French in June and #20Books: Romain Gary

Romain Gary in 1956, roughly around the time he would have been writing this book – there aren’t many pictures of him looking very corporate and diplomatic.

Book 7/20: Romain Gary: L’Homme a la colombe (writing as Fosco Sinibaldi)

An unusual book for my next French in June read (which I also conveniently snuck in my #20Books of Summer pile), one that I would never have come across if it hadn’t been suggested to me by Emma, inveterate Romain Gary lover and reviewer of a wide range of literature on her always enticing Book Around the Corner blog. You can read Emma’s thoughts on this book here.

I love books about international organisations such as the UN. My father worked for the UN International Development Organisation for quite a large chunk of the 1970s and 80s, so I grew up hearing plenty about the idealism and the disappointments, the successes and the nastier politicking side of things. What is surprising, however, is that Romain Gary seems to have lost his innocence and hope for the UN quite a bit sooner than most people, for he published this hard-hitting satire about the organisation in 1958 (under a pseudonym, of course). Shirley Hazzard published her satire People in Glass Houses roughly ten years later.

The Secretary-General of the UN and his two most trusted advisors (incidentally, because of the nationalities of the people involved, it sounds a bit like the beginning of a joke: a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Persian) are worried when they find out that an outsider, a man with a dove, has managed to penetrate the heavily-guarded building and set himself up in a secret location, a room that does not appear on any architectural plan, that no one seems to know anything about.

At first no one, not even the young intruder himself, seems to know what the purpose of this ‘protest’ is. Then the young man goes on a hunger strike and they are forced to conclude that he is of that rare category, a dreamer and believer in the principles of the UN. I loved the contrast between the suave, poetical Persian Bagtir and the very pragmatic Englishman Praiseworthy (while the Frenchman burst into tears dramatically and easily):

‘Instead of hiding his presence, I would suggest, on the contrary, that you tell the press. It is very poetical. Omar Khayam says that Allah only listens to the prayers in a new mosque when a swallow has made a nest under its roof…

‘That’s all very well, but if the public opinion here in America finds out that we are spending twenty million dollars per year to shelter a swallow, that could cause great trouble. Alas, America is a very prosaic country.’

The young man, the son of a Texas millionaire, is trying to demonstrate that Americans too can be idealistic, that they can die for an idea, and not just be consumers obsessed by wealth. But he isn’t acting on his own – he has his own aiders and abetters, including con-men, gamblers, a girlfriend and a Hopi chief who has become a shoeshine boy in the building, to remind people with lofty ideas that they too have feet and need to be more down-to-earth. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however – the public seems to take the man with the dove at face value, rather than understand the profound irony, and so his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

The story is a complete farce, absurd yet with bite. There is much to enjoy in the sarcasm with which Gary describes the UN’s high officials’ plans for how to resolve the problem – a lesson for politicians everywhere!

‘Above all, we musn’t give the impression that we are against him, that the UN refuses to provide shelter to the man with the dove. We therefore have to welcome him publicly, even formally, showing our respect for the ideal he is defending, which is after all our ideals, and then channel all that enthusiasm and sympathy towards us… you can be sure that once he enters these walls, he will cease to be a problem. He will get worn out, no longer attract attention, disappear bit by bit… What is essential is that we appropriate him. After that, we no longer need to worry – he will become an abstration. After all, that is one of the reasons for our success: we transform all problems and realities into abstractions, empty them of any real content.’

As you might imagine, Romain Gary, as a working diplomat for France at the time, had to publish this book under a pseudonym. He never acknowledged the work as his own or wished to see it reissued; however, an edited version was found among his papers after his death, so he didn’t fully abandon it either. Many of us now share his disenchantment with international organisations and national governments: although it is a slight work compared to his other, later novels, it remains a sharp yet utterly readable condemnation of politics.

16 thoughts on “French in June and #20Books: Romain Gary”

  1. Here is an author whose name I knew, without being at all clear about what kind of books he wrote. I’ll look him out. Not that my local library look as if it will be a good place to start …

  2. Like Margaret, I’d heard of Gary but had no idea he’d worked for the UN. Very much like the sound of this one. It brings to mind Robert Menasse’s enjoyable EU satire, The Capital.

    1. He didn’t work for the UN, but was a French diplomat and therefore came into quite a bit of contact with the UN at various points. Yes, Menasse is a very good comparison!

  3. This sounds like such an interesting way to comment on the politics of the time, Marina Sofia! And sometimes, just a bit of the absurd can be such an effective way to make a point. I wonder what stories Gary would have been able to tell about his own diplomatic experiences…

  4. It’s an odd book and you’ve captured it very well.
    There’s something of the future Adieu Gary Cooper in this one too.
    Thanks for the mention!

  5. Sounds like one I’d like to read but my French isn’t good enough. Now, where could I find a niche publisher specializing in translations of European novels into English… ? 🤔

  6. (My husband shares R. Gary’s cynicism, having had many dealings with the UN, rather than having worked for any of its organizations directly). I’d say it must be very difficult indeed for those who are capable and idealistic to continue functioning within it. Yet the ‘golden handcuffs’ offer some appeal as some of our friends working for it admit… Excellent review, as ever.

  7. This sounds great but sadly not translated into English. I’m beginning to get acquainted with Gary having read The Kites and Promise at Dawn when Penguin published them. I’ve now added The Life Before Us and Lady L. His novels can be quite different but always seem to be entertaining.

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