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Authors: Michel Déon

The Foundling's War

BOOK: The Foundling's War
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Praise for
The Foundling Boy:

‘Remarkable … deserves a place alongside Flaubert’s
Sentimental Education and Le Grand Meaulnes’ New Statesman

‘A big-hearted coming-of-age shaggy-dog story … [Déon’s] novel leaves you feeling better about life ’
The Spectator

‘It is shamefully parochial of us that this eminent writer has been so ignored by the anglophone world’
Sunday Times

‘Quiet, wryly funny prose … a delight’
Independent on Sunday

‘Michel Déon is a storyteller par excellence, and if
The Foundling Boy
is your first encounter with him, you couldn’t have a better introduction’
Irish Times

‘As witty as its English forebear [
Tom Jones
] but with French savoir-faire,
The Foundling Boy
may win new readers for books translated from French’
New York Times

‘I loved this book for the way, in its particularities and its casual narration, it admitted me to a world I knew nothing about and the many ways it made me care. It is not just a glimpse into the past, but the study of the heart of a man and his times’ Paul Theroux


The Foundling Boy
is a legitimate, if not yet fully grown, heir to the great line of storytellers running from Fielding to Giono’
Le Figaro

‘This is a book to devour, savouring every last mouthful’ Pierre Moustiers

The Foundling’s War

by Michel Déon

translated from the French
by Julian Evans

 
 

Jean's view of the band as it turned into the avenue leading to Place de Jaude, was obstructed by Palfy's nose. It had always been of noble dimensions, with nicely arched nostrils that quivered particularly sensitively at the smell of grilling meat or a ripe Camembert but never, never before had it aspired to block an entire avenue. From the front, Palfy's nose suited his bony face, and its bump, emphasised above its bulbous tip by a white scar, actually seemed somehow cheerful and promising. But then suddenly, seen from the side, it underwent a curious mutation: protruding, it transformed Palfy's expression utterly, turning him into a sort of predator, a gourmand (or sensualist, if you like) of an extreme and quite possibly sadistic kind. Abruptly his eyelashes seemed too exquisitely brushed, his eyes to retreat into their orbits, exaggerating the pink, living caruncle into a pustule at the corner of the eye, and his arched nostril revealed the cartilage inside, as smooth as the wall of a cavern.

Jean told himself he must never really have seen his friend's face in profile before, which was both a pretty peculiar and pretty improbable state of affairs, given that they had known each other for three years and been through nine months of fighting together, eating from the same mess tins, sleeping on the same straw, throwing themselves down in the same mud. He had had to sit at a café terrace in Clermont-Ferrand on a July morning in 1940 to discover Palfy's nose for the first time. How long would it take to get to know the rest of his face? Jean closed his eyes and tried to imagine Palfy's hands. His attempt to conjure up a precise picture of them was unsuccessful and when he opened his eyes again the band, having filed past Palfy's nose, had arrived at the café. Children dashed along the pavements. Women in sleeveless dresses waved. One of them stopped in front of the café 
terrace, and through the thin blue lawn of her dress the sunlight outlined soft thighs, delicious hips, and a slim back. For a second or two she stood without moving, offered to their gaze, an unknown, fragile-looking young woman with ash-blond hair falling over her cool neck. She turned to walk away and her face appeared with its childlike nose, pale lips and sun-lightened eyebrows.

‘Did you see?' Jean said.

‘Yes. We are visited by grace herself.'

‘Fleetingly!'

‘However fleeting, she must always be acknowledged. And we shall see her again.'

‘She might be really stupid.'

‘I guarantee she won't be!' Palfy declared, in a tone that brooked no contradiction.

Sergeant Titch was passing them now, chest out, marching stiffly, tossing his beribboned baton high above his head. The band followed, drummers first, ahead of the buglers, whose instruments festooned with blue pennants embroidered with a red design – a devil and his lance – glinted in the sunlight. These gaitered, white-gloved cherubs, cheeks bulging under their greased and gleaming helmets, were being menaced from behind by Pegasone, the strawberry roan mare of Colonel Vavin, a fine figure of an infantryman on horseback. Mounted uneasily in his saddle, the colonel, knowing the mare hated the cacophony of brass and drums, feared she would throw him at any moment. And behind Pegasone lay further danger in the shape of the baby-faced subaltern who, flanked by heavily decorated NCOs, was carrying the regimental standard at far too acute an angle, threatening Pegasone's hindquarters with its metal spike. One false move and she would be off.

‘Come on!' Palfy said.

Jean looked for a waiter to pay for their beers.

‘What are you doing?' Palfy asked.

‘I can't see the waiter.'

‘Don't you know that we won the war? Have you ever seen the winning side pay for its drinks? Let's get out of here.'

They dived into the crowd, which grew thicker as they approached Place de Jaude.

‘I think you're overstating it,' Jean grumbled. ‘We didn't win the war. In fact I don't think we can ever have lost a war as shamefully as we did this one.'

Palfy shrugged.

‘We must have won. At the last minute it all worked out for us. The miracle of the Marne.
La furia francese
. Otherwise they'd never dare parade like this.'

The regiment flowed into the square, its companies marking time as they waited to take up their positions in front of an empty stage backed with red curtains that looked like an open mouth. Squeezed into khaki jackets buttoned to the throat, trussed up in cartridge belts stuffed with bread, chocolate and tobacco, and weighed down by new cleated boots that threw sparks as they hit the ground, the soldiers looked as though they were on the verge of apoplexy. Company sergeant-majors, lieutenants and captains scuttled back and forth, issuing orders to their companies that were raggedly obeyed. Rifles were stacked, and at a signal from section NCOs each man pulled a rag out of his cartridge belt to polish his boots. An admiring ‘ah!' of astonishment ran through the crowd massed on the pavements, held back with some difficulty by a police cordon. A new era was dawning. Groomed and gleaming, newly issued with MAS-36 rifles (prudently kept back during the fighting to make sure the old rifles from 1914–18 were used first), the regiment with its distinctive red epaulettes and dashing, self-important officers seemed to have survived its recent battles without so much as a scratch or losing a single one of the buttons Gamelin had promised to the government.

When the boots were polished, the rifles were unstacked and companies lined up once more. An official in a black-edged jacket, stiff collar, striped trousers and bowler hat appeared on the platform.
He scrutinised the two rows of chairs, looking for the one with his name on. He looked like a clown or a tiny Jonah, about to be swallowed by the curtains' open mouth. Having found his seat, he settled himself, mopped his brow, and suddenly saw that more than a thousand spectators had him in their sights. Swiftly replacing his bowler, he disappeared as if swallowed by a trapdoor, followed by a wave of laughter.

Moments later, the prefect made his entrance. Instructions rang around the square and battalion commanders ordered their men to shoulder arms.

Jean and Palfy found themselves in the front row, among the ex-servicemen, who wore their berets tugged down over their ears and carried children on their shoulders. Jean could have named nearly every officer and NCO now standing to attention in the square, but the veterans of the regiment – the men who had still been fighting three weeks earlier – had been redistributed among the re-formed companies, which had then been joined by the last contingent to arrive. He and Palfy recognised Hoffberger, fat as ever, and the huge Ascary, little Vibert, still furious-looking, the seminarian Picallon, their friend the boxer Léonard, and Negger, the pacifist primary-school teacher – all of them easily distinguishable from the young recruits drummed up after the armistice by their visibly casual way of standing to attention.

‘I can hear Ascary swearing, “God oh God oh God in heaven”,' Palfy said.

‘And Hoffberger going “hmmph”.'

‘Good to see they're both still with us.'

‘To tell you the truth,' Jean said, ‘I'd prefer to see that nice blonde, the one we saw just now with the sun behind her.'

‘Is that all you can think about?'

A general was inspecting the regiment. When the inspection was finished, it was time to award the decorations. Colonel Vavin added a bar to his Croix de Guerre, which already reached his belt. Three captains and four lieutenants received the official embrace. Next it was
the NCOs' turn. A dozen sergeants fell out.

‘You see, we won the war. No question about it,' Palfy said.

Next to them, an ex-serviceman curiously sporting a faithful copy of a Hitler moustache hissed at them, ‘Shut up, you bloody layabouts!'

‘Forgive me, Monsieur,' Palfy said contritely, ‘I was only joking.'

‘This is no time for jokes.'

Jean's elbow connected with Palfy's ribs. One of the sergeants, good-looking in a thuggish way, was taking his three paces forward to receive a Croix de Guerre.

‘It's Tuberge! They're giving Tuberge the Croix de Guerre! They're out of their minds!'

‘Not that bastard who trousered my watch!'

There was movement and a murmuring around them. The ex-serviceman put up his fists.

‘Now you're insulting our heroes!'

‘I make a hero like that every morning,' Palfy said.

‘Shut up!'

‘Oh, belt up, you old fart.'

The ex-serviceman attempted to grab Palfy's shirtfront. Shoving him back, Palfy broke free and, cupping his hands around his mouth, yelled, ‘Sergeant Tuberge! You're a fairy! Coward! Bastard! Looter! Murderer! Shit! Thug!'

The general, about to pin on Tuberge's medal, stopped dead, although he did not deign to turn towards the heckler. Nor did the colonel, who beckoned to an aide-de-camp. In the reverential silence that reigned across the square, Palfy's shouts had been heard by everyone. Tuberge himself, fists clenched, appeared to be about to dive into the crowd towards his tormentor, who was now brandishing his fist, having just shoved the infuriated ex-serviceman to the ground.

The ex-serviceman was shouting, ‘Arrest them! Arrest them! They're agitators.'

The aide-de-camp ran over to a police sergeant. In the ranks of his old battalion Jean could see Ascary doubled up with laughter,
Hoffberger scarlet with amusement, and Negger, who had put his rifle on the ground to underline his pacifism. Despite the many hands trying to restrain him, Palfy was not finished.

‘Bloody coward! Bloody bugger! Bloody … navvy!' he went on shouting.

‘Let's get out of here,' Jean begged him.

The police were running towards them. Ducking low, they shoved their way back through the crowd, which watched them dumbfounded. Breaking free, they found that they were face to face with a
garde mobile
,
1
who tried to grab their arms. They tripped him and he fell.

‘This way!' Palfy said.

They ran down one side of the square. No one tried to stop them, but several policemen in the square were still following them, running parallel to the crowd, which might have thinned out enough to let them through if it had not been distracted by a new development. Overcome by heat, weakened by dysentery, three soldiers who had been standing presenting arms for ten minutes crashed to the ground. They were followed by a fourth. A bugle call and a series of drum rolls covered the yells of the police and the growing noise of the crowd. Reaching the corner, Jean and Palfy found a narrow cobbled street that led up to a church. They had left the
garde mobile
a hundred metres behind them. Palfy swerved right. Jean was following suit when he suddenly saw, directly in front of him, the young woman with ash-blond hair. Their eyes met. The woman's were amused. Jean was lost for words, feeling the same inexpressible emotion he had felt when she had innocently stood in front of the café terrace with the sun shining through the light lawn of her dress.

‘What's your name? Tell me!' he blurted out.

She stopped, and smiled.

‘Quick!' he said.

‘Claude.'

Not hearing his friend behind him, Palfy spun round and shouted, ‘Jean!'

‘I'm here!'

The
garde mobile
was gaining on them. The young woman was still smiling. Jean, wrenching himself away, caught up with Palfy and together they ran up to the church then turned left into a small square where an area had been roped off for some roadworks. Palfy stepped over them, put his shoulder to the door of a small wooden hut till it gave, and pulled out two pickaxes and a pair of straw hats.

‘Take off your shirt!' he said.

Seconds later they were breaking up the earth with their picks as the
garde mobile
and a dozen policemen arrived.

‘Oy! You lads! Did you see a couple of men scarpering like rabbits?' the sergeant asked breathlessly.

‘That way!' Jean pointed to a side street.

The sergeant mopped his brow and turned to his men.

‘They'll be the death of us! Right, let's go!'

The group jogged out of sight. Palfy dropped his pickaxe and pounded his bare pectorals.

‘Now,' he said, ‘given the combined brain power of a middle-aged police sergeant and a youngish
garde mobile
, I reckon it will take them a good five minutes to work out that no one works on the roads on a Sunday and that actually we are Sergeant Tuberge's tormentors. So no need to hurry. Put your shirt on, my fine friend, and let's get out of here and find a drink.'

‘I've met one of the women of my dreams,' Jean said.

‘Your little shadow puppet in the blue lawn dress?'

‘How did you guess?'

‘I have a talent.'

‘I spoke to her.'

‘Are you going to have many children?'

‘We're going to make love endlessly, but we'll only have two children, and not until several years after we marry.'

‘I want to be godfather to the eldest.'

‘You shall.'

They put their rough wool shirts back on and left the roadworks behind. The streets behind Place de Jaude were deserted, the citizens of Clermont-Ferrand having gathered en masse to watch the parade. The army, decried and scorned for years, had again become a symbol, one of the values the French were trying to cling to. The first parade by Jean and Palfy's regiment since the armistice belied the merciless thrashing Germany had inflicted on it and cast a pious veil over the missing, the million and a half prisoners who at that very moment, crammed into livestock wagons or straggling along distant roads, were being herded to camps in Silesia and Poland.

Palfy seemed to know where he was going. Jean followed him, but so absentmindedly that his friend stopped and said, ‘Hello! Where are you?'

‘A small part of me's with the lovely Claude, the rest is with our friend Tuberge. The look on his face …'

BOOK: The Foundling's War
3.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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