Joie de Vivre
Author's note: Several weeks ago, our school participated in a program called "The Big Read". All of the... Show full author's note »
—Paris, 4th of January, 1898—Le Belle Epoque. The beautiful era. The aroma is pleasant, and the sweetness of the times is manifested in the corners of the city’s lips. Paris is blessed. But my lips remained untouched, unfulfilled by the beauty around me. Some considered me one of the lucky ones. One of the more fortunate. One of those who had survived to savor the joy and wonder surrounding me. Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps I smiled less because I was the soldier who had never fought.
I am known as Yves Bonaparte, and Bonaparte meant more to me than one would ordinarily imagine. I shared a name with the Great Napolean Bonaparte—the great hero of France. Our so-called leader—Pierre Waldeck-Rosseau, prime minister—was nothing. Great Napolean was our leader, for France actually had somewhere to follow him to. But where had Waldeck-Rosseau led us? What had he done for France other than keep it the way it was? To sustain is not to lead.
Time had always transpired slowly, but in recent days there had been no relief to the vapidity of everyday life. Every day seemed like a monotonous and redundant pattern—it was almost as if I was stuck in one part of my life, a broken phonographe playing the same day over and over again. I recall it to be Albert Einstein who insinuated that time is relative not only to space, but to the condition of life—“When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.” Perhaps excitement in itself is such a red-hot cinder. Perhaps when you are excited for the future, you are never content with the present.
This sudden deceleration of time was due mostly to something that had occurred several days before—the exact length of time is at this moment unclear since I lost track of days in my utter boredom. A rumour had suddenly sprouted among the men that we were called to fight in Africa, and from that day forth there was no end to my keenness. I eagerly and nervously awaited the call to action, the fulfillment of the prophecy. Days were weeks to me, and weeks may have very well passed before I no longer felt the apprehension. I have no patience, but what little patience I had was tested again and again as I anticipated the confirmation of the rumour, as I anticipated the march.
However many days passed eventually, and I soon found myself in a broken system. When I woke up, it was not yet dawn, and the trumpet played a strange tune. The encampment was unusually congested on that day, many soldiers crowded around the tall, shining pole. I stared up at the top—the point we always ensured was the highest point in the entire camp. The flag of France. I recall a story of the fleur-de-lis, when a man was asked to lead France. The man had a particularly long name and many titles, but all I remember of it was that he was called Henri, Comte de Chambord . France offered him the throne and requested that he be their king. However, he was then denied the right to preside over the country since he requested that the tri-colour flag—blue, white, and red—be lowered and the flag with the fleur-de-lis be raised instead. A rather stupid decision, I must say—a flag represents a country. I honestly believe that whatever some proud and powerful leader, or overzealous fanatic, puts on the flag, whatever the symbols on the flag represent, the flag itself shall always represent France. The motherland. Home.
I despised seeing that flag waving when I stood on Parisian soil without a gun on my shoulder. I felt like an obnoxious, boisterous child playing soldier. I needed to see war. I needed to know that I have really fought for my country rather than staying back in the country, “just in case”. Awaiting the first battle, awaiting my first deployment, waiting—I joined the army to be a soldier. Not a boy waiting for the men to come home. I wanted to fight for the motherland, not watch as other men do it instead. I wanted to be a man. But knowing that I would be made it even worse, for I abhorred waiting. I couldn’t stand being idle, to have a future but no present.
I cut through the crowd of men until I could see, for I was never a tall person, much like the great leader I idolized so. The discord and vivaciousness surrounding me was quite uncharacteristic of the men—the camarades I knew so well. It was ridiculous—even pathetic—many of these boisterous men had been in the army for years. One would expect them to know to act maturely. To act like soldiers.
Standing where I was, I caught glimpses of two messengers from between the wave-like movement of the men in front of me, bringing tidings from battle. Even them I envied. Even they were at the front lines, even they experienced the thrill of war.
They stood at the base of the towering flag pole in the center of the camp, a tall man with one distinctly bulky arm and one slightly less muscular, accompanied by a man of average height, slim, but still visibly strong enough to be a soldier. Their legs were lean, most probably from running as far as they often did, and they wore lighter, sleeveless uniforms.
Despite the calming hollers of the senior officers (one major problem with our superiors was that they had no idea how to deal with a crowd), it still took several seconds for the men to settle down enough for the messengers to speak. Soon, the unsettling waves of the men became light currents of movement; the men, for some reason or another, still found the need to sway. Once the calm had lasted for several moments, the taller one straightened his back, cleared his throat, and then shouted powerfully into the ocean of men in a distinct but slightly indecipherable Corsican accent of French, “Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand has requested another set of troops to arrive at Le Nil!”
The wave of men started moving more violently again, but soon calmed down as people looked back up at the messengers and realized they had more to say. The tall man took a deep breath, and then continued once more, “He expects them there in several months at which time he himself should be arriving there!”
With that, the man saluted the crowd, and the men saluted back in a staggered wave. I stood motionless for several seconds. I had known that we were being called to fight, but not in Africa—not to fight in the mad dash for Fashoda! As I recalled, Le Nil was in Eastern Africa. A surge of relief flooded my body. The rumours were true. Suddenly, the slight anxiety I had felt before spiked into true excitement—burning, wild passion—and I felt an irrepressible need to smile. I was to be a soldier. I was to be a true soldier.
Most of the men surely shared the same uncontrollable emotion. There were some whoops, and several men actually threw their caps into the air. There was great shifting and motion among them; I recollect that it reminded me of a school of fish darting away from sharks. Utter chaos.
It came to my attention that some of the men seemed not to be too thrilled. In fact, they seemed almost morose—melancholy, I should say. I pondered on whether or not to investigate, but decided against it. Perhaps they were simply shocked. It was possible that some had simply never heard rumour of our mission, and would soon drown in the same overwhelming emotion that the other men had already experienced once their shock wore off. Something was still wrong, but I forced myself not to think about it. Being human, after all, I feared the unknown.
The two messengers started climbing down from where they stood and left for the barracks, craving rest after a long journey. It occurred to me that we wouldn’t be able to meet Marchand at the Nile as he had a huge head start, but I reminded myself that he was carrying about a hundred tons of supplies. We didn’t need to carry anything, for what we didn’t have strapped to our shoulders and backs Marchand’s men were hauling across East Africa anyway.
We scrambled into our barracks, trembling enthusiastically like les chiens petits . There was a pressing need to be quick, and everything we needed was packed in minutes, the life of a soldier was minimalistic. With our weapons slung on our backs, we soon lined up in the encampment, the large, green-hued tents around us totally empty. War was my new home. I knew it to be where I belonged, fighting beside my fellow soldiers for Paris, for la République .
Marquis Amoux de Sauveterre, leader of my company, stood before us. He attempted to keep his face stern as a military officer should, but he had in his eyes the exhilaration that had washed over us all. After all, he was young, a great leader, but a zealot all the same. Just as so many of the men were. Just as I was.
He began speaking fluently in French. “Vous le entendîtes! ” We needed nothing more. A cheer rose among the men, and our march began. We set off to the Nile with “La Marseillaise”, the beautiful national anthem, and we sang it—chanted it, rather—in total unison. Indeed, there was no tune at all, and the rhythm slowly changed to match only our footsteps. It was our anthem. We could do what we wanted with it, for it was the soldiers that kept it alive.