A POEM ABOUT TRUTH
May 18, 1944. At Hitler's war conference he is told that
the enemy has carried out two spy operations during the night on the heavily
defended French coastline. At one place, near Calais, German troops have
found an orange peel, an empty flask and a shovel lying on the beach. Years
later they would say that they also found a landscape painted on driftwood,
a finely crafted home made flute and a dagger. In the estuary of the river
Somme, two British commandos were discovered in the late afternoon. "They
came ashore in a rubber raft," General Jodl, chief of Wehrmach operations,
tells Hitler. "They claim to know nothing."
The scene changes to a French restaurant once frequented by Napoleon. The
restaurant serves excellent Italian fare. Three nights have passed. A stout
German woman makes pasta in the kitchen. Two French chefs argue about how
to make croissants. They are smoking cigarets and sipping wine. They know
that Hitler is a madman, but it does not affect their cooking. The taller
chef, thinnest of the two, is also a writer. At night he composes poetry
in the same way that a garden produces flowers. The effect is dazzling.
His mother also was a poet, as was his grandfather. He does not believe
in war or death. He is restless, anxious about love, and lives alone. If
he had a lover, he knows that he would write less poetry, since he writes
only to fill his piteous empty hours. When he reads his poems, he cries,
then burns them. He is brutally honest with himself.
The following evening he overhears a Nazi under-lieutenant commenting on
Britain's secret operations. He seizes the opportunity to become part of
an adventure. He never again sees his home. Later that night the chef is
captured in a forbidden zone near the Seine whereupon he fakes an English
accent and says he is a spy. He is blindfolded and driven to a chateau where
he must stand before Rommel. He makes up a story about a wife and daughter
in Britain. The details are vivid, but Rommel loses interest and orders
him to be shot. That night he writes a poem about the event and leaves it
in his cell. The German officer who reads it laughs at the insipid rhymes
and melancholy metaphors. He shares it with his friend who notices that
the word "mayhap" is misapplied and that "appenage"
would have been a better choice of words than "freehold."
By week's end a hundred eyes have beheld the poem. Many jokes are made of
it. Heinrich (we do not know his last name), a company agent from Stuttgart,
makes a copy of the poem, then translates it into German. In the translation
he improves the meter and resolves the problematic third stanza. He sends
it to his mother who does not understand it, but keeps it in a small wooden
box on the bureau next to a framed photo of the Fuhrer.
It is possible the original poem is still in existence somewhere, but no
one knows for certain. My cousin, who married a German woman, says that
her father saw the poem, the original version, and remembers that it was
called Truth Is A Fire That Burns. We do not know if this was the same poem,
or if he saw the poem at all. After the war many German soldiers say they
saw the poem, and many more say they made copies of it to send to the Fatherland.
We know that most of them are lying. Over the years versions have appeared
in journals, some superior to others, all of them improvements on the original.
I have seen it thrice in English literary journals -- once, I believe, in
the Antioch Review, though it may have been one of the other college publications
that begin with an A. Someone told me that it has been translated into 57
languages. In Thailand, the mountain peoples now say that it is the Word
No one remembers the French chef who gave his life to produce the poem.
His unknown name has been swallowed up by history, but his poem lives on
in human hearts.
- 30 -
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