From Book 4: Resistance

This section presented in its entirety. Let us never forget those who fought so others could be free.

            In the protection of a dry creek bed we gobbled our tepid rations and leaned against the embankment in shifts to nap. “How’s your ankle, soldier?” Raymond asked me for the hundredth time as he lapped the edge of a cigarette paper. He wound it around his last flakes of tobacco. I was half-sitting, half leaning against the dirt, with my knees pulled up and my rifle pointed to the ground. Raymond flopped down beside me and, puffing out clouds of smoke, jostled me a little.

            “It’s fine,” I said. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

            “Don’t got any more smokes, do you?”

            “I’m out. I have some chocolate, though.”

            Raymond turned his head to look at a couple of Frenchmen who were talking to Blixbey. Martinelli and a few others stood nearby with their rifles held ready. “One of the villagers brought a man forward. French Resistance fighter. I thought if you had any cigs I could bum them off you, to trade with him for some good coffee.”

            I sat up. “Which group?” I asked. “Which group is he from? Did he say?”

            “I don’t know, Geoff. I can’t speak French at all. Though I caught a few words—partout? Partue?”

            “Nope.” Disappointed, I leaned back and looked at the sky.

            “Or ‘Combat?’ Name of a magazine, I think. I caught that one easy enough.” He chuckled. “But how would you know which Resistance group your friend is in, anyway?” When I didn’t answer, Raymond waved a hand before my eyes. “You wouldn’t like to give me your chocolate for a trade, would you?”

            “My chocolate is for bribes,” I replied, “for when we get close to Paris. Sorry, Ray. I can trade you some French pick-up lines, though.”

            “I know them already! ‘Sides, I’m waiting for Chili. You can have that Nusch girl.”

            “She’s married,” I reminded him.

Raymond settled in the dirt next to me. “Partue,” he practiced. “Combat. I wonder why the French don’t pronounce half the letters. Oh, I caught a few others—Aujourd’hui. Means ‘yesterday,’ right? Oh, ‘today’—well, I was close.” He grinned at me. “Eros, c’est la vie, which you taught me. Everyone knows c’est la vie. And Agir.” I turned to look at him and he grinned at me, but I didn’t return the smile. I sat up again. “Does Agir mean anything to you, Geoff?”

            My heart was beating fast. “No,” I replied, “but Aujourd’hui is the newspaper Desnos writes for!” Raymond looked on as I scrambled to my feet. I strode quickly to catch up to Blixbey who had now walked some distance away with the strangers, and I heard the clank and rattle of Raymond’s uniform as he hurried after.

            Blixbey was holding a map, and he nodded as a tall man with dark, wavy hair jabbed at the paper with a finger, pointing out bridges and viaducts. Standing next to Blixbey, one of our men took notes. The portly villager stood there also, his eyes darting about as he puffed on his cigarette. The tall man with the wavy hair, though in his forties, was slender and youthful, and there was something about how he carried himself that reminded of a certain night in a certain café, after Desnos and I had escaped that mob in the Theatre de l’Etoile, after the lights had gone out and Man Ray had taken our picture… “Agir,” I reminded myself aloud. A name? It was not the name of a man, but it reminded me of another name, a man’s name—if only I could remember it. Agir—it was a Resistance group in Paris, I was sure of it.

            Blixbey looked askance at me as I bore down on him. With an apologetic nod to the strangers he turned to fix me with a stern eye. “Something eating you, Lieutenant?”

            “Agado,” I stuttered and my captain looked surprised, but the tall, black-clad man at his side stepped forward. “I mean, Agir. I mean, I think I know this man, sir. Rrose Selavy,” I said while looking hard into the stranger’s eyes.

            He had dark, almond-shaped eyes, and his hair was still as abundant as a young man’s. Yes, there were lines around the mouth and eyes, but even so his face was largely unchanged. His hand gripped mine. “Geoffrey Weidmann,” he said, and now his smile was familiar, too. “My God, it is you.” Then he laughed a little. “Do you know that you and I still have not been properly introduced?”

            “And after all those years,” I replied in wonder. “Landis kept saying he would, but…”

            The man turned back to Blixbey. “That’s what happens when one has Surrealists for friends.” That hand moved to my shoulder. “Well, welcome back, Weidmann. Welcome back to France,” said Paul Amado.

            He and I left the chill of the hilltop for the creek bed. Amado leaned on the embankment and gave me a cigarette, then generously passed one to Raymond as well. The other men stood around, watching us curiously. “I left Paris some time ago, in October of ‘42,” he said, “so I don’t have news after that. But your sister-in-law was fine. She’s very strong, very smart. But—” A shadow crossed his face and he paused.

            “My aunt?” I prodded him.

            “Your aunt was the old woman?” He was not looking at me now. He turned his cigarette ash-side-in as if examining the glowing end. “She’s dead, Geoff. She died in October, just before I left, in hospital. Pneumonia, I think.”

            I didn’t say anything. Amado flicked his cigarette and continued to stare at it. Outwardly there was no change in the men and Raymond did not even move, but I felt as if the stars over our heads had receded far from us. “Paris was a constant struggle,” Amado continued. “I was working with Desnos at Aujourd’hui when I finally had to cut out. Everything we write, everything anyone says—we have to be careful, and God knows I can’t keep my mouth shut for long. I ran before I could endanger anyone else. I don’t give a damn about me, but if they tortured me to get the names…well, they would get Desnos for sure, and Louis Aragon, and—” He paused. “There can be no harm in telling you now: your doctor, too. Emile Bernard is one of us, and so is Aragon, Georges Malkine and Benjamin Péret, and Nusch and Paul Éluard, fighting underground!” He said it proudly, and I was proud to hear it. My men knew these names, too. My frog poets and art-teests were Resistance, helping the Allies. “Bernard offers his services as a physician to the Gestapo, walks right into headquarters at the Rue des Saussaies, and he’s been very useful. They interrogate the prisoners there, in an ice-bath—Bernard slips them drugs, supposedly to loosen their tongues, but to numb their pain, help them lie. We know who’s been taken, who’s talked, what they’ve said. Even Desnos and Éluard didn’t know about Bernard. So, you see, I know too much. I felt I was being watched, and I cut out before I endangered them all. Every man has his limits.” He sighed. “I don’t pretend that I don’t know mine. There’s this weasel who took over the newspaper—Alain Laubreaux—pro-Hitler, anti-Semite, all of that shit—and Desnos slapped him in the face.”

            Raymond chuckled, and in the light of the small campfire I saw the smiles of the men. They all knew about Robert Desnos. I had told them so many stories about Desnos that they had adopted him; he was already a buddy to them. He seemed American to them. They were impressed by this Frenchman as obstinate and original as themselves. Desnos was going to have a whole platoon of new drinking-buddies look him up when we reached Paris.

Amado, however, remained grim. “Desnos is like me—he doesn’t take humiliation well, and I’m afraid it’s going to get him in trouble. The Nazis demoted him and he’s back to proofing copy now, taking dictation, emptying wastebaskets, like some apprentice. But you know Desnos—he’ll joke even with the Nazis and soon they’re falling over, laughing. He hates them but they like him—but Laubreaux hates him. And Desnos just watches them with this sneer, doing everything that he can to ingratiate himself. He’s plotting, but so is Laubreaux. Desnos has made a powerful enemy, but he doesn’t see it—I could not make him see that. I wanted him to come with me and take Youki.” His voice grew hoarse and he cleared his throat. “Maybe I should have tried harder to convince him to let her come with me by herself. But she refused, too.”

“Don’t dwell on that, man.” I shook my head. I was torn like a telegram in half about Desnos abandoning Catherine and Artaud, but if only Youki had run! “If you had run with her and been caught, it would have been twice as bad for her as it is back in Paris.”

“Some of the officers have forced women to work in brothels!” Amado spat out. “Desnos keeps Youki inside their apartment as much as he can. He runs all the errands. These kids with guns, straight out of Hitler Youth, lonely, some of them sadistic, and waiting for any opportunity…”

            A figure materialized in the darkness, and a voice called Raymond to watch duty. Raymond pulled himself to his feet and clapped a hand on my shoulder, then hoisted his rifle and trudged up the embankment.

            “Any chance I could get a message to Desnos?” I asked Amado, and he shook his head. “I suppose it would just place him in further danger. I don’t risk writing Catherine.”

            Amado regarded me, his frown deepening. Then he stretched out a hand. “If you have a letter, give it to me. I’ll try to get it to him somehow. I’m returning to Paris, but it may take a long time. No promises, Weidmann.”

            “I wrote this almost two months ago.” I reached inside my pocket for that letter, written and memorized and thrown away, then written again after the offensive at Normandy so it could not be destroyed. “I want him to know I’m fighting to get there,” I added as Amado took the cellophane package and unwrapped it. “I don’t want him to think I’ve chickened.”

            “He would never think that of you. Besides, he wanted you to run away.”

            I drew in my breath. “There’s one more person I must ask you about. I have to know about Antonin Artaud.”

            By now, the sky had grown so dark that I could not see Amado’s face. The night air was chilly, and we both drew closer to the fire. Amado leaned forward, crossed his arms over his knees, and stared into the flames. “Hey,” he said, “Lee Miller is in France, covering the war.”

            “I know,” I said. “I’m not surprised.”

            “Oh, that’s right, you and she were quite close. Well, she had to fight for that. Her editor couldn’t imagine a woman at the front.”

            “He obviously didn’t know Lee.”

Amado lit another cigarette. He passed one to me and I took it, but I didn’t light mine. “I don’t know much about Artaud. He was still alive and at Ville-Évrard when I left. But it’s a struggle in Paris even for a healthy person. Bread, noodles, sugar, shoes, tobacco—you name it, it’s rationed. Yet somehow, Desnos manages!” Amado’s face lit up briefly. “We celebrated the entry of the Soviet Union into the war with a dinner party complete with wine. We put up blankets over the windows at Desnos’s place and had a slumber-party. Paul and Nusch Éluard were there, and Sonia Mossé. Remember her?”

            “Of course I do!” I breathed. We grinned companionably at each other over the flames as if we had been friends for years. “Sonia! If you do make Paris before me, kiss her for me.”

            “I will. I’ll kiss her for both of us.” Then he looked thoughtful. “We were eating and suddenly Nusch broke off her bread and placed it on a serving plate in the middle of the table. Then Sonia did, Éluard did, and so did I. All of us did it, and then Desnos took the scraps to Artaud’s mother. You know Desnos: he said, ‘Thank you, friends. Alcohol is food, anyway!’ and we drank up and left bits and pieces of food for Artaud. Youki scrounged up some canned items for him, too. For someone in an asylum in France—” He broke off. I handed him my canteen and he tilted it to his lips. “Thank you.” He wiped his mouth and gave the canteen back to me. He didn’t speak.

            “Tell me, Paul.”

            “It’s bad, Geoffrey,” he whispered. “It’s hard for me to say out loud, even to think it.”

            Blixbey was listening and vigilant to my mood. I shook my head. “Tell us. Tell all of us so my men will know what this war is about. Don’t spare me.”

Amado looked down at our empty tins. “Artaud’s situation reminds me how, even out here, I always have something to eat, to drink, no matter how shitty it is. In the hospitals that’s not the case, and in the asylums it’s even worse. Rationing is hard on everyone, and those in the asylum don’t get much, Geoff.”

            “Man, spit it out. Are the Nazis starving the patients?” Someone sat down next to me and said something I could not quite hear. I brushed away Blixbey’s words. “Say it, Amado. The Nazis are letting the patients starve, is that it?”

            Amado grimaced. His next words were in English so all the men could understand. “They get water and one cup of cabbage broth every day, and sometimes bread. You and I know that no man can live on that for long.” He turned his face from me to stare into the fire again. I leaned back to look up at the sky. Clouds obscured the stars now, and there was no moon. The night was crisp and cold, and our breath hung about our heads. “He is…” He pressed his lips together and did not face me. He was surrounded by my fellow soldiers who sat listening as silently as boulders.

“Geoff, Artaud is dying like the rest of them! Patients deemed incurable are in danger of being deported but even if he stays at Ville-Évrard, he’ll starve to death. Artaud constantly begged for food in his letters before I left. He begged for it even more than drugs and he believes his mother should be able to provide, but of course it’s a near-impossible task. He’s regressed to a state of a child, listing his favorites—pistachios, sweets, olives—and he wrote both Desnos and me that he didn’t understand why she did not bring them. He’s utterly helpless. Barrault and Fraenkel were wracking their brains to find some way to get him out of there. That old woman scrounges what she can on the black market with her children and Desnos and Éluard and Blin to help her. I helped her, too. She must be—what? Seventy-five years old? God!” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Artaud has changed his tune, quite—he used to rail at his internist and call him Dr. Fucks—” He smiled a little and I did, too. “Fouks came back briefly after serving in the army, but he was transferred sometime after the occupation, and Artaud started in on his new internist, a woman called Barrat. He insulted her too. But ever since the Nazis searched Ville-Évrard—”

“What?” I said, my heart thudding.

“—He’s been frightened. The Nazis didn’t hurt anybody, but apparently the captain questioned Artaud—”

“Searched Ville-Évrard—why? Questioned him?” My hands closed into fists. “What the hell for?” One of my men placed a hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw it was Leo Martinelli. His round face was tensed in sympathy.

“They didn’t hurt him, Geoff! Nobody hurt him. It was right after Occupation. The Nazis searched Ville-Évrard, found nothing, and left. All I know is the captain asked Artaud a few questions in front of Fouks and the staff. Artaud was in a cell…” Amado pressed his lips together. His eyes were sorrowful.

“Fuck you, tell me everything!” I barked. One of the men gripped my arm.

“Listen—listen!” Amado pleaded. “He’s happier in a cell—I swear he is. I’ve visited him, too. He doesn’t want to be around the other patients. He’d rather be by himself. You know him.”

I shook my head vehemently. “I do know him. They segregate him to control him. You know that!”

“But he’s calm in there. The guards leave him alone. Anie Besnard said he seemed better, at peace, ‘Like a monk,’ she said. He looked good. Of course this was years bef—” He stopped.

Some of my horror drained away. “He allowed Anie to visit him again?”

“Yes. He begged her to come. And René Thomas, too.” Amado smiled at me. “And when this Nazi captain came into the ward, he ordered the cell door opened. Fouks was terrified, wanting to protect Artaud, but the captain seemed to know Artaud—probably from a film. Apparently they conversed for a few moments. I think the Nazis had their orders and were just killing time. Artaud’s easy to notice. They didn’t find whatever it was they were looking for in that place, but Artaud started asking Barrat, ‘Are they going to kill us?’ but no one hurt him. Later, though, he stopped asking. Everyone knows the answer.” His voice sounded tight, strangled. “The mental wards have new corpses every day. The asylums have turned into charnel houses.”

            “Oh, fuck.” The words were out before I could stop them, and Amado lowered his face. “Keep going,” I said. “Tell me everything.”

He offered me his own cigarette, and I did take a puff. Louis had warned me never to take up smoking. “Artaud told his mother in letters how bad it’s become. The patients compete for scraps, steal them from each other, eat cloth or paper, take peelings from the garbage and eat dandelions, clover, buckthorn berries, even gnaw their own fing…” He stopped, his eyes on the wide eyes of the corn-fed, decent, spit-and-grit young American soldiers who were listening. They had known the Depression and yet this misery was beyond their ken. “His mother witnessed this personally. Desnos made a stink about it, only to be told by the doctors—French doctors!—that it’s fine, for now the patients do not refuse food, are industrious with chores to curry favor, and force feeding is nonexistent now. Blin raised the alarm, and Éluard, Fraenkel, Blin’s father tried to make the profession listen, but no one cares. The new head of Ville-Évrard spoke out, and some other doctors did—but the government calls these people ‘garbage.’”

He paused again, swallowing, and I swallowed. Blixbey gazed at Amado in dull horror. “And Artaud wrote to you. I don’t know the whole story, but he told Anie that when the Nazis conducted their search they confiscated his spell for you and promised to deliver it.”

“I’m sure they did!” I snapped. “Well, I have a spell to deliver to them, too!” My men gave a guttural affirmation.

Amado added, “Artaud also referenced that spell for you to me in a letter he wrote just before I left. Something about a little brother who died. I don’t have it now or I would show it to you.”

            “It’s all right,” I said. I didn’t want to read the letter. To Artaud’s helplessness I preferred his apocalypsmania. I could not bear to read Artaud’s dying, last-resort plea for rescue in a letter that would someday be auctioned by rich art-lovers, even if they were lovers of Artaud’s works, even if they too wept for the poet’s shriveling death long after he had already inhumanly starved, too late, too late. The time had come to put aside words.

            Amado, trying to cushion this news, spoke a little longer to me while I kept my head low. He spoke of my niece who was still safe in the south of France; before he fled Paris she and Desnos were writing careful letters about poetry and frivolous matters. He spoke of Landis—no one knew where he was. Balthus, in poor health from an intestinal infection he contracted when fighting at the front, was in Switzerland with his wife and children. Jean Paulhan was a pillar of support for the anti-fascist and anti-Nazi writers in Paris. He had asked Catherine and Amado for any news of me. Paul Éluard’s poem “Liberté” had been published in underground magazines and in London, and was now the hymn of the Resistance. 150,000 copies of the poem as it was printed in the Gaullist magazine La France libre had been dropped over France by the Royal Air Force, an impressive run for any creative work in war or in peace. Nusch Éluard helped the Resistance by carrying messages past German soldiers on the street.

            “We listen to André Breton on Voice of America,” I said, and Amado said, “So do we.”

“I must go,” Amado said to Blixbey. “I must meet someone else tonight.” When he stood up I could no longer make out Amado’s face in the darkness, but I caught his nod to me. I held up a hand to him in parting and he took it. We let that handshake last a moment. Then he turned and pulled himself up the embankment and was gone.

I was vibrating. It was not trembling; I seemed to be radiating a black beam that reached up into my eyes, my brain. I could no longer feel my body. Blixbey examined me, then stood up and said to the men, “So now you know what we’re up against, how the civilians also fight this war, even patients in asylums and hospitals, even children, even the elderly. But I want all of you to remember that your first duty is to your platoon, to the men next to you. Our objective is Paris, but each and every moment you must concentrate on the task at hand, taking the next field, the next hill. Do not focus on Paris. Let me lead you there. I am your captain. Each and every minute obey my orders.”

Everyone stood up to stretch or to go to sleep. I felt Raymond’s hand punch my arm. He was back from watch. Martinelli began to sing, and he surprised me with his melodious voice. All my men knew I was not a religious believer and this pained Raymond particularly. Martinelli was a show-off about him being a Christian yet he only half-heartedly tried to convert me. Now he sang, but I did not minded this particular hymn. At any rate, whenever anyone mentioned Jesus Christ now I thought of my pilgrim with his agonizing ride into the Tarahumaras’ mountains, and his lifelong dragging of his body toward Calvary…and now his slow death on a cross with cabbage soup for bitter wine. When Martinelli began to sing some of the men joined in, and then they broke off because he was not singing the famous first verse but a later one:

In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
with a glory in his bosom
that transfigures you and me;
as he died to make men holy,
let us die to make men free,
while God is marching on.

#

For days after Amado’s visit I tried to picture my Aunt Therese. What came to mind was her hammy blathering, her shameless gossiping about everyone and anything with Desnos, the tender way she tried to encourage Artaud to smile, and the sudden unrolling of her white hair from its precarious knot when she got fired up. I was silent these days and for that I knew Blixbey kept a wary eye on me, but I performed my duties with swift efficiency. If anything I felt more alert, more in control, than ever before in my life. My thoughts were clear and my priorities clearer. A revolution in the flesh.

“Artaud said something once,” I told Blixbey, “that made me accuse him of being arrogant, naïve of combat. I accused him of contempt toward those who fought as he had not, and I was wrong. I mistook his meaning.” I had assumed Artaud referred to a state of excitement or ecstasy, not this flat, cruel focus driven by necessity in a body seemingly deprived of organs, made only of sharp bones and flayed nerves. I was alive but it was a raw life, clear and terrible. Artaud saw beyond, even as the obscene press of realism made him plead for help from his hated doctor, from his previously-denied mother, from me. I would make a way to him and for him out of that modern-day Muda! My body obeyed my mind without exhaustion or hunger, and my routines banished despair and regret to make me fixate, like a secular Joan of Arc, on victory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: