The Front

"The Front" is taken from Not-Quite-Botched Dispatches (But a Hard Sell for the Nightly News), a series of fictional reportages; as satire, they take for their target the trumpery and fabrication inevitable whenever "the news" is the product of an industry. Delivered in a faux-objective style, it presents the reporter as unreliable narrator: blithely and steadfastly oblivious to the increasing absurdity of the events he covers, but always possessed of the common sense that Gébé convinces us is the basic debt of one human being to another. Conscientious objection was his vocation; he takes up arms against "stupidity, stupor, and habit."

The World War I battlefields of northern France haunt the nation, sites of waste and slaughter, much as the names Chickamauga, Antietam, and Shiloh still resonate in the American South. Gébé takes as his starting point their mud and cold, a landscape instantly familiar to a French reader, but his story soon transcends geography. Composed as editorials during the 1960s, these pieces were first collected in 1973, before being reissued in 2001, but Gébé, whose dark outlook leavened his readers' lives with so much humor, would have known better than to think "The Front" would ever go out of fashion. War is always timely; somewhere, the front awaits. —Edward Gauvin

***

The peacetime press pursues the politics of an ostrich. Head buried in the sand of petty intrigues, high-society trifles, and foreign wars, it deliberately ignores the front.

Promoted to war correspondent by the only paper not afraid of shocking its readers, I made the long journey to the front line.

Destination: MUD, COLD, and FEAR.

The window marked "Information" was the last on the right, at the end of the deserted hall, across from the restaurant. The man inside watches me approach from far off; I watch him right back too as I draw closer; by the time I stop in front of his window, we're well acquainted.

"When can I get a train to the front?"

"Sorry, buddy, but trains no longer serve the front. It's not a profitable route in peacetime."

"So how do I get there? Bus, maybe?"

"As far as I know, there's no more bus service either. In what capacity are you going to the front?"

I show him my papers: war correspondent card, pass, travel authorization. From the way he examines all of it, I deduce a possibility exists. He gets up and leaves, giving me a reassuring little wave. He comes back with a smile and hands me my papers.

"You're all set. The Company's putting a special car at your disposal; it'll be attached to a regular train. Report to the military platform at 2330 hours. They'll be waiting for you. Safe travels, and good luck."

I've got half an hour to kill. The restaurant is to the right. I go and lean on the bar. "Hot mulled wine, and make it sweet."

"Right away, soldier!"

Soldier . . . I'd pulled a shapeless hat down over my helmet. Maybe the waiter had noticed the chin strap? But kids used to wear straw hats with chin straps. So what, then? Intuition? Unless, quite simply, my manner gave me away: I seemed like a guy headed for the front. The way I leaned on the bar, like I was leaning on the parapet of a trench . . .

The waiter comes back with a steaming glass of hot mulled wine, then turns toward a porter who's just arrived: "How èbout you, soldier?"

The porter gives my glass a sniff. "Say . . . I'll have one of those!"

He rubs his hands together.

Fifty guys walk in and lean on the bar.

"What'll it be, soldiers?"

"Fifty hot mulled wines!"

They rub their hands together.

Six thousand guys . . .

"Six thousand hot mulled wines!"

"Six thousand it is!"

"Attention, attention. Due to exceptionally high numbers of travelers, the Company is organizing special convoys for the front. Report to the military platform."

There's war for you: sudden fellow-feeling at the bar, collective euphoria, sweet and steaming, cooperative public services. "We'll be inseparable forever. Let's go!"

I spot the porter about to open his mouth and say something to me, so I leave. I don't want to start a fight.

*

Woozily, I make my way over to the military platform. A small freight car is parked at the edge of a concrete platform stretching out of sight in every direction. By the car is a soldier, watching me. I walk over, watching him. We don't get well-acquainted. He gives me a soldierly salute, I take off my hat and salute him back. He's a warrant officer.

"This is your special car. You can get in. The yard switcher will come by and get you hitched up to the regular train. Smoking is prohibited, as is the use of any light signals."

"Where do I get off?"

"You don't know where you're going?"

"Of course I do! But how will I know I'm there?"

"That's your problem. My mission is to see you safely on board, and that's it. Safe travels. Watch out, I'm closing the door. Opening the door before you leave the station is prohibited! Oh yeah, I forgot. Sign here. You've been issued two blankets. Try to remember to fold them tomorrow morning and don't take them with you, or it'll cost you. A lot."

*

Sleeping alone in a rolling freight car is delightful. Bedded down under blankets in the straw, I slip between sleep and daydreams. I dream I'm smoking. I wake up and smoke, daydream until I've finished my cigarette, and go back to sleep. The only thing that disturbs my sense of peace is my uncertainty about when I should get off.

An icy dawn. I fold up my blankets and crack the sliding door open a bit. I can't be far now: keep an eye out!

The frozen plain turns slowly before me like a giant vinyl record, white and silent. The fact that all I think about is enjoying this lack of music highlights my calm and my confidence that I'll recognize the Sign.

At my feet, the gravel's flying furiously by when, suddenly, everything stops like a rope slipping on a pulley. The train is still moving—I can feel it—but the landscape isn't going by, the gravel's still. Everything might start moving again at any second. This is it, I have to jump, I jump. I find myself standing on the embankment. The abandoned train shrinks away at a hundred miles an hour, taking all its noise with it.

I walk down the embankment and head into the fields without knowing where I am. But it's cold, so I keep walking.

*

The sudden silence is surprising. A brutal silence as though, at that moment, an infernal din had just stopped, abruptly sucked away. Not silence, but a respite from noise after the flood of explosions, screams, rumbles, frenzied screeching, colossal crashes. Silence and stillness. The sly stillness of a landscape destined for imminent chaos. A calm and peaceful setting, stretched to the limit, about to snap. I'm afraid. There's menace all around. I throw myself flat on the ground. I'm at the front!

On the front line, no one's ever been able to claim they're better hidden than anyone else. So I stay put. I can't move anyway. The shift was too brutal, I have to get used to it first, here's as good a place as any.

Still on the ground, I arm myself with my field shovel and, with infinite caution, start digging a hole for myself. The ground is frozen over, but the idea of a protective hole gives me courage.

I make it nice and big. I can sit down, eat a ration, drink from my thermos, and smoke while hiding my cigarette. Then I'll reflect a little.

I'm quite calm now. It allows me to survive my fear when a man comes shooting like a cannonball into my hole, breathless and a bit dazed.

At first I mistake him for a war correspondent. He laughs.

"No, not exactly," he confides. "I'm part of the International Bureau for Front Location. A front is a very real place. It never goes away, but it's always moving around. It's kind of a privileged place, the focus of certain magnetic forces that favor the flowering of violence and the fighting spirit. Even when animated by great mutual hatred, two opposing armies aren't likely to throw themselves wholeheartedly into combat outside this ideal zone. Away from the front, enemies avoid each other. It is vitally important for the top brass in every country to track fluctuations along the capricious front line, the better to maneuver their troops with precision in case of conflict. We respond to the only common interest two belligerent parties can have: finding out where to wage an effective war. I work for the Bureau as a detector, making daily reports to top brass with great attention to objectivity and precision. We're a global interest and, of course, completely neutral."

"But how can you track the movements of a conjunction of elements as subtle as those that define a front? How do you spot fronts to begin with?"

"The same way you did. Thanks to an extremely sensitive instinct. A trained observer will never make a mistake. Silence and imminence: that's how a front feels in peacetime."

"You're a bastard," I told him, "and you work for a Bureau of bastards!'

His look of surprise told me I had little chance of bringing him round to this point of view. The day was already going by. Taking advantage of the murderous instinct sane men only feel on the front, and the knack for killing amateurs only enjoy in such a place, I smack the detector with my field shovel, instantly making him the owner of a hole in the ground.

I'm not afraid any more. Nature now seems peaceful and reassuring to me. Silence, the last perilous spell, is broken. A crow alights near us, making his song heard: the front has moved on. The front is out for a stroll without a spy at its heels. Tonight, the top brass will sleep poorly, and the detection Bureau will have nightmares.

I fill the hole back up, reshaping a few clods and clumps in the hopes that this hasty camouflage will keep local curiosity at bay for a long while.

At that very moment my reward, my Nobel Peace Prize, starts falling from the sky: snow.