In his 1921 “Manifesto on the Immediate Futurisation of Life” Bruno Jasieński called for Poland’s national poets – “the stale mummies of mickiewiczes and słowackis” – to make way from the “plazas, squares and streets” for the new: Futurists like himself. Many years later, as Soren Gauger tells us in the afterword to this excellent translation of I Burn Paris, it was Jasieński’s turn to be cleared out: “At present, one of the few objects in Poland commemorating the life and work of Bruno Jasieński – a high school that bore his name in his hometown of Klimontów – has officially undergone a name change, on the grounds that the writer in question is not ‘a role model for today’s youth’ and, indeed, has a ‘demoralising effect’ on their young minds.” For Jasieński – as well as a poet, journalist, novelist and dandy – was a communist. And so that school in Klimontów is now named after a Catholic nun rather than a Jewish communist.
I Burn Paris was written in 1927 and some or all of it appeared in French (in L’Humanité), Russian and German, among other languages, before appearing in complete (though censored) book form in Polish in 1929. It earned Jasieński deportation from France, where he was a newspaper correspondent, and a hero’s welcome in Russia, where he was to live and write in the socialist realist mode until he was tortured and murdered in a purge of Poles in the USSR in 1938 – exactly one year before Russia invaded Poland.
The book starts with Pierre’s story: laid off from work and deserted by his girlfriend in favour of richer men, he wanders unemployed and homeless around a decadent, prostituted Paris, spending some time in jail with mostly political prisoners arrested for protesting, before winding up in a water tower at a city filter station. Into the city’s water supply he introduces a deadly virus. The plague spreads as Paris, denied food supplies and cordoned off from the uninfected world, dissolves into hostile statelets, each based on perceived common interests: the Jews, the communists, the white Russians, the Anglo-Americans… Various attempts are made by the different sections to survive, escape or smuggle in food.
This is Paris of the jazz age and the early descriptions of the plague blend into descriptions of frenzied dancing to jazz bands: “In the middle of the fourth Charleston, one of the dancing couples fell on the slippery asphalt and showed no signs of getting up. They were surrounded by laughter. The pair shook in convulsions. They were brought to the nearest pharmacy. Five minutes later, an ambulance arrived and collected the unfortunate dancers. … A Negro playing in the jazz band on the terrace of Le Dôme Café crashed spastically onto his drums halfway through a bar, kicking his legs up in the air to comic effect. The amused audience rewarded this new trick with a spontaneous round of applause. But the man did not get up. His face turned skyward, he was dead.”
Jasieński’s sympathies are firmly with the proletariat and readers will find much about class struggle, the exploitation of the working classes, the ineffectiveness of parliamentary democracy and the weakness – if not the treachery – of social democrats. Comrade Laval, of the communists, thinks of the French authorities “And now they were calmly standing by while everyone died of hunger and the plague, to take over a disinfected Paris once more, smother it in police, drown it in democracy by opening the floodgates of futile parliamentary blather…” It’s the shock doctrine years before Naomi Klein – or even Milton Friedman.
Some readers may find this all very dated. The idea that a people in the heart of Europe might be cut off from help and hung out to dry while they deal on their own with some kind of raging infection that might otherwise spread to the rest of the continent destroying economy after economy in a domino effect obviously has no place in modern, twenty first century Europe, though if you happen to be suffering from “internal devaluation” brought on by the black debt you might beg to differ. The handiest label for I Burn Paris is “grotesque” and true, the rapid collapse of society into narrow special interest factions based on spurious ideas of common ties, each one at the others’ throats, may strike some readers as grotesque. The idea that “parliamentary blather” is futile also belongs strictly to its time only, as we can see from the wide range of energetic and far-sighted policies swiftly and decisively enacted by the European Parliament with the aim of combating the current economic crisis on a continent-wide basis. The dissolution over the last few years of several European governments and their immediate replacement with different politicians espousing radically different politics show how remarkably responsive modern European democracy is. It is not just the talking shop in hock to business interests that Jasieński maintained it was.
Jasieński set his book in the Paris of his day, complete with local colour and detail, all the more to terrify bourgeois readers as with the stroke of a pen he consigned Montparnasse, the Latin Quarter, Saint-Germain, Hôtel de Ville and so on to destruction. The translators wisely decided against any elaborate explanations of such points of reference and detail, which might have resulted in a museum-piece, a curiosity to be known of rather than read and digested. And so, the “Lord of Sabaoth” goes unexplained, as does Alain Garbault (a French aviator), while the Jewish rituals have only an unobtrusive minimum of in-text explanation. The reader is left to guess what kind of a song the Internationale might be.
In another Futurist manifesto from 1921 Jasieński granted every artist the right to his own system of logic. Artists must use associations which, to the petty bourgeois mind-set, are far removed. Even sentences should be rejected on account of their bourgeois nature. Instead poets should use condensed verbal compositions, unhindered by any considerations of syntax. This might seem alarming but Jasieński abandoned Futurism (and in any case did not adhere too closely to its precepts) before coming to write I Burn Paris. The novel is written in sentences and is most readable, though not perfect. Parts of the book seem out of proportion: what the reader thinks will be a brief description of one new character’s background turns into a fifty-page flashback. The ending, also, is weak and as the plot stretches, holes start to appear. Jasieński had big fish to fry and seems unconcerned by practical considerations.
The translation effortlessly keeps step with Jasieński’s changing style: from short, abrupt statements to extremely long and convoluted sentences and chains of metaphors. From “She fled. Made it to the city on foot. She had worked in a Japanese factory – the pay was low, survival impossible” to “The enormous machines were like monstrous two-headed dragons, swallowing gray skeins of oakum as filthy as smoke, then spitting them out in long, fibrous saliva, swiftly wound on the spinning tops of spools. Then the iron fingers grabbed and unwove the fibers for the hundredth time, pulled them apart in infinite slender threads … The spools dribbled from the slobbering maws of the machines into the spittoons of enormous baskets…”
The translators are observant too, spotting the occasional repetition of identical phrases, perhaps the most important of which is “Jeanette informed Pierre that she would most definitely be requiring a pair of evening slippers.” This comes right at the beginning of the book and is repeated word for word near the end. The tale is bracketed by a consumerism that consumes an entire city but the suggestion is not that this will all just repeat itself over and over. Far from it: “Like a shoddy machine, the world destroys more than it produces. This cannot go on,” Jasieński writes.
I Burn Paris, by Bruno Jasieński, translated from the Polish by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski, artwork by Christian Opriş, Twisted Spoon Press, Prague, 2012, 309 pp, €18.50, ISBN: 978-80-86264-37-0.
Tags: writers and politics