April 18, 2012
Bruno Jasieński (real name Wiktor Zysman) was born in Klimontów, Poland, in 1901. By his late teens, he had become active in the Polish avant-garde, creating a Futurist group and arguing for anti-elitism in art; by the age of 22 he had declared Futurism dead. To avoid persecution for his Communist campaigning, he moved to Paris in 1925 and wrote this novel, which was serialised in L’Humanité in 1928, before it was banned for “exud[ing] blind and stupid hatred for Western European culture.” In Russia it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in a matter of days.
I Burn Paris (1929, tr. 2012 by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski) is a riot and a rage. I had the same feeling on reading it as I did with Karel Capek’s War with the Newts: something like, why haven’t people been pressing this on me for decades? Why, indeed, isn’t it one of those famous European novels that everyone has heard of? Well, this time we have an excuse, as we had to wait over 80 years for an English translation. It doesn’t feel that old: it is fresh and vigorous, and much more approachable than the opaque blurb suggests.
This novel is a cry for revenge on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, and a denial of the levelling power of globalised capitalism. Here, in the Paris of the 1920s, the only thing that trickles down is infectious disease, and the only equality is that we’re all dead in the end. France is struggling under its war debts to the USA, suffering from runaway inflation and constant workers’ strikes. The butterfly that flaps its wings is Pierre, a man who has been made redundant despite his pragmatic willingness never to rock the boat by striking or showing political allegiance. “When he saw the foreman he always tensed his lips into a friendly smile.” It does him no good, and he finds himself jobless, homeless, and part of the underclass that sleeps on the steps of Metro stations, jockeying for a place closer to the warmth of the entrance gate. “Shortly the whole stairway resembled a forest leveled by winds.” Jasieński sets these scenes against obscenely opulent descriptions of the comforts enjoyed by Paris’s wealthier citizens – the Depression-era equivalent of ‘the 1%’ – exemplified by “the jewelers’ windows, where virgin pearls the size of peas, shucked from their shells, slumbered on suede rocks.”
But life, and his energetic creator, has more in store for Pierre. His girlfriend, Jeannette, goes missing, and he is tortured by the notion that she has stooped to the oldest way to make ends meet. This, after all, is a society where families will pimp their children. “Thirteen-year-olds. Surefire goods. You just had to know how to serve them up. A schoolroom upstairs: a picture of a saint, a child’s bed, a lectern, and a blackboard, where they’d written in chalk: 2 x 2 = 5. No older man could resist.” Pierre is equally horrified and frustrated by the two tiers of society. His activist colleagues in the factory had told him about a
new world, a world with neither rich nor oppressed, where the factories would be owned by the workers, and labor would change from a form of slavery to a hymn, to hygiene for the liberated body. He didn’t believe them. No one would budge the diabolical machine, not one inch. It had grown deep into the earth. It had been running since time immemorial, ever since it had been set in motion. Rip the cogs with your bare hands? It wouldn’t stop, it would just rip off your hands.
So Pierre – and on the other side of the next dash lies a jolt and a spoiler, but one it’s hard to discuss the book without revealing – releases the bubonic plague into Paris’s water system. Here is where Jasieński, already on fire with the lurid language of indignation, spreads the scope of the story by taking us into different parts of the city. Ethnic tensions come to a rolling boil, and communities declare independent states in different regions of the capital. We meet P’an Tsiang-keui, who came to Paris from China as an orphaned child, and develops a hatred of “the white man” after a girl he loves is raped. He vows to “become the ax himself. Whittle his hate till it was as sharp as a blade and watch that it never grew blunt.” He proclaims an autonomous Chinese republic. We meet Rabbi Eliezar ben Zvi, who – the Fred Phelps of his day – blames the lack of orthodox worship for the plague, and gathers the city’s Jews to one walled-off community, “to hold back the Aryan plague”. Meanwhile, a Soviet republic is declared in the Belleville and Ménilmontant areas, and a wealthy American businessman unable to leave the city finds curiously erotic compensation.
It’s a mad, hyperbolic performance (“Hell is more fun to paint” as translator Soren Gauger observes in his excellent afterword), showing off action, character and dialogue; and it is extraordinary in how modern it seems. We see austerity bringing social unrest; the scapegoating of other ethnic groups; the risks of global interconnectivity. Pierre’s actions simulate a war, or warlike conditions, in one city, through fear. Crackdowns on civil liberties follow. And for all the liveliness – even comedy – of the telling, Jasieński’s serious purpose is hard to overlook. Indeed, the brio with which he reports the consequences of the plague in Paris has a lip-smacking relish to it: and with the neat reversal of the conclusion, one can imagine him popping the cap back on his bile-drained pen with satisfaction.
This edition by Twisted Spoon Press is, not incidentally, one of the most handsome hardbacks I’ve seen recently. If the fight to retain readership of paper books is on, this is a decent blow in its favour, with its illustrations, two-colour printing and eye-catching (or -watering) cover design. It’s a fine tribute to a writer who deserves wider recognition. After being exiled from Paris, as mentioned in my introduction, Jasieński was welcomed in Russia as a hero, though within a decade his fortunes had turned – subversive writers are never out of trouble for long – and he was arrested in 1937 on accusations of being a Polish spy and an enemy of the people. He was executed on September 17, 1938, sixteen months before Isaak Babel, in the campaign against whom Jasieński was implicated.