Home > 1950, 1980, 20th Century, French Literature, Gary, Romain, Novella, Satire > The Man With the Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – a 1958 satire of the U.N.

The Man With the Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – a 1958 satire of the U.N.

The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – 1958/1984. Original French title: L’homme à la colombe.

It’s not easy to write a billet about The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary. I tried to pull a Murakami this morning, went for a run and hoped it’d clear my head and help me write a tentative billet about this farce. It didn’t work so you’ll have make do with this billet.

First, a bit of context. Romain Gary first published The Man With The Dove in 1958 and under a penname, Fosco Sinibaldi. At the time, Gary was a diplomat and was a member of the French delegation in the UN in New York. He wasn’t allowed to publish such a book under his real name and you’ll soon understand why. A new version was published in 1984 after his death and under his real name. It’s the version that I have.

If you’ve never read Romain Gary, you need to know a bit about his literary universe and his references. He fought with de Gaulle during WWII, he was an early resistant. He’s a humanist and a promoter of French moto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. He believes in it and it is etched in his soul. He saw firsthand what communism meant as a diplomat in Bulgaria. He’s fond of the comedia del arte and loves the Marx Brothers. He uses humor as a weapon to take the pin out of mentally explosive situations. He has a wicked sense of humor and he’s the epitome of the saying “Many a true word is said in jest”.

Now that you’re aware of this, the book.

The Man With The Dove is set inside the building of the UN in New York. The tone of the book is set from the first pages. The UN is organized in such a way that it seems to take care of problems but does everything not to solve them and drag them as long as they can. That’s how the top management acts. And as always, Romain Gary thinks out of the box and points out:

A l’autre bout des longs couloirs qui unissaient le bâtiment de l’Assemblée à l’immense tour rectangulaire du Secrétariat, trois mille cinq cents fonctionnaires de toutes les races, couleurs et croyances, continuaient à résoudre tranquillement, jour et nuit, pour leur propre compte, tous les problèmes d’amitié entre les peuples, de coexistence pacifique et de coopération internationale dont leurs chefs débattaient en vain depuis plus de dix ans, dans les salles de conférences et les réunions de l’Assemblée.At the other end of the long hallways that connected the building of the Assembly to the huge square tower of the Secretary, three thousand and five hundred civil servants of all races, colors and beliefs quietly kept solving, night and day, on their own account, all the problems of friendship between nations, of peaceful coexistence and international cooperation that their bosses had been debating upon in vain since more than ten years in conference rooms and Assembly meetings.

The introduction of the book is clear: the UN works on its own, goes through the motions of taking care of international issues but does whatever it takes not to solve them. It is a theatre where the American-Russian relationship is staged and choregraphed, where everything is done to avoid any kind of escalation. It’s a comedy and the hustle and bustle is more about communication than a real attempt at efficiency.

The novella opens on a scene among the top management of the UN. The Secretary-General Traquenard (Trap) and two trustworthy members of his team, Bagtir, known for his calm and Praiseworthy, known for his prudence have a crisis meeting.

Traquenard and his men have a new problem: the building seems to have a new unofficial tenant. A man with a dove occupies a room in the building, one that is not on the map and he was seen wandering in the hallways, presenting his dove to secretaries and other staff members. They want to track him down. This mysterious character with the dove is Johnnie Coeur, supported by other outsiders of the building, a Hopi chief, three illegal gamblers who are there for the diplomatic immunity granted by the international zone of the building and a shoeshine-man. Johnnie is in search of a grand scam.

Le sourcil froncé, il rêvait de commettre, lui aussi, quelque immense escroquerie morale, quelque abus de confiance prodigieux, pour se venger de ses illusions perdues et pour montrer qu’il était complètement guéri de ses errements idéalistes.With his brow furrowed, he dreamt of committing some sort of huge moral scam, a phenomenal breach of trust that would avenge his lost illusions and would show to the world that he was totally healed of any idealistic wanderings.

And light bulb! Johnnie will simulate a hunger strike. With a little help from his friends, he’ll pull it off so well that things won’t turn out the way he thought.

The Man With The Dove was written in 1958, rather at the beginning of Gary’s literary career. It announces the themes of The Ski Bum and the ferocious tone of The Dance of Gengis Cohn. It reflects Gary’s disenchantment with the power of diplomats and international institutions.

Et oui, que veux-tu, c’est une chose qui arrive fréquemment aux Nations Unies. Les choses les plus concrètes deviennent ici des abstractions—le pain, la paix, la fraternité, les droits de la personne humaine—les choses les plus solides se volatilisent et deviennent des mots, de l’air, une tournure de style—on en parle, on en parle et à la fin, tout cela devient une abstraction, on peut passer la main à travers, il n’y a plus rien.What can I say? It’s something that happens frequently in the UN. The most concrete things become abstractions here –food, peace, fraternity, human rights—the most solid things vanish into thin air and become words, a breeze, a turn of phrase. People talk about them, again and again and in the end, all this becomes abstract, you can stick your hand through it, there’s nothing anymore.

Now you see why he couldn’t claim this book as his own when he was a diplomat. He spoke several languages, and was fluent in French, English and Russian. I can’t imagine what kind of conversations he overheard in the hallways and in meetings, with people unaware that he could understand them.

The Man With The Dove is a farce that rings true. It’s even prophetic. We saw the inefficiency of the UN peacekeeping forces during the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The UN is powerless against Putin and doesn’t help Ukraine now.

In 1958, thirteen years after the UN was founded, Gary’s analysis was that it was a cynical farce and he decided to take it at face value and actually wrote one.

  1. April 24, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    Am planning to read this in May – and chimes with a lot of what Shirley Hazzard said about the UN as well. My father worked for the ONUDI (the Development Agency) and at least they seemed to get some things done, but he too was bemused by the ‘politics’ of it all.


    • April 24, 2022 at 5:42 pm

      I’m looking forward to your review.
      I couldn’t work in that kind of organization. I like to get things done quickly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 24, 2022 at 9:46 pm

        Ha! I don’t think I’ve worked in many organisations where things get done quickly. It’s usually: wait… wait… wait… not now… convince me… wait… I want it done yesterday!


        • April 26, 2022 at 9:13 pm

          You need to work for an independant middle-sized company. That will do it.


  2. April 25, 2022 at 1:42 am

    Marina’s right, Shirley Hazzard writes about the UN and so does Australian author Frank Moorhouse.
    The UN comes in for a lot of criticism, most of it unfair, I think. Yes, it doesn’t act in military matters, because it can’t. It has no standing army or mechanism to create an army for combat. Its charter limits it to peace keeping forces, which have to be cobbled together through the bureaucratic processes of its member nations. So it’s always slow to get going, as we saw in Yugoslavia. The way it was set up with a power of veto exercised by a clique of 7 powerful nations, means it doesn’t have the power that it needs.
    But although the US in particular has tried to diminish its voice with endless criticism and under Trump escalated the rich nations’ refusal to pay its dues (which prevents the UN from functioning as it should), the UN has done a lot of humanitarian work. Its protection of world heritage through UNESCO is powerful too. UNESCO is very active in education programs in Africa as well, and it has been a voice of sanity during the pandemic over vaccine nationalism and over climate change. But the best thing it does is to give a voice to nations which have no power, little countries in the Pacific at risk from rising waters.
    The UN needs constitutional and administrative reform, and it needs rich nations to pay what they should. It is the only global political institution we have, and we ought to make it better IMO.


    • April 26, 2022 at 9:22 pm

      I agree with you about the UNESCO work and the humanitarian work. And yes too, to giving a voice to small countries.

      Now here, Gary is in 1958. India is independant but a lot of countries are still living under European rule. His UN has only 82 countries.

      I think that he put a lot of hope in the institution and that he thought that, after the horrors of WWII, fraternity should be a concept that the UN turns into reality.

      He thinks it’s possible and that’s what he says in this first quote about UN civil servants. They work together despite their differences, they find a way, a middle ground to truly work together. It’s their bosses who play games and drag things down.

      I think Gary cannot stand the hypocrisy of the diplomatic and political game.
      That’s why he has an alcoholic diplomat in Adieu Gary Cooper. It’s too hard to spend time with dictators or executioners in a cocktail room and disregard what they do to their people.


      • April 28, 2022 at 8:26 am

        He’s right, I think a lot of people have that problem with the UN. Those Middle Eastern countries with appalling human rights records, the US still executing people, China and the Uyghurs, and Australia with its treatment of refugees. But the thing is, one way or another all countries do the wrong thing and are hypocritical about it. But, in the words of Penny Wong, a very wise woman in Australian politics, you ‘have to be in the room’ to fix things, because when you vacate the space, that vacuum is filled by even worse people.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. April 25, 2022 at 4:07 am

    What Lisa says.
    It’s sad that Gary was so disillusioned about the UN so early in its existence. But it is hard for us now to remember how deep was our fear of nuclear war in the 1950s, and it is possible that caused him to be depressed about the institution that was meant to prevent it – as maybe it did. Up till now anyway.


    • April 26, 2022 at 9:26 pm

      His disillusioned has nothing to do with fear of nuclear war.

      It has everything to do with fighting in WWII, risking his life to fight against Nazism and living with the knowledge of all the horrors of the Shoah. He was Jewish, his family in Vilnius was exterminated and he survived because his mother had emigrated to France in 1928.

      He was profundly humanist and hopeful and devastated to see the cynicism of such a young institution in which he had probably put a lot of faith.

      I believe there’s something of him in Johnny Coeur.

      I wish you’d read Promise at Dawn, it would give you some background information on him.


      • April 27, 2022 at 1:50 am

        Audible only has Romain Gary in French. I’ll stick him on my list and have a look next time I’m in a bookshop

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Vishy
    April 25, 2022 at 7:36 pm

    Loved your review, Emma! I want to read this! Hope it is available in English translation. With every passing day, the UN is looking more and more like an irrelevant organization, which can’t prevent war, which can’t help countries in economic crisis, which can’t even handle a global pandemic properly. It seems to be just a place where people with connections get paid big salaries and where nothing gets done except paper pushing. It is interesting that Romain Gary wrote a dark comedy about it 😊 I want to read this!


    • April 26, 2022 at 9:28 pm

      Sorry, sorry, sorry! I couldn’t find a trace of an English translation of this one. Not even a self-translation.
      Gary never acknowledged that this novel was his. Gallimard found the manuscrits in his papers after he died. That’s where my edition comes from.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. June 20, 2022 at 8:13 am

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