Translated by Nancy Kline
In mid-July of 1944, the order from Algiers reached me in the Maquis at Céreste to be ready to take off during the next clandestine landing operation. The plane would alight after dark on one of our fields on Mont Ventoux and bring me out. Instead of delighting me, the prospect of leaving vexed me. I suspected that if Allied Headquarters in North Africa was sending for one of us, it was because the invasion of the southern zone was imminent.
I foresaw that in this eventuality the need for information could justify my presence over there, since the department for which I was responsible, air operations, figured prominently in the concerns of the High Command. In fact the latter believed that the Germans, in retreating from the Mediterranean coast, might be able to hold the foothills of the Lower Alps and compromise the Allies’ rapid advance along the length of the Rhone. My comrades and I were skeptical as to the extent and possible success of such a venture. The enemy army, already reeling, could only have set up not very dangerous pockets of resistance. The Maquis, given the right arms, was well-suited if supported by air to stop the most aggressive units from meeting up and becoming entrenched. We were in a position to know this. But we also knew that opinion on the opposite side of the Mediterranean differed. The reports of agents parachuted into occupied France, then smuggled out, always tended to exaggerate things, first and foremost the dangers. This is common, since remarkable merit is preferred to anything less. But why did those in Algiers appear to be, by turns, so naïve and so malevolent? With an indifference each day more pronounced to the fate and future of the young people in the Resistance. These last were endowed with humane devotion and good will. Outlaws operating within the most sovereign of laws, and docile humus beneath hope’s spade. Yes, why this duplicity, whose symptoms so disconcerted us? Because a good many politicians and members of the military are perverts of the imagination, dotards of differential calculus. Beyond a doubt they are too fond of permanent posts and comfort, of every kind of driving ambition and comfort. And the counterpart of that was spread out, here, in the form of plaques, the grass revivified! In Algiers, they turned a blind eye to the barometer...
One evening the message announcing the plane’s arrival came over the airwaves. The preceding hours I had spent talking with my companions, consulting them, taking note of their suggestions, in order to transmit these to the other side of the sea. It was to their great credit that their morale was not in tatters. Spring and the beginning of summer had been murderous. Our encounters with the SS and the militia ended most often, depending on the condition of the forces present, in implacable extermination or retreat. Most of my comrades from the beginning of the action had been killed or executed. Several had disappeared, others had resigned. Those of our leaders who were newcomers lacked tenacity, pure courage, moral focus. At least, so I imagined. Divisions arising from our differences were gouging their way between us. I had grown gloomier. I no longer exchanged anything with others except a glance. My attitude was certainly blameworthy. Ever since the death of Emile Cavagni, I had felt very alone. With the disappearance of this man, a massive piece of sun had shattered and emptied of happiness. The false optimism that I had to maintain around me asphyxiated me. The obligation to keep our partisan band going, at any price, stuck to my skin like an ecclesiastical charge, even though I realized that in it alone lay salvation or, at the very least, the solution that was the least constricting. At different critical points in the Lower Alps, Zyngerman, Noel, Chaudon, Aubert, Besson, Grillet, Rostagne held their own, as best they could; that is to say, with all their experience as seasoned fighters they stood firm, in the most extreme difficulties. Yet admirable young people, captive only yesterday to the terror of the occupier but quickly delivered from it by the legend of our existence, were now multiplying, rushing to the final blood transfusion. That something which had lain dying, among the partisans as among their enemies, abruptly revived, brutally destupefied. Combat resumed its speed at the same time as its suffering.
The last companion with whom I spoke was Roger Chaudon. He, for one, advised me strongly not to leave. Grimly, he insisted on painting a bleak portrait of the milieu which was going to be mine in North Africa, the intrigues I would witness with disgust. Chaudon, of whose martyrdom I was to learn with impotent shame several days later in Algiers, is one of those I will long revisit in my memory, for it was he in particular who had the gift of purifying every question by the just tenor of his response. He loved life as one does at forty, with an eagle’s gaze and the effusiveness of a titmouse. His generosity increased his scope, rather than hobbling him. He believed, without a trace of foolishness, that the virtue of our ten fingers added to the tenacity of our hearts, as well as to the guile we must assume in the face of evil—then discard like cast-off clothing afterwards, or be contaminated—possessed resources against tyranny that we must not lose. He understood the din made by the devil’s advocates: “Their progeny is assured for years to come. They’ve looked after themselves so well that they have sons even among us. We will know another fearful era. I’ve staked my life against the enterprise.” Such was his thought.
It is two o’clock in the morning on the immense field of lavender. The air is crisp, the breeze has risen. The crest of Mount Ventoux retains on its slopes a whole pelt of frozen woolly clouds, clouds that have ceased to live. The landing signals have been set up in a triangle on the improvised runway. Holding his lamp ready to throw out its beam of light, the director of the operation listens for the sound of the engine that will detour down to us. The minuscule machine suddenly looms from the shadows, hesitates an instant, skims over us, then lands. A few embraces, a wave goodbye, I slip into the cramped cabin. I have just enough time to smile at Arthur who has scarcely left my side until now, Arthur who hunches his coyote head into his shoulders. The plane has taken off. An American pilot, an escaped prisoner, and an eccentric who specializes in summary executions are my traveling companions. In my new independence I feel a fine and happy anguish, mixed with a twinge of remorse whose origin is perfectly clear to me. Not without self-mockery, I see myself as one of those colored images in childhood magazines: hunting the great beasts, taking the citadel. The others converse with shouted words and gesticulate. The Lysander heads south, at a low altitude. The plane is not armed. Its course is followed by the moon which juts out over it, a sly colossus. The moon’s moist gaze has always nauseated me. Tonight more than ever. My attention turns, rather, to the gorges of dark earth below the undulating line of mountains. Why have I tensed then suddenly opened? I am bending over, beneath a rush of streaming gratitude. Fires, torches everywhere light up, mount from the earth, puffs of luminous words addressed to me, the one who is leaving. From inside hell, as I pass over, they extend this link to me, this friendship as piercing as a cry, this incorruptible flower: fire. How the stars of Corsica, at crossing’s end, looked dim and simpering to me!
It ought not to depend, alas, on my resources that a fervor of first dawn find voices worthy of it, nor that its ferocious beauty be understood and safeguarded. Beaten but invincible, periodically prostrate and trampled by the pack, will man remain forever the reed before Pascal?
[Oeuvres completes, “La Lune d’Hypnos.” Editions Gallimard, 1983: 640-643]
René Char (1907-88) is one of the most important modern French poets.