Paris is burning
By Houman Barekat.
History’s great crises have this knack of announcing themselves by stealth. Gustave Flaubert was midway through writing his historical novel Sentimental Education when he wrote to his niece describing a ‘universal sense of panic’ within the French body politic: ‘The bourgeois are frightened of everything. Frightened of war. Frightened of workers going on strike. Frightened of the (probable) death of the Prince Imperial.’
The year was 1867, and the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian war was three years away. But the sense of foreboding had already attained cliché status: ‘“The political horizon is darkening,” everyone says, though nobody can say why.’ It was an apt moment for Flaubert to embark upon a book that would be ‘the moral and psychological history of my generation’; with its vivid rendering of the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, Sentimental Education will have resonated with an older generation of French readers on the threshold of another period of acute social crisis.
An epic but somewhat disjointed opus, the book met with a mixed reception. France went to war, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans and was promptly plunged into civil war, with the working class population of Paris taking up arms against the government. Flaubert’s frightened bourgeoisie survived these convulsions, but the shock of the Paris Commune in particular lived long in the memory: some sixty years later, the Polish futurist poet Bruno Jasienski was forcibly deported from France in response to the publication of I Burn Paris (1928). This novel, a pointed and less-then-subtle tribute to the communards of 1871, had touched a nerve in the uncertain atmosphere of the interwar years.
The story is at once pertinent and far-fetched. A disaffected youth named Pierre fortuitously gains access to a laboratory containing the smallpox virus in the very same week that he takes a low-paid job at the Paris waterworks. Fed up with the city’s decadence and moral corruption, he proceeds to deliberately infect the water supply, unleashing a wave of death on Paris. Pierre himself perishes early on, whereupon the focus shifts to a myriad of other protagonists representing a whole host of ethnicities, religions and social classes. The city quickly fragments as communities close ranks to protect themselves from infection; the Chinese, the Jews and the English all form separatist mini-states within the city; the working-class districts form a soviet republic while the Catholic districts restore the monarchy.
In one entertainingly absurd passage, the now redundant policemen of Paris form their own state in the district of Ile de la Cité, bullying a blind old man into agreeing to be their dictator in order to salvage their raison d’etre. Disturbed by the low crime rate in their ‘Navy-Blue Republic’, the policemen pressure their leader into issuing increasingly draconian edicts, culminating in a proclamation criminalising the blond population and calling for their persecution by the brunets. The analogies with fascism pretty much draw themselves; indeed, where Flaubert agonised over maintaining a feel of authorial neutrality in the political passages of Sentimental Education, Jasienski’s prose is quite unashamedly programmatic.
The book’s climax has all the elements of a socialist agitator’s wet dream. The burden of leading the beleaguered city to socialism falls on the shoulders of the city’s prison population (their prisons’ water systems were extraneous to the municipal works, so they have eluded the plague). These prisoners, conveniently well-versed in the vernacular of Marxian political theory, are a model of cooperation and class consciousness. The book ends with the continent on the cusp of another war, with the new Parisian commune issuing a rallying call to the workers of Europe by radio, urging them to rise up. Reproduced here – for the first time in English translation – in an attractively illustrated hardback, I Burn Paris is perhaps not the kind of book you read for its literary merit. There are few memorable flourishes; the tale is just told as in a film script, with passages occasionally meandering to the point of tedium.
A pariah in Europe, Jasienski was welcomed with open arms by the Soviet Union in 1929; eight years later he was executed in Moscow, one of countless intellectuals to fall foul of Stalin’s purges. The bureaucrats of modern Poland are not especially disposed to celebrate his life: a high school in his hometown had been named after him, but has since undergone a name change; there is some suggestion that he was at one point an accessory to the purges that would claim his life. Clunky and utopian it might be, but Jasienski’s book nonetheless offers an intelligent and prescient appraisal of the nature of class society in the interwar years. Nor is the book’s naïve optimism entirely misplaced: while the cataclysm of World War Two left Western Europe no closer to socialism, many of the more progressive aspects of the postwar settlement – the National Health Service in Britain, a fortified welfare state – would have been unthinkable in the 1920s and ‘30s. These hard-earned concessions to social democracy have been under systematic attack since the 1980s, a campaign that coincided with a marked decline in popular agitation of the type idealised in I Burn Paris.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Houman Barekat is a London-based writer and editor of Review 31. He is co-editor, with Mike Gonzalez, of Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring, forthcoming from Pluto Press.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 28th, 2012.