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THERE ARE TIMES when you take a deep breath of fresh air that is so intoxicating it makes your nostrils quiver, your lungs tingle. There are some who say that is the definition of happiness: a sense of warmth and well-being, which often go hand in hand.
Nothing quite equals those rare moments. The breezes that slip in among people, and that waft through the trees and in among people's houses, are more than breezes: it is as if God were passing by. Often there is an aftereffect. You feel better, rejuvenated, renewed. In any case, less alone.
When I emerged from the plane that had brought me from Paris to Biarritz, I had only a few moments to savor the invigorating sea breeze of France's southwest coast before the official driver who was waiting for me at the airport whisked me away. All business, he grabbed my knapsack and tossed it into the trunk of the car. Then he literally shoved me into the back seat, climbed quickly behind the wheel, and roared away in a cloud of dust.
I was scared to death. Whenever I've been a passenger in one of those cars driven by an official government chauffeur, the same tiny fear inevitably creeps in and grabs hold of me. I keep telling myself there's no doubt he's going to run over one of those kids darting across the street, or some old man or woman. At least a cat. Maybe a porcupine. But he never kills a thing--except my high spirits.
I don't know whether it was my state of near panic, or simply because I was growing increasingly uncomfortable as the ride went on, but each time he swerved wide left or right I began to feel sick to my stomach, so much so that I thought I was going to throw up.
"I'm not in any special hurry," I ventured.
"The president doesn't like to be kept waiting."
He was talking to me as he would have to a child. And yet he was a good twenty years my junior, and his several-day stubble, which he was obviously cultivating to make himself look older, was still little more than an adolescent fuzz.
It had been a long time since I had last visited this place. I looked around to try and spot some familiar landmarks, but found none.
"How long before we reach Latche?" I asked.
Doubtless to let me know he found conversation intrusive, he stepped on the gas. The car began to shake, as if it too was frightened to death.
To put up a good front and keep my hands occupied, I decided to check out the material I had brought along for the interview the president had granted me. I had packed no fewer than three tape recorders, one for my interview and two as backup, in the unlikely event that one--or even two--of the machines failed to function. A journalist's worst nightmare is one in which, despite all preparation and precautions, his tape recorder suddenly goes on the blink. I've known cases of journalists who have crossed oceans and climbed mountains to interview someone important, only to find when they got back home that all their tapes were blank.
I was changing the batteries of one of the tape recorders when the car took a sharp turn. The tape recorder fell onto the car floor and some of its innards spilled out. I groped to find the missing pieces and in so doing assumed several awkward positions, including squatting on all fours on the back seat. No luck. Another sharp turn made me lose my precarious balance and I hit my head on the car door. I cried out, less to express my suffering than to signal to the driver for God's sake to slow down! My cry fell on deaf ears. I suspected that he was secretly reveling in my obvious discomfort.
So it was that the government car finally swept into the president's residence at Latche, past the two guards standing stiffly in front of their sentry boxes.
The president was standing in the courtyard, holding a large feeding bowl in one hand. He had just finished feeding his donkeys. He gave me a quick sidelong glance, as if we had just spent the day together, and said with a half-smile, "How long has it been since you were last here at Latche? Eighteen years?"
Before I arrived he had, I was sure, checked the records to verify the date of my last visit. With death nipping at his heels, he was still leaving nothing to chance. Once again, he had figured he'd impress the hell out of me, as he had always impressed the rest of the world. It was the same old Mitterrand, the one I remembered. He knew exactly what it took to win you over. But he always went a trifle too far. One who ought to know, Ninon de Lenclos, put it this way: "Nothing more agreeable than a seductive man; nothing more odious than a seducer." Most of the time, my experience had been with the seducer. For example, he figured he had won you over when, having looked you up and down the way a horse trader evaluates an animal or the way a merchant squints at a piece of fine merchandise, he addressed you as an equal, the way he would talk to some renowned expert on international affairs. Whenever he resorted to one of these tactics, I resented him for talking down to me, the way he did with so many others whom he thought he could wrap around his little finger with a well-placed compliment, a promise, or some official commendation.
There were times when he would say with great sincerity to someone, "Please do give me a call. I'd very much like to get together with you. There are all sorts of things we need to discuss." After which simpletons like me would call his office the next day, only to find that the president was all tied up and hadn't a free moment for the foreseeable future. And when next you ran into him he would blame his secretary for sheltering him from the very people he most wanted to see.
One day--Bastille Day, 1988, to be exact--during a garden party at the Elysee, the French White House, I saw the president eyeing me from across the room, then making a beeline for me through the crowd. I hadn't seen him in several years. He came straight up to me and said, "Where are you going on vacation?" I was too taken aback to say anything smart like, And what about you? Where are you going? Instead, I answered, "To Provence." To which he responded, "Provence. Ah, you're still going to Provence. You're quite right to remain faithful to that lovely part of the country."
Upon which he turned on his heel and made his way back across the room.
It was the good period; it was a long time ago. I was twenty-two, he was fifty-two. I had just arrived in Paris. He had been there for a good many years. I amused him. He impressed me. He often sat down beside me and we talked: of God, of love, of books; rarely about politics. When we stuck to those general subjects, I had the feeling that I was in another, better world. Sometimes, however, he couldn't help it, his basic nature took over and he acted with me as he did with so many others. He said, as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered, "I have to make up my mind about such and such a situation. What do you think I should do?" After which, as I rambled on, flattered that I had been asked my opinion, he would depart into a kind of inner dream world, not hearing a word I was saying. Even his eyes showed he was no longer with me.
I would like to tell myself that he asked that kind of question precisely so he could escape into his own inner world. If ever you want to break off a conversation for any reason, what better way than to make the other person launch into a monologue. It's a way to leave the stage quietly, without hurting anyone. But all too aware of his methods, I knew that that attitude was a basic part of his arsenal of seduction: always make the other person feel he or she is important. Even at the risk of inflating that person's ego far more than was reasonable. Whenever you talked to him, he knew how to make you feel that you were someone he highly respected, the person who, at that moment in time, counted most in the world to him. That was the way he dealt with the fatuous and pompous, leading them down the garden path, assuming they were blind enough not to see through his little stratagems. But that was also the way he gave confidence to so many people who were shy or unsure of themselves.
"Eighteen years," he said. "That's a long time. But you'll see. Nothing has changed here. No, that is not quite true. The she-ass died, and I've replaced her. But aside from that, everything's the same. Power didn't make me rich. Look around, you can see for yourself."
He gestured broadly, the kind of gesture an innocent man makes when the police have arrived to look for proof of his guilt. "Go ahead, search the place. Empty all the drawers, you'll find nothing." But I did not respond. Even though he didn't disdain money when he had it, far from it, I knew full well that he really didn't like it, that he was sincere when he declared, at one of his party's conventions, that "money is the root of all evil." And when he denounced money, in that wonderfully convincing voice of his, I knew he meant what he said. Money did corrupt. In any event, maybe to prove the point, he made sure never to carry any money on him. That is doubtless why he never paid the bill when he went out to a restaurant. I take that back: when he went out with women he sometimes did. But only once in a very great while.
"I'm still living on the same modest scale," he went on, pointing to the peasant shirt he was wearing.
True. But he wasn't the type to enjoy the external trappings of wealth. If he had been a millionaire, he still would have lived as a miser. Like most of us, he preferred to amass money for his family rather than display it for all the world to see.
"You haven't changed he said with an ironic smile.
It wasn't true of course, but I refrained from slipping into the cliched response, "You haven't either," because it would have been patently false. Death had already inscribed itself on the face of this man who had seduced so many women. Death had also robbed him of his smile. Above all, death had already done its foul work on his eyes, from whose depths there welled a strange look, the look of the drowned, the look I remembered seeing in my mother's eyes when she finally stopped battling the cancer that was devouring her. His teeth were gray and looked as if they were on the verge of falling out. I thought back to something he had said to me many years before, as we were seated at a cafe in the Latin Quarter of Paris, watching the people passing by, hurrying to wherever they were heading, as city dwellers are in the habit of doing.
"One day, time has to stop," he mused, addressing himself to no one in particular. "I've always dreamed of that. A time when no one moves, when everything is frozen for all eternity. One could enjoy life better if time were to stop."
He still had not enjoyed life to the full, not enough in any case to satisfy him. The more he tried to, the more it eluded him.
"What do you say we go for a walk in the woods," he said.
Saying which, he turned on his heel and headed off. And as he suspected, I followed faithfully behind.
Excerpted from Dying Without God by Franz-Olivier Giesbert Copyright © 1999 by Franz-Olivier Giesbert. Excerpted by permission.
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