August 2, 2021

“Monsieur Romain Gary”, by Kerwin Spire: the pivotal years across the Atlantic

“Mr. Romain Gary. Consul General of France – 1919 Outpost Drive – Los Angeles 28, California ”, by Kerwin Spire, Gallimard, 324 p., € 20, digital € 15.

His mother predicted it: his son, Roman Kacew, future Romain Gary (1914-1980), alias Emile Ajar, would be a celebrated novelist and an ambassador of France. His double prophecy began to come true in 1956. When he learned that he had just obtained the Goncourt Prize, the one who had recently been consul general in Los Angeles was in Bolivia. He was commissioned by the Quai d’Orsay to closely observe the economic crisis and political instability shaking the country following the election of a new president.

Read also (2019): The writer who never lied. Romain Gary enters “La Pléiade”

It was in the Andean capital, perched at an altitude of 4,000 meters, that, a few days earlier, this companion of the Liberation received with emotion a missive from Charles de Gaulle sent from Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (Haute -Marl). The general has just read The Roots of Heaven (Gallimard, 1956). He was “Carried away” by “Big and beautiful book”. The Goncourt Prize is accompanied by a check for 5,000 francs, resulting from the dividends withdrawn by the Academy from its actions in the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal. Funny irony of fate, at a time when the canal is the object of a war following its nationalization by Egypt.

Protocol letters

It is all this political-literary aspect, these pivotal years in the life of the novelist, that Kerwin Spire documents in an inspired story, Mr. Romain Gary. Consul General of France – 1919 Outpost Drive – Los Angeles 28, California.

The biographer went through everything: press clippings, dispatches and protocol letters kept at the diplomatic archives centers of La Courneuve and Nantes. He met, in Los Angeles, the former secretary of Romain Gary, and he had access to unpublished documents: fragments of correspondence (with Camus and Malraux), conference recordings, cables exchanged with Twentieth Century Fox, etc. Faced with journalists flocking to the French embassy in La Paz to collect his impressions, the Goncourt laureate speaks of his joy, but also “The sadness to see that the ideal of human freedom and dignity that I defend in my book has never been more threatened”, in reference to the suppression of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviets.

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Thanks to this award, whose echoes cross the Atlantic, sleuths discover that the Quai d’Orsay slightly tampered with the biographical note of the consul, before he took up his post in California, so as not to arouse the suspicion of his American interlocutors, fiercely anti-Communist. So the writer-diplomat was not officially born in Vilnius (in Lithuania, which in 1956 was part of the USSR), but in Nice, where in reality he only arrived at the age 14. In 1975, Romain Gary completely disguised his identity to win the Goncourt for the second time.

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