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

April 24, 2022 13 comments

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.

A Cool Million by Nathanael West

February 5, 2017 28 comments

A Cool Million by Nathanael West (1934) French title: Un bon million ! Translated by Catherine Delavallade.

west_englishA Cool Million by Nathanael West relates the trials and tribulations of young Lemuel Pitkin in America and in 1934. Lemuel Pitkin lives peacefully in a village in Vermont with his mother when their landlord threatens to evict them from their cottage unless they can buy their mortgage out. Lemuel decides to consult with Mr Shagpoke Whipple, former president of the USA and current owner of the local bank.

Mr Whipple talks Lemuel into going to New York to get rich. He’s a firm believer of the American Dream and he’s certain that Pitkin will succeed if he works hard enough. He’s even ready to give him the starting capital for this venture, 30 dollars with a 12% interest rate and guaranteed by a collateral on the Pitkin cow. Generosity and faith have a cost.

Lemuel leaves Vermont but not before saving Miss Prail from a rabid dog and fighting with the local bully. Lemuel is naïve and he’s soon the prey of thieves and con men who frame him. He spends time to prison while being innocent and eventually arrives to New York.

I’m not going to retell all his ups and downs and will forward to the moment he is reunited with Shagpoke Whipple in New York. Indeed, Whipple’s bank went bankrupt and he’s as poor as Pitkin now. But he still has faith in the grand American dream and he’s certain his luck will come and that he can count on his reputation as a former president and former banker to turn things around.

Lemuel trusts in Whipple and attaches his fate to his. Follows a journey where the two of them show us New York during the Great Depression, meet with a frustrated poet who turns to trashy entertainment, go West to find gold, come in contact with Native Americans…

west_frenchNathanael West mocks and knocks over pillars of America’s history. He’s like a kid engaged in a tin throwing game where great founding myths of America are the tins. Pitkin and Whipple come from New England. Business comes first and everything can be monetized. Fortune belongs to daring people and exploiting others through prostitution or some muddy business schemes is part of the game as long as it brings in money. The myth of the West with the gold rush, battles with Indians and its itinerant shows is taken to pieces.

I mentioned a tin throwing game because West is playful. A Cool Million is a satire, not a pamphlet. He puts forward his ideas through the ridiculous and yet appalling destiny of Lemuel Pitkin. In that respect, A Cool Million is a lot like Candide by Voltaire. (A tall order, I know. Here’s my billet about Candide, to refresh your memory about it if need be.)

Lemuel is as naïve and trusting as Candide. He looks up to Wipple just as Candide looks up to Pangloss. They both believe in their mentor’s vision of life. While Candide has faith in Pangloss’s famous dogma “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Lemuel blindly believe Whipple’s vision of the American Dream, that a pauper can become a millionaire thanks to hard work combined with luck. Here’s Wipple’s profession of faith:

“America,” he said with great seriousness, “is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.

Whipple genuinely believes in it himself despite how poorly America treats Pitkin. Like Candide, Lemuel’s journey will show him the troubles of the world. He was sheltered in his village, he’s now exposed to the consequences of the Great Depression. A Cool Million was written in 1934 and it is a testimony of the atmosphere of the time. Through Lemuel, we’ll see poverty in New York, the consequences of the economic crisis and the political trends of the time.

Shagpoke Whipple is a former president of the USA, a former banker and a firm believer that one’s fate can take a turn for the best as he explains it to Lemuel here:

“You expect to keep a bank again?” asked Lem, making a brave attempt not to think of his own troubles. “Why, certainly,” replied Shagpoke. “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank. In fact, I am even considering opening the Rat River National [bank] a second time. I should be able to buy it in for a few cents on the dollar.” “Do you really think you can do it?” asked our hero with wonder and admiration. “Why, of course I can,” answered Mr. Whipple. “I am an American businessman, and this place is just an incident in my career.

Mixing business and politics, now where have we heard of that again? And true to his word, Shagpoke Whipple turns to politics, using the trends of the time to his benefit. And what’s trending in politics in the 1930s? Antisemitism and the fear of communism. Whipple ends up founding a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, a party that is openly anti-Semite and anti-communist and that uses unemployment of workers and the struggles of the middle class in general to gain audience.

When a large group had gathered, Shagpoke began his harangue. “I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me. “First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?” An ominous rumble of assent came from the throats of the poorly dressed gathering. “Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party–to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and the Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and to destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages.

I swear I’m not making this up. I wonder if we shall be terrified of the parallel we can make with present times because all this led to WWII. West describes the temptation of fascism, how easy it is to convince the masses in times of economic depression and how ready people are to blame a scapegoat for their troubles. Reading this in February 2017 is chilling. Despite West’s light tone, I wasn’t laughing anymore. As I said in my previous billet about Claudel’s reports on the Great Depression, comparing is not reasoning. But still, it’s hard not to, especially when I read this passage, where Whipple’s talking to the crowd:

“This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class. “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! “America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”

Any resemblance with a Dutch-cheese faced president is purely accidental. And bloody frightening because the 1930s was the decade of totalitarianism.

The conclusion of the book was like receiving a bucket of cold water straight in the face:

Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American.”

The country was delivered from sophistication. I suppose we must hear that the country was free of intellectuals, journalists, and all the thinking class, the one that won’t buy anything not based on facts or that values free thinking and the right to contractict. A Cool Million is a satire turning to dystopian fiction. Usually, when you read dystopian fiction, you have the comfort to think it’s still fiction. Here, you’re not that comfortable. In French, we say rire jaune (to laugh a yellow laugh) when we laugh hollowly. In other words, the way things are said are funny, but the substance is not funny at all. According to the events of the last couple of weeks, I’m afraid we’ve entered a four-year time of orange laugh, that I’ll also call a Beaumarchais laugh: I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep.

I think A Cool Million should join 1984 on the best selling lists. Highly recommended.

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