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Discovering the French author Romain Gary

“ One of his hands was covered in blood. The other carried a torch “

Authors write under a plethora of nom de plumes and for a variety of reasons. Most recently Elena Ferrante, author of My Brilliant Friend, attempted to hide her identity, but throughout time many women have chosen alternate identities, for example, George Sand, and even the Bronte Sisters. However, men too , some preferring to be reclusive and out of the public glare have followed this path of pseudonyms: Mark Twain born Samuel Clemens, Theodore Geisel our own Dr. Seuss. Most fascinating is the discovery of Romain Gary, born Roman Kacew who win the Prix Goncourt under two different names, his pen name Emile Ajar, the only person to receive it twice.

Born in Vilnius to Jewish parents in 1879, his mother a flamboyant actress who impressed upon her son he was destined for greatness and his father, a businessman who abandoned the family in 1925. The mother and son moved to Nice, France, and Roman began to reinvent himself. Eventually his curriculum vitae would list him as Romain, an aviator in the RAF, a captain of Free France Air Forces, decorated for his bravery in WWII with the Legion d’Honneur, a French diplomat in Bulgaria and Switzerland, the Secretary of the French delegation to the UN and in 1956, the French Consul General in Los Angeles.

Beyond the daring and the political, Romain also demonstrated his gift for writing and published under the names Shatan Bogat, Rene Deville and Fosco Sinibaldi along with his original birth name. In LA, he wrote the screen play, “ The Longest Day”. His second wife was the beautiful actress Jean Seberg. Romain himself was dashing and moved in the circles of the distinguished with Arthur Koestler, JeanPaul Sartre and Charles de Gaulles.

With his background and devotion to France, his books’ themes come as no surprise. Considered one of the 20th Century’s most acclaimed works of French fiction, The Kites appeared shortly before Romain Gary’s suicide, claiming one of France’s Goncourt’s. Mesmerized by his mother’s obsession with France, Gary stated,” She spoke to me of France as other mothers speak to their children of Snow White and Puss in Boots.” Only in France could his potential be revealed”, she prompted, rivalling( so she believed ) Robin Hood, Lord Byron, Garibaldi and Richard The Lionhearted.”

In The Kites, the story is imagined and partly experienced by the author through the character of nine year old Ludovico Fleury, his life shaped by his uncle, a simple postman, but also an extraordinary honoured creator of kites , or gnamas. Although the Fleurys have a talent of never forgetting, Ludo possesses a special attribute, similar to an idiot savant, the ability to work with numbers. Uncle Ambrose, decorated for bravery in WWI, is now a pacifist , a philosopher, a conscientious objector, a defender of values of humanism, but a reclusive personality fixated on his craft of kite making, seemingly a child’s diversion.

All ready the family is marked as unusual, strange or out of the ordinary, for Uncle Ambrose, and later Ludo will be viewed as unstable, distracted and a bit eccentric. This strangeness allows them latitude in being able to resist, go about their lives in prohibited behaviours under the label of “ nuttiness” or madness: “ ‘ a battiness’ some would call a sacred spark.” Gary’s real life opposition to Petain’s Vichy Government landed him in a mental institution.In one of the book’s ironic scenes, Uncle Ambrose flies one of his kites that resembles the turncoat Petain anchored to the finger of a German soldier.Soon too, the Germans will prohibit the flying of his kites, first reducing their heights flown in the air , then restricting them altogether.

When WWII creeps closer and closer into the small town of Clery, Normandy, this guise of mental instability aids in the Fleurys being able to hide pilots, disperse pamphlets, conceal a printing press , engage in subversive underground activities, move people to safety and manoeuvre against the Nazis. In deed Gary’s own firsthand knowledge of occupied France situates fictional characters in real places with real people.

This underlying theme of concealing one’s true self is raised early when Ludo’s school master. Monsieur Binder poses an assignment in which he asks the students to debate, “ To keep touch with reason: to follow good sense; to act reasonably.” Or,”, to the contrary, “ To keep one’s reason, to live.” So with this notion, the reader queries who in the world of advancing war is reasonable? Who is sane? And what might one do to survive, even camouflaging their true selves?

Because this is a Bildungsroman of growing up and crossing boundaries, Ludo’s driving passion is his love obsession, Lila, the daughter of the duplicitous Polish aristocrat, Stas Bronicki, he encounters as an adolescent . Separated by war, Ludo keeps Lila alive in his imagination, reliving in detail, their moments of perfect reverie and dalliance whether in Normandy or Poland. As he grows into manhood, he must accept the disparity between his wakeful dreaming and reality, for he learns that in spite of daring acts of bravery, Lila has been the consort of more than one German. After the war, her head is shaved as a collaborator but throughout the story and with Ludo’s difficult compassion, she has insisted, “ You had to survive to save family” , reminding the reader of the leitmotif that underpins the novel.

Another in disguise in that same area is a Jewish brothel madame Miss Julie who caters to the enemy. People do not always appear to be who they are. Here too Ludo himself misjudges Hans, a cousin and suitor who adores Lila, accusing him of planting stolen goods in cupboard. Ludo maimes him in a duel, later to discover Hans’ innocence and willingness to lie for Ludo’s crime of burning Lila’s residence in Normandy.

However, the love of France implanted by Gary’s mother is the bulwark around which the story revolves in the form of subterfuge: in the guise of French cuisine in their neighbourhood Clos Joli. For the reader, this line of argument is confusing, tinged with discomfort. Operated by Monsieur Marcellin Duprat, his restaurant remains open during German occupation, receiving the finest fare to feed soldiers, generals even though Gary as Ludo writes,” French haute cuisine became his ( Duprat’s)last line of defence, “ boasting ,”…there will always be a France in the Michelin’s guide.” Ludo rationalizes and appears to support the continuation of France’s gastronomic endeavours by preventing the Resistance from planting a bomb in the restaurant that might take out the Nazi generals and colonels who dine there.

There is a certain blindness in Duprat’s staunch loyalty to his tradition of high standards and excellent recipes served to perfection to the occupiers and destroyers of the country he loves. He believes he is keeping the true France alive, defending and maintaining resistance by holding fast to the French custom of extraordinary food. He states, “ A good Frenchman, nowadays, is one who stands firm”..our politicians have betrayed us, our generals turned out to be fools, but the men responsible for France’s great cuisine will defend it to the death…” The logic appears twisted, for if there are no people left to ingest the food, what was the point? However, Duprat will not lower his standards in the kitchen, winning the affection of his patrons and eventually helping in some small ways to aid the war effort although his intent is the theoretical , not the practical.

Maybe the overarching theme on keeping the restaurant open at all costs is part of my unease with Duprat whose desire to maintain the high standards of cookery, believes this act ensures that France will endure-while most starve or are killed in the streets- and feels for me disingenuous. Of course we comprehend life is complicated and as Lila observes the importance of survival. In deed, how many times have we heard that to save one person is akin to saving the world. But so it seems Gary’s devotion to France, almost rendering Duprat a hero with his carefully concocted dishes extends a caricature of France persistence -no matter what -even to Duprat’s integrity that Gary/Ludo opines as “ idealism and loyalty.”

Only in the Vel d’Hiv roundup when hidden Jewish children are handed over to the Nazis does Duprat close his doors for eight days. To demonstrate outrage and protest, Uncle Ambrose is punished for flying seven yellow kites in the form of a Jewish Star, all of his kites burned to ash by the Nazis. Although Duprat is fictional, other chefs mentioned such as Pic, Point, Dumaine were real. So too are the famous names of French Resistance comrades such as Henri Honore d’ Estienne d’Orves, philosophers such as Voltaire, historical kings and politicians ,Leon Blum, Edouard Herriot, Jean Jaure and writer Emile Zola:all memorialized in Uncle Ambrose’s kites. The symbol of the kite moves throughout the novel, reminding us of characters whose feet are stuck on the ground, earthbound, but some with high flying ideals. Sadly, Uncle Ambrose the embodiment of these aspirations winds up in a death camp.

Perhaps Gary himself, at taking his own life, was confused, obsessed and troubled, and played with the contradiction of being a human kite, held down while aspiring to fly high. The Kites is a wonderful, fast read that speaks to that confusion, the war, duplicity, coverup and resistance. In the reviews I perused, there was little that revealed Gary’s connection to Judaism, his truncated upbringing, most focusing on his mother’s desire for her son’s excellence, and her overwhelming belief in France as the place where new identities could be assumed. Gary’s mesmerizing lauding of the best of France reduced to its cuisine may have caused him to employ it as symbolic for the entire country, although in truth, the metaphor does not provide a satisfying meal. Yet, even for him, that enduring vision did not suffice. Still the context and resistance in one tiny part of France, whether through food or underground activities is emblematic of a country torn apart in wartime.

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Horrendous Things

While having lunch with my friend, I mentioned a few of the podcasts I had heard en route to see our daughter in Philadelphia.One of them had left an indelible image in my head, one I wished I had never heard. A producer or editor of This American Life, an NPR show, had related that one of her and her peer’s earliest fears was being taken to the The Black Wax Museum in Baltimore, a terrifying wax museum that documented the atrocities and outrages visited on black people from slave holds to lynchings to the one that has uncomfortably lodged in my head- of the brutal treatment of Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in the 1830’s and even worse, his pregnant wife: so as not to impart this indelible crime I will not share it here. But rest assured, you would not want the details to permeate your consciousness.

As a segue, my friend mentioned Transparent, saying she had endured only fifteen minutes of it, and I agreed, that the people on the Emmy winning show by Jill Solway can be unbearable, but like a train wreck, once hooked , viewers stand amazed, perplexed and cannot look away. But as I knit while watching and only half consume television shows, I remarked that although I hadn’t seen the Nat Turner horror, the power of a word somehow more strongly imprints on me. Interesting observation- as foremost, I am a visual person who responds to sights. But in our conversation, I mentioned as well a scene of torture from Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentine, a book I had taught to my students maybe twenty years ago. And she agreed, nodding her head and affirming, we both immediately recalling the same scene from the book.

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Viet Nam is an 18 hour visual immersion into the horror and stupidity of war, a topic almost normalized as Trump struts and threatens and preens like some obnoxious rooster before pecking the ground. Marc Maron on his WTH interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creators of the documentary, present a 360 of views , stories and tragedies, framed as they both attested to the “ goalposts” or the chronology of dates of when the war began and when it finally ended; rather than a so- called theme or story that shaped the documentary. For baby boomers growing up in Canada, at least for ones like me , the war was backdrop to the first excitement of university , folk singers at The Riverboat in Yorkville, student protests, draft dodgers to the city, sit- ins, newspaper articles on napalm, and that haunting picture of the naked young girl running and screaming in the street. In other words, a mixture of amazement, righteousness, ignorance, dread and relief that we were living safely in Canada. The filmmakers of Viet Nam, with the advantage of years passed , archival information and the wisdom of the survivors, sought a multiplicity of views from civilians, policy makers, veterans, protesters. They underlined in the Maron interview that they purposely did not interview on tape the well known proponents and objectors such as Jane Fonda, John McCain, the recognizable voices usually associated with the war.

On a personal note, a cousin of mine, actually a Canadian having been relocated to California with his family, came back to Toronto to contemplate whether he should return to the States and participate in the war. Strange, as I often overheard how as a high school student there, he had refused to put his hand over his heart and swear allegiance to the flag every day so his previous twelve years as a Canadian must have been deep in his mind. But he did return home to Culver City and went to war. So we worried and my mother poured over his letters, coveting them as signs of his survival in a war Canadians particularly did not understand or support.Burns and Novick include the tapes between Nixon and Johnson, the deals, the treason, the wastage of young men who perished , or returned home with PTSD and missing limbs.

And I could not help but think of our visit to Saigon several years back, sitting in the Caravelle bar overlooking the city where once the military gabbed over drinks, plotting their strategies of devastation. Now western business, capitalism, the way of life, for which soldiers on both sides fought and died has overtaken the bustling, dangerous streets of Saigon with Gap, Louis Vuitton and Coach. Needless stupid suffering and earth so all that crap from the West is available. Business overtaking ideology. And at what cost?That’s what Burns film screams at me.

No doubt part of Burns and Novick’s ‘s incentive for the documentary resided in the contrast between their earlier documentary , The War that dealt with WWII, associated with a certain heroism and sentimentality whereas Viet Nam represented a failure and shamed those associated with it. They said they knew while working on the one, they had to do the other.

My friend says politicians fight for ideals, a way of life. I say it is power grabbing and grubbing, the film, Viet Nam, even documenting that the children of the top brass of communists were sent away to foreign schools to keep them safe from fighting. Hardly one for all and all for one. Congruently my friend, my husband and I have all been reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner, the story of a split narrator, a traitor, a spy, a misfit, a sympathizer, an outsider during the Viet Nam timeline. The unnamed protagonist arrested by the Communists is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a priest, his loyalties twisted, as his friendships with two of his classmates appear to be the only straight forward and clear relationships he possesses, along with his enduring love of his positive mother. He is a multi faced actor.

Apparently supportive of the America exploits and invasion of his country, in truth the narrator is a North Vietnamese spy reporting all American plans to reconquest his country in his invisible ink letters to his “ Aunt” in France.At the heart of the story is the narrator’s own unhappiness, his search for identity and inability to discover where he can belong and feel safe. On his back are the years of French colonial conquest in Viet Nam, his hatred, his cynicism and deep feelings of rejection: common to many terrorists.There is an arrogance, a smugness, perhaps because he knows he is bright, assuming he can help inject a sense of his country into a film ( resembling Apocalypse Now). This attempt affords him some satisfaction because he ironically demands truth in the movie describing the war: he strongly suggests real Viet Namese actors be employed in stead of ciphers and stereotypes. And in truth he manages to provide some of his countrymen with work, his belief being to portray or create as truthful a verisimilitude as possible. However, film and especially an American film made by Americans are little concerned for the true emotions of the pawns or enemies in their film. When an explosion lands the wounded narrator in the hospital it is a symbolic and total rejection of both him and his views.

And just as in The Black Wax Museum and the Thornton book, the author’s description of those attempting to leave Saigon in its last days , climbing on top of one another, the political bribes and money for passage out, the pressing bodies, the screams, the push and tear of flesh, the despair, the exploding planes, the carnage of bodies torn apart and especially the destruction of his friend’s wife and baby have seared my brain in indelible images. The word. Again, the words that make us( me) create pictures deeply into our imaginations. Coupled with Burns and Novick’s film, especially in Segment 8 The hideous My Lai Massacre, The Sympathizer has carved horrendous events into my mind never to be forgotten.

The brilliance of the documentary is the completeness of here and there, home and away: fresh soldiers in the field, their stories of being prisoners of war and eating a commander’s cat, their realization that a peasant’s hut where there is enough rice to feed six must hide Viet Cong, the Tet offensive, explosions if Agent Orange, crumpled dead…. are juxtaposed with the events back in the States such as the Chicago convention, the brutality of the police on the heads of the idealistic youth, the music of Clearance Clearwater, the burgeoning role of women, civil rights abrogation, films that began to protest the war. It is a panorama of years through which I blithely lived and for which I now feel like weeping.  

My cousin posted on Facebook that it was fifty years ago that he had gone to Viet Nam, never really having openly discussed it when he was home. No doubt the public attitude, the derision heaped on the vets when they returned from the war that lingered on and on, unwinnable and untenable, caused many to rethink why they had not left the country or refused on some moral ground that they would not be manipulated. But most were young, untried, many not focused on a life path between those idyllic years having finished high school, loosely finding themselves and their paths, perhaps trusting their leaders knew what was right and in truth, there was little choice but to go.But they did not repatriate as heroes. Burns’ war speaks to those vets, uplifting them by explaining in a nonjudgmental way, these are your valuable and significant stories, the true history of those days- on both sides, of brilliant young men just like you. And this was the situation- the terrible, terrible situation, but we honour you. We see you at the blaze of experience, fresh, willing, wondrous in a new place with the dream of heroism and moral good in your pockets, too naïve to know you were sacrificial lambs to party votes and politics, maybe believing the American way would be best for all folks- even those in a sweaty, swampy land whose language and traditions you could not fathom. Besides your birthday number was called and maybe it was just fate that recruited you as you sat with your friends around the television set, frozen and waiting to hear how the dice had rolled out and likely ruined your future.

Scary stuff. War stuff. Horrendous stuff.

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