16 JANUARY 1988, Page 13


D. S. O'Connor confronts

the threat of death to his family

DURING the Festival at Avignon this summer a theatrical version of The Outsid- er was performed. One hot afternoon, therefore, found me riding a motorbike from the village of Ile sur La Sorgue along the less frequented route to Avignon. Several miles out the bike started losing power and eventually came to a halt at one of the more deserted spots on the road. I could see that fuel was dripping onto the tarmac, somehow escaping from the tank, so decided that the best idea would be to continue in the same direction, pushing the bike, until finding a garage. I'd not gone far when a van pulled up beside me; on the side was written 'F. Rodriguez — Builder'. A middle-aged man thrust his head out of the van's window and said, `Vous-avez un probleme?'

I explained, in French, that my fuel had leaked out of the tank so, in fact, I had two problems. He told me I wouldn't find a garage this side of Avignon and suggested I come to his house where he could look over the bike himself. We loaded it up and soon turned off the road, driving down a dirt track twisting around the terrain. His house was completely isolated, situated at the base of a hill, surrounded by gaunt trees and bushes. In front of the house was a shaded terrace with a large table, around which many people were sitting. Mr Rodri- guez explained that his family and other relatives were about to eat and suggested that I eat with them, seeing to the bike later. I was introduced to everyone: people of all ages who were completely uninhi- bited by my presence — apart from the younger, bashful children — and soon resumed their animated talk.

I was seated between Mr Rodriguez and a very old man who was his father. We helped ourselves to the . first of many courses (the main one being a huge sea- food paella cooked over a fire in the garden) and I told the two men that I was from England, visiting France for two months. The old man became strangely excited and told me he'd not seen an Englishman since the war. I replied that he must have been glad to see them after the Germans; but Mr Rodriguez junior ex- plained that his father meant the Spanish Civil War, during which he'd fought along- side some Englishmen. They'd moved to France after the second world war — his father having been a builder before him — for the work.

The older Mr Rodriguez then turned to me again and explained that his English comrades had been brave soldiers and honourable men; but that he had never understood their motives for fighting, and risking death, in the civil war of another country where none of their family or loved ones lived. He told me that a number of his English comrades had been students who had dropped out of college to come and fight and he asked me whether there were still students like that in England.

I replied that political activity was not particularly fervent in English universities; some students might go and pick coffee beans in Nicaragua but most were intent on having fun, getting a degree in the process, and then making money. Here the old man was silent and thoughtful for a while until he suddenly asked me what at first seemed a strange question; but I soon realised that it led on from what had already been said: 'Could you kill a man, Monsieur?'

'I'm not sure.'

'Supposing he walked across your coun- try's border with a gun?'

'I'm not patriotic, so . . .

'It's nothing to do with patriotism but about your family and loved ones. Do you have a family?'

'Yes, a wife and baby daughter.'

'Would you let a man walk in to your house and kill them?'

'No, I'd try to kill him first; but it's hypothetical . . .

'Only 40 years ago it was reality, Mon- sieur. When the man with the gun crosses your country's border he's on his way to your house to kill your family; so the sooner he's confronted the less chance of him doing this. It doesn't matter where you kill him once he's inside your country as you're doing it to stop him killing your family and, of course, yourself. It's no good people saying that borders and coun- tries shouldn't exist; all that was decided long ago and, apart from the occasional adjustment, won't change. We've got to live, happily and peacefully, within the borders already decided and defend our freedom to live and be happy when it's threatened from outside — or inside. So you see, Monsieur, one has to be able to kill.' He paused and looked at me intently.

'My generation is lucky then,' I said, 'as there hasn't been a great war for so long.'

'Your generation is the unluckiest of them all — the next great war will be the last.'

'You mean complete annihilation?' In answer to this he slowly nodded his head. 'Do you think it will happen?'

'Is there anything in history to prove that it won't?'

I had to admit to myself that there didn't seem to be anything; and yet the idea of a global threat to life seemed to contradict so much the reposeful ease of the setting and happiness and fellowship of the family around the table. In the air of the place there was an essence of something which seemed indestructible, or maybe it was just the strong feeling in me that it shouldn't be destroyed; anyway, at that point an idea came to me.

'Have you read The Rebel by Albert Camus?' I asked the old man. 'No, Monsieur; I can't read,' he replied.

I shifted uneasily in my seat; aware of his intent gaze fixed on me I resumed eating.

The meal kept slow pace with the lan- guid afternoon (both outstripped by the lively conversation) but was eventually over. The younger Mr Rodriguez soon fixed my tank and filled it with fuel. He told me to come and see them again if I were to pass by, as there was always food enough for one more. I said goodbye to all the family and finally the old man, who smiled and nodded his head at me. As I was riding up the dirt track towards the road I realised it was too late to go and see The Outsider, but thought it didn't matter as I'd also learnt that, given the right circumstances, I could kill a man. This, and the absurd threat of complete annihilation that the old man had hinted at, made me think of my family as I turned onto the road to Ile sur La Sorgue.

D.S. O'Conner was the joint winner of the 1987 Spectator/Sunday Telegraph Young Writers Award.