By Robert Girardi
I was drawn to the French Foreign Legion—the subject of my new novel, Gorgeous East—for a variety of reasons. Chief among them has to do with a foolish weakness for old things: old books full of dust, old cars barely running, old chairs that you can barely sit in, old apartment buildings (hopefully without roaches) and most of all old ideals, worn-out and preferably politically incorrect.
And the FFL, badass tool of running dog imperialists of times past, though still around and active in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is nothing if not an old politically incorrect thing, a relic of the colonial warfare of bygone centuries. Yes, it still exists; you can join if you’re under 40, male, buff and stupid or crazy enough to throw your life away. Or just desperate and broke.
They are still what they have ever been, a mercenary force fighting for France, composed of ten thousand foreign, i.e., non-French volunteers. These tough, unlucky men who survive some of the most brutal basic training available to the world’s armies, can, upon entering the Legion, count on the privilege of l’anonymat: They are allowed to enlist under a fake name; their past erased, their sins and crimes gradually worn away through service to France and present suffering. If a legionnaire manages to survive five miserable years in the Legion, he retires with a new identity, a past wiped clean, French citizenship. Where else can a man who’s made some mistakes start his life over again in this era of security cameras and computer tracking of every red light we run at midnight, every time we urinate in the neighbor’s bushes?
The Legion presents the fiction writer on the hunt for an antiquated morality tale with a nicely packaged character arc as represented by the following equation: Guilt + suffering = redemption. No wonder so many of the Legion’s rank and file became novelists, poets or wrote tortured memoirs. Among its distinguished dead alumni: Blaise Cendrars, the French modernist; Cole Porter (O.K. he was a songwriter)—and one of my favorites: “M.M.” the author of a fine and disillusioning memoir of military drudgery simply entitled Memoirs of the Foreign Legion, written shortly following World War One.
M.M.—actual name uncertain—a would-be writer, some-time con man and occasional friend of D.H. Lawrence (though the latter showed quite a bit of personal contempt for the former, as demonstrated in the vicious but wonderfully written introduction he supplied for the Memoirs) committed suicide unpublished and unknown while living in Valetta, Malta in 1925.
Poor, stranded M.M. had finally reached the end of his rope: No money, no response from the publishers in England to whom he’d sent his Legion manuscript, nothing left to eat, no cigarettes, staying on and on in an expensive hotel paid for with charm and credit, a hot wind blowing against the waves out the window, knowing the bill would come one day soon. A bitter fate for someone born a gentleman—he was, among other things, reportedly a close relation of Kaiser Wilhelm’s. M.M.’s sad story was one of the inspirations for my book.
A second inspiration—yet another hard-bitten memoir—published a couple of years after M.M.’s: The Legion of the Damned, written in haste but not without style by Bennett J. Doty, a University of Virginia drop-out who ran off to join the Legion in 1926 and saw heavy action in Syria fighting the Druze rebels.
Doty, awarded the Croix de Guerre for his icy composure under fire, was shortly thereafter court-martialed and sentenced to be shot for running off from a work gang in the desert. Life in the Legion between battles was full of pointless labor and utter boredom, the thing that Doty hated most. An outcry in American newspapers secured his reprieve from the firing squad and his eventual release from French military prisons. He returned to Biloxi, went to law school, apparently settled down; ten years later he ran off again to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and was never heard from again. In 1948 Doty’s mother received a mysterious phone call in the middle of the night from a man who claimed to have seen her son. The man said he’d call back with more details. He never did.
All that remains of Doty is Legion of the Damned, in which the lost American describes a desperate battle against the Druze near the Syrian town of Suwieda: Completely encircled, outgunned, outmanned, a company of entrenched Legionnaires are down to their last bullets, the very final cartridge traditionally reserved for their own brains as an alternative to capture and unspeakable tortures. Then the relief column arrives in the nick of time, just like it does in Hollywood. Doty and the few survivors, so recently ready to die, stroll out of their pounded redoubt, hands in their pockets, casually smoking cigarettes as if nothing had happened. Hands in their pockets! As if they weren’t hungry and thirsty and smashed and half dead and covered in their comrade’s gore. There’s a lesson for our lives in such grace. I tried to capture a little bit of that feeling in Gorgeous East.
Thought it is famously secretive, a lot is known about the French Foreign Legion. A long shelf of books at the library—or at least at a good university library, such as the one I sit in every day, staring at a horribly blank page—deal with the Legion, its history, character, and traditions. There also exists a couple dozen volumes of Legionnaire memoirs, some better than others, but all of them the testimony of damned, doomed, foolish sometimes brave men like M.M., like Doty, who were ill at ease in the world, who sought adventure or release from suffering, or suffering itself as a redemption from their sins. Can you get any more literary than that?
Robert Girardi is the author of five novels. His most recent, Gorgeous East, was recently published in the United States by Macmillan. He lives in Washington, D.C, where he is the writer-in-residence at Goucher College.
BUY: A copy of Gorgeous East.
VISIT: Robert Girardi’s Web site.
LEARN: More about the French Foreign Legion.
BONUS: Join the French Foreign Legion, Oui or Non?