At a time when the world is upside down and it’s thought insane to ask why you’re being murdered, it obviously requires no great effort to pass for a lunatic. Of course your act has got to be convincing, but when it comes to keeping out of the big slaughterhouse, some people’s imaginations become magnificently fertile.

Everything that’s important goes on in the darkness, no doubt about it. We never know anyone’s real inside story.

This teacher’s name was Princhard. What can the man have dreamed up to save his carotids, lungs, and optic nerves? That was the crucial question, the question we men should have asked one another if we’d wanted to be strictly human and rational. Far from it, we staggered along in a world of idealistic absurdities, hemmed in by insane, bellicose platitudes. Like smoke-maddened rats we tried to escape from the burning ship, but we had no general plan, no faith in one another. Dazed by the war, we had developed a different kind of madness: fear. The heads and tails of the war.

In the midst of the general delirium, this Princhard took a certain liking to me, though he distrusted me of course.

In the place and situation we were in, friendship and trust were out of the question. No one revealed any more than he thought useful for his survival, since everything or practically everything was sure to be repeated by some attentive stool pigeon.

From time to time one of us disappeared. That meant the case against him was ready and the court-martial would sentence him to a disciplinary battalion, to the front, or, if he was very lucky, to the Insane Asylum in Clamart.

More dubious warriors kept arriving, from every branch of service, some very young, some almost old, some terrified, some ranting and swaggering. Their wives and parents came to see them, and their children too, staring wide-eyed, on Thursdays.

They all wept buckets in the visiting room, especially in the evening. All the helplessness of a world at war wept when the visits were over and the women and children left, dragging their feet in the bleak gas-lit corridor. A herd of sniveling riffraff, that’s what they were; disgusting.

To Lola it was still an adventure, coming to see me in that prison, as you might have called it. We two didn’t cry. Where would we have got our tears from?

“Is it true that you’ve gone mad, Ferdinand?” she asked me one Thursday.

“It’s true,” I admitted.

“But they’ll treat you here?”

“There’s no treatment for fear, Lola.”

“Is it as bad as all that?”

“It’s worse, Lola. My fear is so bad that if I die a natural death later on, I especially don’t want to be cremated. I want them to leave me in the ground, quietly rotting in the graveyard, ready to come back to life… Maybe… how do we know? But if they burned me to ashes, Lola, don’t you see, it would be over, really over… A skeleton, after all, is still something like a man… It’s more likely to come back to life than ashes… Reduced to ashes, you’re finished! … What do you think? … Naturally the war…”

“Oh, Ferdinand! Then you’re an absolute coward! You’re as loathsome as a rat…”

“Yes, an absolute coward, Lola, I reject the war and everything in it … I don’t deplore it … I don’t resign myself to it … I don’t weep about it … I just plain reject it and all its fighting men. I don’t want anything to do with them or it. Even if there were nine hundred and ninety-five million of them and I were all alone, they’d still be wrong and I’d be right. Because I’m the one who knows what I want: I don’t want to die.”

“But it’s not possible to reject the war, Ferdinand! Only crazy people and cowards reject the war when their country is in danger…”

“If that’s the case, hurrah for the crazy people! Look, Lola, do you remember a single name, for instance, of any of the soldiers killed in the Hundred Years War? . . . Did you ever try to find out who any of them were? … No! … You see? You never tried… As far as you’re concerned they’re as anonymous, as indifferent, as the last atom of that paperweight, as your morning bowel movement… Get it into your head, Lola, that they died for nothing! For absolutely nothing, the idiots! I say it and I’ll say it again! I’ve proved it! The one thing that counts is life! In ten thousand years, I’ll bet you, this war, remarkable as it may seem to us at present, will be utterly forgotten… Maybe here and there in the world a handful of scholars will argue about its causes or the dates of the principal hecatombs that made it famous… Up until now those are the only things about men that other men have thought worth remembering after a few centuries, a few years, or even a few hours… I don’t believe in the future, Lola…”

When she heard me flaunting my shameful state like that, she lost all sympathy for me… Once and for all she put me down as contemptible, and decided to leave me without further ado. It was too much. When I left her that evening at the hospital gate, she didn’t kiss me.