Henri Troyat: All humanity passing through a crisis of destructive madness
From Amélie (1955)
Translated by Mary V. Dodge
They were talking about the latest war news. “Artillery duel in Artois,” said M. Florent, reading the daily communiqué. “In the Argonne, the fighting has spread. In Alsace, the German offensive line, supported by poison gas, has been pushed back.” M. Buche took a map of France out of his pocket. The creases were worn and ragged, and it was covered with numerous heavy red pencil marks.
“Just exactly where were you stationed, Pierre?” he asked.
The men leaned over the scrawl of lines and dots. For Pierre alone they called up memories of disemboweled corpses, smashed and burned trees, and horrible white ruins that had once been houses and churches.
Pierre got out of his dugout to breathe some fresh air and went up to one of the fortifications. In front of him he saw a large, slashed plain, razed, with round puddles frozen in the shell holes. Here and there, there were charred tree stumps, swirls of barbed wire bristling with bushes, human carcasses rigid and trampled in the slime. The rain rustled over that vast expanse with its gray, ragged craters. Vapors rose from certain holes, like mysterious stenches given off by the soil.
Whenever he stopped speaking, she could see a look of deep sorrow and resignation in his eyes. Every time they went walking, their talk came around – after a few detours – to the same subject: the war…[T]hey sighed when they spoke of the endless battles that cost so many lives and did not seem to bring the war any nearer to an end.
The air was filled with the odor of ashes. Jerome cast his eyes around this familiar universe and continued to stroke the dog, whose eyes were half closed with pleasure.
“You’re happy anyway,” Jerome said. “You’re as happy as ever!”
At last he got up. His children were waiting for him in the kitchen. It was time to go back to them. But he could do less for them than he could for this animal. It was impossible to assuage the unhappiness of human beings with caresses and words. He wondered whether Pierre was really getting better, as Amélie claimed he was. Was she condemned to live indefinitely with a sick man? The more he thought of the future, the more his fears grew. The breathing of the dog, asleep in his box, accompanied his feverish thoughts. He felt that he was being carried off with all his loved ones into a whirlpool. Frightful calamities were staggering his home and the entire world. All humanity was passing through a crisis of destructive madness at the end of which, perhaps, the survivors would not even have the courage to pick themselves out of the debris. He remembered something the curé had said the night before, when he came to see him at the forge to have a spare key made. “The spirit of evil is triumphing for the moment, Monsieur Aubernat, but its sway will not last forever. God will recognize the just cause. As we will be granted an honorable peace.” Without accepting all this, Jerome had to admit that things were happening as if the spirit of evil actually was hovering over the earth. He wanted to ward off the menace of the black wings gliding over his roof, but he did not know how. Even the curé’s teachings were not enough to withstand the enemy above.