21 September 2008

Boris Vian – Le Déserteur

It is sad that English people tend to know little of French singer-songwriters (or chanteurs à paroles.) Nevertheless, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Georges Moustaki and a few more are known by many in anglophone countries. Boris Vian is a different case: I'd only known him as a writer, and was delighted to discover this song in particular, which is written in very simple French to express a simple message: we won't accept your [i.e. the government's] demands that we should kill others, and we shall walk away from your insane dictates.

I'm trying to think of an English person who might have sung this, but am completely unsuccessful: perhaps unsurprisingly, Renaud recorded a slang version of Le Déserteur, and Joan Baez sang a cover version, but apart from other French singers, this lovely song has perhaps not been covered by any other anglophone singers. England has never had a Phil Ochs, or a(n early) Dylan, or a Baez.

By extension, of course, the song is a plea to all sane people to refuse to participate in any war. If the spirit of Vian's song had been heeded by just a few of the sycophants of Britain's New Labour government before the obscene war on Iraq, for instance, Tony Blair would have been forced to resign, Gordon Brown would have disappeared into the black hole where he belongs, and the world would perhaps look a far less forbidding – certainly a far less racist – place. As it is though, New Labour neo-liberal politics continue to influence European countries: the very right-wing Sarkozy, for instance, is a thoroughgoing Blairite. As is Gordon Brown: only the newspapers fabricate differences to sell copy:

Significantly, someone has posted a comment on YouTube pointing out that the end of this song is 'censored', which is true, because it now reads:
'Prévenez vos gendarmes
Que je n'aurai pas d'armes
Et qu'ils pourront tirer.'

Apparently the original last two lines read:

'Que je tiendrai une arme
Et que je sais tirer.'

This is wildly different from the version sung here, but according to http://fr.lyrics-copy.com 'Boris Vian a accepté la modification de son ami Mouloudji pour pour conserver le côté pacifiste de la chanson !' (1).
OK, but as a pacifist I ironically prefer the original version because I detest authorial compromise, and the altered lyric compromises the force of the song. As the person who posted the comment says: 'Je préfère l'original, la fin est beaucoup plus Boris Vian.'

(1) However, another site is perhaps more exact in this matter: Vian was forced to change the words because the government had banned the song as it stood.


Snatch51 said...

The propensity to kill is one of the defining, if disgusting, markers of our species.

This guy didn't want war, didn't want people to have to be sent to war; but he gives himself away by being prepared to contemplate killing.

Tony Shaw is absolutely right that the uncensored original version is the only one we should really countenance: all else is censorship.

Human history gives us innumerable examples of the apparently meek little man who turns into a killer, indeed even a mass-murderer!
(Hitler was just a little squirt, wasn't he? But look what he brought about).

For pacifist/killer, read human being.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Many thanks for this observation, snatch51, and for agreeing with me (see my comment to the above post). Even the narrator of the largely autobiographical Hunger and Love frequently has violent thoughts, and we all know that Lionel Britton was a throughgoing pasifist.