Here’s how it started. I’d never said a word. Not one word. It was Arthur Ganate that made me speak up. Arthur was a friend from med school. So we meet on the Place Clichy. It was after breakfast. He wants to talk to me. I listen. “Not out here,” he says. “Let’s go in.” We go in. And there we were. “This terrace,” he says, “is for jerks. Come on over there.” Then we see that there’s not a soul in the street, because of the heat; no cars, nothing. Same when it’s very cold, not a soul in the street; I remember now, it was him who had said one time: “The people in Paris always look busy, when all they actually do is roam around from morning to night; it’s obvious, because when the weather isn’t right for walking around, when it’s too cold or too hot, you don’t see them anymore; they’re all indoors, drinking their cafés crèmes or their beers. And that’s the truth. The century of speed! they call it. Where? Great changes! they say. For instance? Nothing has changed. They go on admiring themselves, that’s all. And that’s not new either. Words. Even the words haven’t changed much. Two or three little ones, here and there…” Pleased at having proclaimed these useful truths, we sat looking at the ladies in the café.

After a while the conversation turned to President Poincaré, who was due to inaugurate a puppy show that same morning, and that led to Le Temps where I’d read about it. Arthur Banate starts kidding me about Le Temps. “What a paper!” he says. “When it comes to defending the French race, it hasn’t its equal.” And quick to show I’m well informed, I fire back: “The French race can do with some defending, seeing it doesn’t exist.”

“Oh yes, it does!” he says. “And a fine race it is! the finest in the world, and anybody who says different is a yellow dog!” And he starts slanging me. Naturally I stuck to my guns.

“It’s not true! What you call a race is nothing but a collection of riffraff like me, bleary-eyed, flea-bitten, chilled to the bone.

They came from the four corners of the earth, driven by hunger, plague, tumors, and the cold, and stopped here. They couldn’t go any further because of the ocean. That’s France, that’s the French people.”

“Bardamu,” he says very gravely and a bit sadly. “Our forefathers were as good as we are, don’t speak ill of them! …”

“You’re right, Arthur, there you’re right! Hateful and spineless, raped and robbed, mangled and witless, they were as good as we are, you can say that again! We never change. Neither our socks nor our masters nor our opinions, or we’re so slow about it that it’s no use. We were born loyal, and that’s what killed us! Soldiers free of charge, heroes for everyone else, talking monkeys, tortured words, we are the minions of King Misery. He’s our lord and master! When we misbehave, he tightens his grip… his fingers are around our neck, that makes it hard to talk, got to be careful if we want to eat… For nothing at all he’ll choke you… It’s not a life . . .”

“There’s love, Bardamu!”

“Arthur,” I tell him, “love is the infinite placed within the reach of poodles. I have my dignity!”

“You do, do you? You’re an anarchist, that’s what you are!”

A wise guy, as you see, with only the most advanced opinions.

“That’s right, you windbag, I’m an anarchist. And to prove it, I’ve written a kind of prayer of social vengeance, it’ll bowl you over. The Golden Wings! That’s the title!” And I recite:

“A God who counts minutes and pennies, a desperate sensual God, who grunts like a pig. A pig with golden wings, who falls and falls, always belly side up, ready for caresses, that’s him, our master. Come, kiss me.”

“Your little piece doesn’t hold water,” he says. “I’m for the established order, and I’m not interested in politics. What’s more, the day my country asks me to shed my blood, it’ll find me ready, and no slacker.”

That’s what he said.

It so happened that the war was creeping up on us without our knowing it, and something was wrong with my wits. That short but animated discussion had tired me out. Besides, I was upset because the waiter had sort of called me a piker on account of the tip. Well, in the end Arthur and I made up. Completely. We agreed about almost everything.

“It’s true,” I said, trying to be conciliatory. “All in all, you’re right. But the fact is we’re all sitting in a big galley, pulling at the oars with all our might. You can’t tell me different! . . . Sitting on nails and pulling like mad. And what do we get for it? Nothing! Thrashings and misery, hard words and hard knocks. We’re workers, they say. Work, they call it! That’s the crummiest part of the whole business. We’re down in the hold, heaving and panting, stinking and sweating our balls off, and meanwhile! Up on deck in the fresh air, what do you see?! Our masters having a fine time with beautiful pink and perfumed women on their laps.
They send for us, we’re brought up on deck. They put on their top hats and give us a big spiel like as follows: “You no-good swine! We’re at war! Those stinkers in Country No. 2! We’re going to board them and cut their livers out! Let’s go! Let’s go! We’ve got everything we need on board! All together now! Let’s hear you shout so the deck trembles: ‘Long live Country No. 1!’ So you’ll be heard for miles around. The man that shouts the loudest will get a medal and a lollipop! Let’s go! And if there’s anybody that doesn’t want to be killed on the sea, he can go and get killed on land, it’s even quicker!”

“That’s the way it is exactly,” said Arthur, suddenly willing to listen to reason.

But just then, who should come marching past the cafe where we’re sitting but a regiment with the colonel up front on his horse, looking nice and friendly, a fine figure of a man! Enthusiasm lifted me to my feet.

“I’ll just go see if that’s the way it is!” I sing out to Arthur, and off I go to enlist, on the double.

“Ferdinand!” he yells back. “Don’t be an ass!” I suppose he was nettled by the effect my heroism was having on the people all around us.

It kind of hurt my feelings the way he was taking it, but that didn’t stop me. I fell right in. “Here I am,” I says
to myself, “and here I stay.”

I just had time to call out to Arthur: “All right, you jerk, we’ll see” – before we turned the corner. And there I was with the regiment, marching behind the colonel and his band. That’s exactly how it happened.

We marched a long time. There were streets and more streets, and they were all crowded with civilians and their wives, cheering us on, bombarding us with flowers from café terraces, railroad stations, crowded churches. You never saw so many patriots in all your life! And then there were fewer patriots … It started to rain, and then there were still fewer and fewer, and not a single cheer, not one.

Pretty soon there was nobody but us, we were all alone. Row after row. The music had stopped. “Come to think of it,” I said to myself, when I saw what was what, “this is no fun anymore! I’d better try something else!” I was about to clear out. Too late! They’d quietly shut the gate behind us civilians. We were caught like rats.

When you’re in, you’re in. They put us on horseback, and after we’d been on horseback for two months, they put us back on our feet. Maybe because of the expense. Anyway, one morning the colonel was looking for his horse, his orderly had made off with it, nobody knew where to, probably some quiet spot that bullets couldn’t get to as easily as the middle of the road. Because that was exactly where the colonel and I had finally stationed ourselves, with me holding his orderly book while he wrote out his orders.

Down the road, way in the distance, as far as we could see, there were two black dots, plunk in the middle like us, but they were two Germans and they’d been busy shooting for the last fifteen or twenty minutes. Maybe our colonel knew why they were shooting, maybe the Germans knew, but I, so help me, hadn’t the vaguest idea. As far back as I could search my memory, I hadn’t done a thing to the Germans, I’d always treated them friendly and polite. I knew the Germans pretty well, I’d even gone to school in their country when I was little, near Hanover. I’d spoken their language. A bunch of loudmouthed little halfwits, that’s what they were, with pale, furtive eyes like wolves; we’d go out to the woods together after school to feel the girls up, or we’d fire popguns or pistols you could buy for four marks. And we drank sugary beer together. But from that to shooting at us right in the middle of the road, without so much as a word of introduction, was a long way, a very long way. If you asked me, they were going too far.

This war, in fact, made no sense at all. It couldn’t go on.

Had something weird got into these people? Something I didn’t feel at all? I suppose I hadn’t noticed it…

Anyway, my feelings toward them hadn’t changed. In spite of everything. I’d have liked to understand their brutality, but what I wanted still more, enormously, with all my heart, was to get out of there, because suddenly the whole business looked to me like a great big mistake.

“In a mess like this,” I said to myself, “there’s nothing to be done, all you can do is clear out…”

Over our heads, two millimeters, maybe one millimeter from our temples, those long tempting lines of steel, that bullets make when they’re out to kill you, were whistling through the hot summer air.

I’d never felt so useless as I did amid all those bullets in the sunlight. A vast and universal mockery.

I was only twenty at the time.