“ 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.