Miranda Richmond Mouillot is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her fluid and resourceful translation of The Kites, by Romain Gary. Set in Normandy during the Occupation, The Kites is a love story that draws on Gary’s own experience of World War II. Published shortly before Gary’s suicide, in 1980, this is the haunting last work by one of the great novelists of the twentieth century. Read Mouillot’s essay on translating The Kites here.
The Clos Joli continued to prosper, but Marcellin Duprat’s reputation began to suffer locally; he was accused of serving the occupier too well, and as for our comrades, they hated him cordially. I knew him better than that, and defended him when my friends called him a bootlicker or a collabo. Truth be told, Duprat had made up his mind as soon as the occupation began and German superior officers and the entire Parisian elite began packing his “galleries” and his “rotunda.” His restaurant must remain what it always had been: one of France’s proudest places, and he, Marcellin Duprat, intended to give a demonstration to the enemy every day of something that could not be defeated. But since the Germans felt at home there, and were unstinting in their protection of him, his attitude was misunderstood and harshly judged. I myself observed an altercation at the Petit-Gris, when Duprat stopped to buy a tinder lighter and was taken aside by Monsieur Mazier, the solicitor, who did not mince words:
“You should be ashamed, Duprat. The whole nation’s eating rutabaga and you’re treating the Germans to truffles and foie gras. You know what we call the menu of your Clos Joli around here? The menu of shame.”
Duprat stiffened. There had always been something military in his physique, with that face, which could harden all at once, the lips clenched beneath the little gray mustache and the eyes blue as steel.
“The hell with you, Mazier. If you’re too stupid to understand what I’m trying to do, then France really is screwed.”
“And what exactly are you doing, you old jackass?” No one had ever heard that kind of legal jargon before.
“I’m holding down the fort,” growled Duprat.
“What fort? Fort Scallops Chervil? Fort Lobster Soup? Fort Turbot with Cream of Leek and Sautéed Mullet with Thyme Blossoms? France’s young men are rotting away in prison camps—that is, when they’re not being shot to death, and you… Mousse de sol au beurre de fines herbes! Salade de queues d’écrevisses! Last Thursday, you served the occupying forces lobster rolls with sweetbreads, shellfish saveloy with truffle and pistachio, and Bresse chicken liver mousse with cranberries…” He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his lips. I believe his mouth was watering.
Duprat waited a good long moment. There was a crowd at the bar: Gente, the civil engineer; Dumas, the owner; and one of the Loubereau brothers, who would be arrested a few weeks later.
“Listen carefully, you asshole,” Duprat said finally, in a low voice. “Our politicians have betrayed us, our generals turned out to be fools, but France’s great cuisine will be defended to the death by those responsible for it. And as for the future…”
He shot them all a glare.
“Who’s going to win the war? Not Germany, not America, not England! Not Churchill, not Roosevelt, not that other guy, what’s his name, the one who’s always talking to us from London! The war will be won by Duprat and his Clos Joli, by Pic in Valence, by Point in Vienne, by Dumaine in Saulieu! That’s all I have to say to you, assholes!”
I think that it was on that day I understood the desperation and the fury, but also the fidelity of Marcellin Duprat, that very Norman mix of ingenuity and hidden fire, the fire he had once told me was “our common ancestor.” In any case, in March 1942, when the idea of fire came up with regard to the Clos Joli—specifically of setting fire to it and all the collaborationist upper crust jostling for a seat at the occupier’s table there, I protested vehemently.
“I know it sounds ridiculous to you, but don’t forget that the Duprat name belonged to three generations of chefs before Marcellin. He was deeply traumatized by the defeat—everything he believed in collapsed, and he’s devoted himself body and soul to what’s left.”
“Yeah, asshat of veal in bugger sauce,” Jombey shouted. “What do you take us for, Fleury?”
I had a plan already, and I had talked it over ahead of time with Sénéchal.
“We have to use the Clos Joli, not destroy it. Once the wine starts flowing, the Germans always talk when they’re at the table, and very freely. We have to plant someone in the restaurant who knows German and who can pass us information. Information, that’s what London’s asking us for, a whole lot more than flashy actions.”
I also brought up the risk of reprisals against the local population, and it was decided that we would hold off on the action. But I know that sooner or later, if I couldn’t prove to our comrades that Duprat could be useful to us, the Clos Joli would go up in flames.
⨳ ⨳ ⨳
I spent a few days racking my brain. Sénéchal’s fiancée, Suzanne Dulac, had a degree in German, but I still couldn’t figure out how to get Duprat to take her on.
For the past few months, I had been in charge of coordinating the safe houses for the escape route that funneled downed Allied pilots out through Spain. One evening, one of the Buis brothers alerted me that a Free French pilot had been found and hidden at their farm. The Buis family kept him for a week while things cooled off, and when the Germans slacked off with their patrols around the downed plane, they called for me.
I found the pilot sitting at the kitchen table in front of a plate of tripe. His name was Lucchesi. So at ease was he, with his red polka-dotted scarf around his neck and the Cross of Lorraine insignia on his Air Force blue battledress, he looked to have spent his entire life tumbling out of the sky.
“Tell me, sir, is there a good inn around here I could recommend to my squadron mates? We’re losing four or five pilots a month, so if any come down around here…”
That’s when it came to me. I had to stow the pilot for at least eight days before I could arrange for his passage to Spain.
My uncle accompanied me to the Clos Joli late the next evening. I found Duprat plunged in somber thought, in the company of his son, Lucien. Radio Vichy was on full blast, and there was plenty to be upset about. The British merchant fleet was no more, the Afrika Korps was closing in on Cairo, the Italian Army had occupied Greece… never before had I seen Marcellin Duprat so preoccupied by bad news. Only when he started talking did I realize my error. The master of the Clos Joli had simply forgotten to turn off the radio. He was meditating on something quite different from such ephemera.
“The Tournedos Rossini… myself, I never wanted it on my menu. Another thing Escoffier left us with. He was a con artist. You know what a Tournedos Rossini is? Trick of the eye, that’s what. Escoffier invented it because there were so many questionable steaks. So he’d just slap something on to make them go down easier. Foie gras, truffles à la brune—distracts the tongue. That’s pretty much where we are with politics now: a Tournedos Rossini. Tricks of the tongue. The product is rotten, so they slather it in lies and pretty talk. The more eloquence they pile on, the cleverer they get, the surer you can be that it’s rotten inside. Personally, I never could stomach Escoffier. You know what he called frogs’ legs? ‘Nymph wings à l’aurore’…”
Two American aircraft carriers downed in the Pacific… three hundred English bombers shot down by German pilots in the past two nights…
Duprat’s eyes were slightly glazed. “It can’t go on like this,” he went on. “Everything’s becoming a show. Take presentation. That has got to end. The future is in plated food. But no one ever listens to me. Even Point refuses to admit that presentation goes against nature. The dish always loses its spontaneity, its truth, its moment, in the presentation. It has to come out fully real in the plate, straight from the fire. And that Vannier, the nerve of him, telling me that only cheap places send food out from the kitchen already plated. Where’s the taste in all that? That’s what counts, the taste, seared in its moment of truth, the moment when the flesh and the flavor blossom together—you have to seize that moment, you can’t let it get away…”
Hundreds of thousands of prisoners on the Russian front … vigorous police reprisals against traitors and saboteurs … in England, twelve villages razed in a single night…
It hit me that Duprat was talking to keep himself together; that he was, in his own way, fighting discouragement and despair.
“Hello there, Marcellin,” my uncle said.
Duprat stood and went to shut off the radio. “What do you want from me at this hour?”
“The kid has something to say to you. It’s private.”
We left the room. He listened to us in silence.
“No way. I fully support the Resistance and I’ve proved it well enough by standing firm in these impossible conditions. But I can’t receive an allied aviator under the Germans’ noses. They’ll shut me down.”
My uncle lowered his voice a little. “It’s not just any aviator, Marcellin. It’s General de Gaulle’s aide-de-camp.”
Duprat was struck with a kind of paralysis. If a monument is ever raised to the man who held the rudder of the Clos Joli with a steady hand through the storm, that’s how I imagine he’ll be immortalized, in a square in Cléry, his gaze steely, his jaws clenched. I do believe he felt a certain rivalry with France’s greatest Resistance fighter.
He thought about it. I sensed he was both tempted and hesitant. My uncle observed him out of the corner of his eye, which betrayed a hint of mischief.
“That’s all very nice,” he said at last, “but your De Gaulle is in London, and I’m here. I’m the one who has to face the hardships day to day. Not him.” He struggled for another moment. I knew it was a question of vanity, but I also knew that the profoundness it was hiding in the challenge had a more than a bit of grandeur to it. “I’m not risking everything I’ve salvaged so your man can come here. It’s too dangerous. Risking closure to make a splash, no. But I can do better than that. I’m going to give you the Clos Joli menu. Your man can take it to De Gaulle.”
I stood there, dumbfounded. In the dark, Duprat’s tall, white silhouette resembled some kind of avenging spirit. My uncle Ambrose remained speechless for a moment, too, but when Duprat returned to his kitchen he muttered, “We may be loose cannons, but that one there is the whole artillery.”
For a while now, the rumble of English bombers had been melding with the fire from German anti-aircraft guns, the every night voice of the Normandy countryside. The searchlights crossed their rapiers above our heads. And then a flare of orange burst a hole in the sky: an airplane had been hit and was blowing up with its bombs.
Duprat returned. In his hand was the Clos Joli menu. A few bombs fell in the direction of Bursières. “Here you go. Listen. This is a personal message to De Gaulle from Marcellin Duprat…” To drown out the voice of the German anti-aircraft cannons, he raised his own.
Soupe crémière d’écrevisses de rivière
Galette feuilletée aux truffes au vin de Graves…
Loup à la compotée de tomates…
He read us the entire menu du jour, from the foi gras in pepper jelly with its warm potato salad in white wine all the way to the white peach with Pomerol granita. The allied bombers rumbled overhead and Marcellin Duprat’s voice trembled a little. From time to time, he stopped and swallowed hard. I think he was a little afraid.
Near the Etrilly rail line, a fracas of bombs made the ground shake.
Duprat went silent and wiped his forehead. He handed me the menu. “Here. Give it to your pilot. So De Gaulle remembers what it’s like. So he knows what he’s fighting for.” The projectors continued their fencing match in the sky and the toque of the best chef in France seemed surrounded by flashes of lightning. “I don’t kill Germans,” he added. “I crush them.”
“You talk out of your ass, is mostly what you do,” my uncle observed kindly.
“You think so, do you? We’ll see about that. We’ll see who has the last word, De Gaulle or my Clos Joli.”
“There’s nothing wrong with French cuisine winning the day. As long as it doesn’t win out over all the rest,” my uncle said. “I just read about the winners of a contest that a newspaper organized. The subject was ‘What should we do with the Jews?’ First prize went to a young lady who answered, ‘Roast them.’ No doubt with all this rationing she’s just an intrepid little cook dreaming about a nice roast. Whatever the case may be, one shouldn’t judge a country by what it does with its Jews: the Jews have always been judged by what’s done to them.”
“Well, shit, then,” Duprat burst out. “Bring him to me, your aviator. And for heaven’s sake, don’t think I’m doing this to make things right with the future. I have nothing to worry about in that regard. Any German with a shred of sense who sets foot in the Clos Joli can see he’s dealing with supremacy, with historical invincibility. The other day, Grüber himself dined here. And when he finished, do you know what he said to me? ‘Herr Duprat, you should be shot.”
This translation is available for publication.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.