There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every second Saturday of the month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.
A story that many of us might have read in school, bears revisiting: There are images and passages out of it that have had a lifetime's hangover; the circles of enlarging meaning have only grown larger.
A classroom in a village school: its front benches occupied by school-children of all ages and sizes, the back benches filled with elders. People who have dug out childhood textbooks and primers, in the language of their defeated country. All listening intently, in a charged silence, to the schoolmaster " Monsieur Hamel " delivering his last lesson.
I read Alphonse Daudet's memorable story, 'The Last Lesson', in the late 1960s, but its paragraphs remain embedded in the interior script of my biblio-memory and have continued to surface and season many reflections.
The story breathes through the perceptions of a child, a flighty little boy for whom school has so far held few attractions. Somewhere in the background, there is a war on " but it hasn't really registered nor distracted him from his usual romps:
"I started for school very late that morning and was in great dread of a scolding, especially because M Hamel had said he would question us on participles, and I did not know the first word about them."
He thinks of playing truant. The birds are singing, the day sunny and inviting, and the Prussian soldiers are at their drill. But he resists the temptation and trots school-wards, to stop short before the town hall. There is a notice put up, and a crowd of people reading. That bulletin-board is ominous:
"For the last two years all our bad news had come from there " the lost battles, the draft, the orders of the commanding officer."
Idly wondering, he proceeds to the school, counting on the usual morning confusion and racket to camouflage his sneaking in late. But today there's something sinister in the great quietness. Everything is different. His entry is embarrassingly public, but the teacher does not scold him.
There's an uncharacteristic kindliness in M Hamel's voice, as he says: "Go to your place quickly, little Franz". Other unusual details offer themselves to Franz's view. The teacher is dressed in his best clothes " formal coat, frilled shirt, black silk cap. There is a tremulous solemnity in the air. And at the back of the class, the quiet, older citizens of the village are seated: "Old Hauser, with his three-cornered hat; the former mayor; the former postmaster", and others. Someone has brought a shabby, dog-eared primer and laid it before him, "his large spectacles lying on its pages".
Then, M Hamel says what must be said, what the elders already know¦ Orders have come from Berlin that French will no longer be taught in this border village. Henceforth, German will be taught and a new teacher " a German " is to replace him. This is to be the last lesson in French in the tiny village of Alsace, formerly French, but now conquered by Germany and part of the German map.
The terrible symbolism of that solidarity in defeat manages to reach the consciousness of the child, as the teacher distributes fresh copy-books for everyone present, with the words 'France, Alsace, France, Alsace' inscribed on their covers in his neat handwriting. Those copy-books, to the child's eye, look like fluttering French flags blowing in the breeze everywhere one turns to look.
Then the teacher begins speaking of the French language, "saying that it was the most beautiful language in the world " the clearest, the most logical; that we must guard it among us and never forget it, because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language, it is as if they had the key to their prison". Then he goes on to give them a grammar lesson, followed by a lesson in calligraphy, his audience, young and old, applying themselves with an intensity born of new regret at never having taken their lessons seriously all their lives. With those pristine copy-books, everyone sets to work, making a fresh start, practising their writing of French words. On the roof, pigeons coo, and the child wonders: "Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons?"
As the class writes, the schoolmaster sits motionless in the chair he has used for 40 years and must now give up, gazing at the things he is soon to leave behind " the garden, the trees, the stone walls which have spelt the word 'home'. Everything is taught meticulously that day and faithful to normal schedule " writing, history, and finally the chanting of alphabets by the littlest ones. The old and unlettered spell along, holding their primers in both hands, crying soundlessly, their voices trembling with emotion.
I have never forgotten how that story ends. All at once the church gong starts striking twelve. Then the Angelus sounds, followed by the trumpets of the Prussians. The last lesson concludes. The schoolmaster rises to his feet, struggles to speak, but is too overcome. Instead he turns to the blackboard and writes in bold letters: "Vive La France!"
My relationship with this story has its own backstory, for it was taught to me by a passionate German Ã©migrÃ©. I had until then only thought of Alsace as the place of origin of my Alsatian. The entire drama of Alsace-Lorraine exploded in our classroom as our teacher vindicated the German position to us, berating the French and their allies.
"They stole it, they stole it from us!" she stormed, vividly communicating the volatility of us-ness and them-ness, and the clash of competing nationalisms. She declared that 'our' India might never have achieved independence, had it not been for Germany and World War II. It was getting complicated for me. Here I was, in deep sympathy with my little French protagonist of the story, and there was my favourite teacher, usually so brilliant and animated, ignited in flaming nationalism and actually stoking up mine! And my French protagonist had a German name, Franz, and so did his teacher, and so did that old man Hauser! Obviously there were inter-penetrations of culture, living on that sensitive border, that made it possible.
Through this delicate story, sitting in my own classroom, I could just about grasp, very obscurely, the way dominant nationalism in victors could fire up living nationalism in victims, how attempts to abolish cultures, histories, languages, viewpoints are fruitless in the face of loyal resistance. And if that is the last lesson the managers of history learn, we will, at the very least, have learnt something.