Clos Joli continued to prosper, but Marcellin Duprat came to be seen in an increasingly bad light: he was reproached by many for serving the occupying forces too well. As for our comrades in the resistance, they loathed him. For my part, I knew him better and came to his defence, while my friends called him a boot-licker and a collaborator. The truth was that, with the senior German officers and all the elite of Paris patronising the fashionable places from the start of the occupation, Duprat made his choice. His restaurant must remain what it always had been: one of the high spots of France, and he, Marcellin Duprat, each day awaited his opportunity to show the enemy the one thing that could not be defeated. But while the Germans offered him their patronage and protection, his point of view was poorly understood and severely judged. I myself witnessed a contretemps at Petit-Gris, where Duprat, having stopped to buy a lighter, was confronted by M. Mazier the solicitor. He said to him straight out "You should be ashamed of yourself, Duprat. While the whole of France eats swedes, you treat the Germans to truffles and liver pâté. You know what people round here call your menu at Clos Joli? The menu of shame!"
Duprat stiffened. He had always had something of the military in his physique, with his face which hardened in a moment, his tight lips under his little moustache, and his steel-blue eyes.
"You can go to hell, Mazier, if you're such a bloody fool that you don't understand what I try to do, while the rest of France does damn all."
"And what exactly is it you're trying to do, you old bastard?"
Never had I heard such language from a solicitor.
"I maintain the tradition", snarled Duprat.
"Tradition? What tradition? That of clams in puff pastry with chervil? That of lobster soup and buttered vegetables? That of turbot and leek fondue, red mullet fried with thyme flowers? The youth of France is rotting in prison camps, that is, the ones that escape being shot, and you... mousse of sole with butter and fine herbs! Salad of crayfish tails! Last Thursday you served the occupier with turban of lobster and veal rice, sea food saveloys, with truffles and pistachios, and with mousse of white liver and bilberries..."
He took out his handkerchief and wiped his lips - I believe his mouth was watering so much.
Duprat paused a good moment. There was quite a crowd at the counter: Gente, the Ponts and the Chaussées, the shopkeeper Dumas, and one of the Loubereau brothers, arrested several weeks later.
"Listen to me carefully you son of a bitch" he said eventually in a low voice. "Our politicians have betrayed us, our generals have shown themselves up as noodle-brained, but the great French cuisine will be defended to the last by those who carry that responsibility. And for the future..." He impaled them with his gaze. "It's not Germany, nor America, nor England that's going to win this war! It's not Churchill nor Roosevelt nor anyone else who might speak to us from London! I can tell you who's going to win the war: it's Duprat at his Clos Joli, it's Pic at Valence, it's Point at Vienne, it's Dumaine at Salieu! That's all I've got to say to you, you bastards!"
Never have I seen such an expression of stupour on the faces of four Frenchmen. Duprat threw a few coins on the counter and put the lighter in his pocket. Once more he eyed them up and down, and left.
When I related the incident to Amroise Fleury, he made a sign with his head to show that he understood. "Someone else cracked up by misfortune then".
That evening, the Clos Joli van pulled up outside our house. Duprat came to seek solace with his best friend. At first, the two men exchanged not a word as they sat contemplating their calvados, with deeply serious faces. It was quite a different man seated before me to the one I had seen some hours previously at Petit-Gris. Marcellin's face appeared ravaged and pale, no longer with any trace of the self-will I had seen earlier.
"You know what one of my customers said to me the other day? He smiled, got up from his table, and declared 'Herr Duprat, with the German army and the French cuisine, we'll build Europe together! One Europe, with Germany as the force, and France the flavour! You will give to the future Europe what she expects from France, and we will do our part so that the whole of France can become one big Clos Joli!' And he added 'Do you know what the German army did when it arrived at the Maginot Line ? It marched straight on! And do you know what it did when it arrived outside Clos Joli? It stopped!' And he laughed like a drain."
For the first time, I saw tears in Duprat's eyes.
"Come then", said my uncle gently. "I can see that the knell will often be tolled with such words as those... we'll win in the end."
Duprat took hold of himself and his eyes regained their famous iron-grey sparkle. I imagined I saw in them a gleam of who knows what cruel irony. "It seems that people are saying in America and England that France has disappeared without trace. Well then, let them come to Clos Joli and see if France is still alive!"
"That's more like it" said my uncle, refilling his friend's glass. And they sat there and smiled at each other.
"As for me, I'm not one of those who complain and say they don't know what the future holds for France. I know full well. And I know full well that there will always be a France in the Michelin Guide!"
My uncle had to accompany him home. I believe that it was from that day that I understood the despair and fury, yet the faithfulness of Marcellin Duprat, that good old Norman mixture of artfulness and hidden fire, a fire of which he spoke to me on another occasion as "our ultimate ancestor". Anyway, when the question arose in March 1942 of putting Clos Joli to the torch, not without some justification as a place where all the key collaborators sought to ingratiate themselves at the occupier's table, I opposed it vehemently.
There were five of us at the meeting, among them, M. Pinder, with whom I had talked at length and who had promised to do what he could to restrain the hotheads. Also there were Guédard, who was starting to establish clandestine landing strips in the West, Jombey, aggressive and nervous as if with forebodings of the tragic end which was to overtake him, Sénéchal, a primary school teacher from Caen, and finally Vigier, who had come down from Paris to study the "Duprat case" with the local leaders, and then to take the necessary decisions. We met in Guédard's house on the second floor, just over the road from the restaurant. The Mercedes of the generals and the black Citroëns of the Gestapo and their French colleagues were lined up outside the inn. Jombey stood by the window, the curtains open a crack.
"It cannot be tolerated" he repeated. "For two years, Duprat has been giving an image of servility, and prostituting himself to the enemy. It's insufferable. That 'cook' surpasses himself to delight the Boshe and the traitors."
He moved to the table and opened the Duprat "dossier".
"As we were saying: the proofs of his collaboration with the enemy. Listen!"
We hardly needed to listen. We knew the "proofs" by heart. Terrine of congar in emerald sauce served to Otto Abetz, Hitler's ambassador in Paris, and his friends. Marcellin Durat Special Fantasy Dish served to Fernand de Brinon, Paris ambassador of the Vichy regime, shot in 1945. Crayfish in Puff Pastry with Asparagus Spears, and Mousse of White Liver, served to Laval in person, accompanied by his cohort from Vichy. Old French Hotpot, served to Grüber and his French Gestapo aides. And the twenty or thirty of the finest works of the "best chef of France", in which General von Tiele, new commander of the German army in Normandy had celebrated the victor's pleasure in the course of a single week, the month previous. The wine list alone was witness enough of Duprat's eagerness to offer the occupier the best which French soil could offer.
"But listen to this" growled Jombey. "He could at least have hidden his best bottles for the Allies, when they arrive! But no. Everything is delivered, everything is given... all is sold! From the château-margaux 1928 to the château-latour 1934, and even a château-yquem 1921!"
Sénéchal was seated on the bed, caressing his large golden spaniel. I always try to revive in my memory, be it only the colour of its coat, that creature which a few months later was no more.
"I met Duprat a week ago" he said. "He was on his way back from a tour of the farms, the back of his van packed with stuff. He was sporting a black eye. 'Loot!' he called out. 'Listen, monsieur Duprat, that's not loot, and well you know it. Don't you have any shame at all?' He gritted his teeth. 'Hold on young chap. I thought you were a good Frenchman.' 'And what, in your opinion, is a good Frenchman in these times?' 'Well then, I was just coming to that, since you don't seem to know. As for the rest of them, it hardly surprises me if they don't know. But you, have you even forgotten your history? A good Frenchman, according to the times, is one who acquits himself well.'"
"I was flabbergasted" he continued. "There was he, running his van with petrol provided by the occupier, with the best produce of the French soil for the Germans, and he was talking to me of those who 'acquit themselves well'. 'And to acquit yourself well is what, for you?' I demanded. 'It's not giving in, it's not bending the neck, it's keeping faith with that which has made France great... there!' He showed me his hands. 'My grandfather and my father laboured for the great French cuisine, and the great French cuisine has not been defeated. Indeed, it will never know defeat so long as there's a Duprat to defend it, against the Germans, against the Americans, against I don't care who! I know what you think of me, and I've heard enough of it. That I bend over backwards to please the Germans. Tell me, damn it, does the curé of Notre Dame prevent the Germans from kneeling down? In twenty or thirty years, France will see that it's people like Pic, Dumaine, Duprat and the like who have saved the essentials. One day the whole of France will come here in pilgrimage, and it's the names of great artisans of cuisine who will carry the message of the greatness of our land to the four corners of the world! One day, young man, be it Germany, be it America or be it Russia that wins the war, this country will find itself in such a pigsty that it has nothing left to lead it but the Michelin Guide, and even that won't be enough. I'm telling you, that's when you'll see the real guides!'"
Sénéchal fell silent. "He's a desperate case" I said. "You have to remember, he's of the 14-18 generation."
He smiled at me. "A bit like you uncle, with his kites."
"I do believe Duprat has finished caring about anything else" added Vigier, "so he devotes body and soul to the one thing left to him, his love for, and his faith in his profession. To the point of derision."
M. Pinder appeared embarrassed. "Duprat has a certain idea of France" he murmured.
"What?" shouted Jombey. "Monsieur Pinder, how can you say such a thing?"
"Calm down, old chap. After all we have to look at this hypothesis..."
M. Pinder continued thoughtfully: "And what if Duprat is a visionary? What if he sees further than most? What if he does indeed see the future?"
"Don't understand" growled Jombey.
"Of all of us, perhaps it's Duprat who sees the future of our land most clearly. And whilst we might all be killed, and the Germans might be defeated, it might all end in a great culinary victory. You could put it like this: who round here is ready to put his life on the line that France might become the Clos Joli of Europe?"
"Duprat" I replied.
"For love or for hatred?" demanded Guédard.
"It seems to me that the two go together" I replied. "Spare the rod and spoil the child, as they say. I believe if he could return to the trenches of 14-18, rifle in hand, he could make us understand what he has on his heart."
Jombey had returned to the window. "Come and look at this!" he said.
We moved over to join him. We were four faces looking out, three young and one old. The curtains were of light cotton with yellow roses. As we watched, some men were leaving the inn. There was Grüber, chief of the Gestapo, two of his French colleagues, Marle and Dennier, and a group of airmen, among whom I recognised Hans.
"A bomb down there" said Jombey, "and we could burn Clos Joli to a cinder."
"Such an attack would cost the population much too dear in reprisals" I offered.
I felt ill at ease. I understood Marcellin well, that mixture of despair, of sincerity, of show, of craftiness and of authenticity in his fidelity to his vocation, which transcended by far the futility of it all. I had no doubt that in the anger and frustration of a veteran of the 14-18 war, the great French cuisine had become for him the last stand. He had a deliberate blindness, which was, from another point of view, a piece of driftwood for a man to cling to so as not to sink in a sea of despair. Obviously, he wasn't going to build a cathedral of his pâté en croûte, but having been brought up amongst the kites of that "crazy Fleury", I felt a tenderness for all that allowed such a man to give of his best.
"I know it sounds like madness, but don't forget that three generations of Duprat, even before Marcellin, have devoted themselves to the cuisine. He's been deeply traumatised by the defeat, and by the collapse of all he believed in, and he has committed body and soul to what remains."
"Yes, galopiau de volaille à la sauce Pédauque " muttered Jombey. You don't care a toss about any of our people, Fleury."
I had a plan ready, which I had already shared with Sénéchal.
"Instead of destroying Clos Joli, we must make use of it to serve our purposes. With a glass or two of wine, the Germans talk much and very freely over a meal. We must plant someone in the restaurant who understands German and can give us information. It's information, far more than acts of sabotage, that London demands of us."
I also spelled out the risk of reprisals, and it was decided to defer any action. I knew, however, that sooner or later, if I failed to prove Duprat's usefulness, Clos Joli would surely be torched.
-- oOo --