It's a strange, sad, funny, little story set in Queneau's home town of Le Havre at a time (about 1917) when the Allies and Germans had not yet thought of bombing it into modernity. From Queneau's description Le Havre was still a bourgeois little place with vast docks attached, swarming with Canadian, British, Serbian and other unlikely troops dedicated to getting the Germans out of France - indeed, the opening scene depicts the parade through the town of a newly arrived Chinese contingent.
Nobody knows what the Chinese are doing in Le Havre or where they came from, but everyone turns out to watch in amazement, and listen to their "King of Siam music". ("So called," adds Queneau, "because when the little King of Siam had come on a visit to France and been taken to a concert, what he liked best had been the bit at the beginning where the violins and other instruments were all tuning up...")
The action, such as it is, involves the hopeless passion of one Bernard Lehameau for an English WAAC girl in uniform called Helena Weeds, but most of the time the characters drift around discussing the war's progress. At one point Lehameau says: "Everyone knows what the different combatants want out of the war. The French just want to reconquer Alsace-Lorraine. The Germans want to conquer the world. Well, you have to admit that the Germans do have a loftier aim ..."
This made me smile when I read it, but it also stuck in my mind. Was it true then? Is there a relic of truth in it now? Do nations still dream of conquest? Do the British still dream at night of the pink-blotched atlas of the world?
Having thought about it long and hard, I think I may have stumbled nearer the truth. Every nation still wants to rule the world. It's just that they want to rule it in a different way, in a way which reflects their national character, or at least in a way which gives them a chance of winning.
The British long to beat everyone at football. The Japanese want to have a monopoly of the world's electronic gadgets. The Americans want to be the world's sheriff, the world's good guy. The Swedes long to have the world's lowest suicide rates, or at least the most reliable cars. The Irish want to be the most charming nation in the world. The French...
You may have noticed that all these ambitions are unrealisable, but none more so than that of the French, because their ambition is to be the cultural champions of the world, taking in cooking, cinema, art, wine, style, everything. That is why the French raise such Cain about the contamination of their language, their film industry, their cuisine, and so on.
You don't get the Germans screaming blue murder about the Americanisation of their films, or of their cooking. They don't rate themselves that highly in those areas to begin with. You don't get German food guides coming over to Britain and handing out rosettes to British restaurants, as Michelin does, with the British press agog at each fresh bit of praise handed out to our cooking...
I may be wrong. There may be German food guides run by German tyre companies, there may be the equivalent of Herr Gault and Herr Millau coming over here and dispensing German laurels to our eating places. What is significant is that if there are, we have not heard of them. We would not give a fig for a German rosette hanging outside an English restaurant (and, to be honest, vice versa). What we prize is the Michelin award and the Gault- Millau mention and the membership of Les Routiers.
What that means is that we have come to accept the French at their own valuation. We have come to agree that the French really are world arbiters of taste when it comes to cooking, even though you cannot find a discerning British holiday maker who has not recently had an awful meal in a restaurant in France. (I have had two or three in the last month.)
And the reason for this agreement on French superiority may be that the French are world champions at one thing above all else - not cooking or films or wine but publicity and marketing. In other words, at persuading people that they are the bee's knees when in fact they are nothing of the sort.
Tomorrow we ask the question: Are the French the world's best con-artists?Reuse content