, you didn’t let me down,” taking himself for the conscience of the nation (which, alas, he probably was!). But not before one Monsieur Poupas (Stéphane-Patrice) had appeared on the screen, hair stylist de luxe from SaintTropez, and the lucky winner: “There are no more Hindus, no more Frenchmen. Only Man, and that’s all that matters!” Hurrah! Now there’s a deep thought! … Poor dumb bastard! On Easter Monday morning, a petrified Monsieur Poupas (Stéphane-Patrice), shaking too hard to find the ignition, will take off on foot from Saint-Tropez, run twenty kilometers north, and fall in a heap, rolled over by thousands of streaming cars, driven by thousands of desperate Frenchmen, for whom only two weeks before nothing mattered but Man, with a capital M! … Marcel and Josiane went to bed, worn to a frazzle. They had seen the whole show, run the length and breadth of Paris, shaken hands with a hundred stars. Cheap enough for a couple of coins tossed into the flag! But now, lying thoughtful and still, with the TV off and the lights turned out, covers up to their chins, they’re taken aback by the sudden, vague feeling that somehow something is wrong. Too much noise! Too much fuss! Too much talk! Too much love, drooling like syrup from too many famous mouths! What if things have gone too far? Can it be that good common sense, led astray in the forest of lies and illusions, deeper and deeper, is finding its way out at last? No, not quite. Josiane and Marcel just lie there, hugging each other to sleep. They don’t know it, but that vague little feeling of theirs is going to turn to panic …

On São Tomé, Monsieur Poupas (Stéphane-Patrice) holds forth for the press, along with the millionaire singers. For the twentieth time he repeats his gem: “There are no more Hindus, no more Frenchmen. Only Man, and that’s all that matters!” Applause and cheers. But he doesn’t stop there: “There are no more English, no more Swiss …” Etc. etc. He’s ecstatic … Meanwhile, Leo Béon is kissing the princess’s hand and gazing at the tents that have sprung up along the runway. It’s time for another of his memorable mots: “‘Operation Heart of Gold,’ that’s what they should call us!” The phrase is picked up by twenty special correspondents. The mercy-mongers pat each other on the back. They decide on an emblem: a yellow cloth badge in the shape of a heart. Five hundred chests sporting five hundred yellow hearts. Even the secret agents, close by on the beach with their glasses, scanning the horizon, or bargaining away their eyeteeth for the last few fishing boats still to be found. (The Rome Commission has commandeered everything on São Tomé that has a motor and can stay afloat.) Everyone is ready. The atmosphere is tense. Dominicans and pastors agree on a common service. The island blacks, unwittingly ecumenical, wiggle their rumps to the pop group’s impromptu hymns. Monsieur Poupas (Stéphane-Patrice) reads a passage from the Gospels. Asked to comment on the text, he draws this moral: “There are no more Hindus … Only Man, and that’s all that matters The crowd begins to sing (“With the pieces of the cross / Built themselves a boat / For now the thousand years are ended / Yes, the thousand years are ended now …”), while the old duke, the princess, and most of the Catholics present, take communion at the hands of a Methodist preacher, who views the Host as a symbol and no more. But every heart soars up as one in a Heavenward surge, every face is wreathed in smiles or moist with tears, every soul feels the swell of emotion, ripe in the tropical heat, like a fruit about to burst. So much so that, finally, when a lookout on the beach cries “Here comes the fleet! Here comes the armada!,” every voice rings out in one single reply: “Thank God!”

What happened after that was like something from a nightmare, or at least a bad dream. The long-awaited encounter took place two miles off the coast of São Tomé. But it soon became clear that the Ganges fleet had no intention whatever of stopping. The India Star even seemed to change course, heading straight to ram one of the barges! Indeed, the Knights of Malta owed their lives to the presence of mind of their pilot, who was able to throw the engine into emergency reverse practically under the steamer’s prow. For a moment the old duke imagined he was back in the days of the Order’s intrepid galleons, doing battle with the Turk. As for the “poor dears” the princess was after, the only thing she saw, as she thought herself doomed, was a hideous, misshapen, convulsive dwarf, with a sailor’s cap, and two stumps outstretched, as if ready to open the gates of Hell. She murmured a mea culpa and fell forthwith into a graceful swoon. At this point, since none of the mercy-mongers would dare to imagine the impossible—to wit, an openly hostile act on the part of the Ganges armada—they assumed it was an accident, happily avoided, and sent their barges off once more to pull alongside the ships and board with their provisions. Attempt abandoned no sooner than begun. Three boxes of rice, deposited somehow on the low-slung deck of a rusty old torpedo boat, lasted less than ten seconds, as hundreds of arms sprung up and flung them back into the water. And little doubt this time that the act was deliberate. On another ship, one of the French secret agents was received in a forest of fists, some brandishing knives. He had hoisted himself up on deck by a cable dangling over the side, and managed to save his skin thanks only to his commando training, with a fancy jackknife flip back into the water. Meanwhile, English fireworks fell thick and fast on the pop group that had so generously supplied them, thwacking the drummer square on the head, and cutting a gash in the lead singer’s shoulder. Persistent, the papal barge held out longer than the rest, like a stubborn sheep dog prodding the flock. Abreast of the Calcutta Star, she was making her third attempt to board, when a naked cadaver, hurtling down from the deck, fell with a heavy, sickening thud at the feet of the Dominican friars. It was still soft and warm. White skin, blue eyes, blond beard and hair. The man had been strangled. When they loosened the rope eating into his neck and took a good look at his face, they were stunned at the sight: it was one of the great Catholic writers of the decade, lay member of the Council of Vatican III (at the Pope’s own invitation), outstanding reformer, and religious intellect par excellence, known far and wide. Converting to Buddhism one fine day, he had vanished from the Western World without a word, and never wrote another line. From then on, he was known in some quarters as “the renegade writer.” The last white man to see him alive had been Consul Himmans, at the Consulate General of Belgium in Calcutta, a few days before the fleet had set sail. All we need add here is that, as soon as it was dark, they buried him in secret—the Dominicans, that is—on one of the island’s deserted beaches, and that news of his death was never made public, on São Tomé or anywhere else. Such was the decision of the handful who had witnessed his murder. The Vatican, consulted in code, wholeheartedly concurred. Could it be that the Pope was afraid? Did he feel that so foul and unprovoked a deed, against one of the century’s most intelligent figures, whom the whole world had followed in his staggering quest for Truth, might change Western opinion, and turn that distressing demise into a crime of collective proportions? Indeed, we might well assume that a surge of spontaneous indignation would have roused the Western World to condemn the thoughtless wretches in toto, to turn its Christian love to hate, and to close its doors to them once and for all. … No, the Pope had prayed God so long and hard to enlighten the West. He couldn’t be wrong. That could be one explanation …

When the last ship of the armada dipped below the horizon, leaving São Tomé behind, every tent by the runway was engulfed in that bewildered silence that comes in the wake of an unexplained defeat. Everyone agonized to find the answer. Actually, it was staring them in the face. But minds back then were too warped and worn to admit the inevitable truth when they saw it. It never occurred to a soul that the Ganges fleet had just waged the first battle in an implacable racial war, and that nothing on earth now could stem the power of weakness triumphant. From this point on, it would give no quarter. …

And so, the discussions in the tents on São Tomé gave rise, above all, to a vast confusion. But not for long. Suddenly there it was: the explanation! Inspired, more than likely, by the Protestant pastors (or maybe the Catholic priests), and welcomed as a kind of deliverance, as an end to the torturous round of banal clichés and barren solutions:

“Of course! It’s obvious! The poor devils didn’t trust us! They thought we wanted to poison them! Of course, that’s it! How pathetic!” No one went on to say it was all the South Africans’ fault, but some thought so, and some even hinted rather broadly. And if many, in their heart of hearts, had glimpsed the gaping chasm, waiting to swallow them, conscience and all, still, once back in the West, each one in his respective country gave the selfsame account of the event. Yes, surely it had confused them. That much they admitted. But now it was clear that only a nasty misunderstanding had held back the outpouring of brotherly love. At the airport at Roissy, before the members of the press assembled, Leo Béon tossed off yet another of his mots. Managing to flash his famous smile, with just the appropriate tinge of sadness, he told them:

“We’ll have to bring the poor souls to their senses.”

Thanks to that idiot and his constant need to shine, the beast got a new—and unlimited—lease on life. We’ll see what it did with it shortly. In the meantime, once again for the record, let’s note the instinctive reaction of our own Clément Dio:

“That stupid twat!” he exclaimed.

And he hit on the title of his next week’s cover story: “Let’s Bring the Poor Souls to Their Senses!”


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