Not exactly a new release, I Burn Paris was first serialised in the French periodical L’Humanité way back in 1928. Jasieński, one of Poland’s leading Futurist poets and writers, and previously persecuted in his home country with accusations of blasphemy, was promptly expelled from France because of his negative portrayal of Parisian society, and the book itself was banned; its author fled to the USSR (where I Burn Paris became a massive success) and started working for the Union of Soviet Writers. Nine years later he was arrested, tried, kicked out of the Party and sentenced to fifteen years in the gulag; he died in transit to the camps in 1938. All of which adds some context to the novel itself, a riotous political satire and almost-manifesto, translated into English for the first time here by Soren Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski for Twisted Spoon.
Now, I’m no expert on the Futurist novel, and nor am I especially conversant with early twentieth century Polish literature in general, so any of you with more specialised knowledge ought to go right ahead and chime in below in the comments – but I’ve got to say, lack of expertise aside, I really enjoyed this. It’s got a tripartite structure: the first section introduces Pierre, a luckless Parisian factory worker who loses his job in an anti-Communist purge; without an income, he then loses his home, and quickly becomes convinced that his girlfriend, Jeanette, is cheating on him with a multitude of sweaty, fat, rich businessmen. Imprisoned for vagrancy, Pierre eventually emerges to find a new job at the Parisian reservoir at Saint-Maur, but soon enough he’s again consumed with murderous jealousy when he thinks he’s spotted Jeanette with another man. In revenge, he steals a couple of vials of the bubonic plague from the bacteriological institute where his friend works, and dumps them into the water supply. Paris, of course, very quickly becomes an enormous petri dish for large-scale infectious death. And Pierre and Jeanette are amongst the first to go. So that’s Part One spoiled, but never fear; it’s merely the inciting incident for the rest of the book. Part Two, the bulk of the novel, details the opportunistic struggles of various political factions to seize control of their destinies within Paris – and, indeed, to seize control of Paris itself – and Part Three picks up the story two years afterwards, with Europe on the brink of revolution. Our instigator, Pierre, is the seething proletariat malcontent whose destructive act seeds an enormous, unforeseen transformation that would, had he lived to see it, have suited him very well indeed.
For a book that’s largely about rival political systems trying to come out on top while the rest of their city collapses about them, this is a sharp, funny, human novel. I was initially a little put off by the metaphor-heavy prose. Here, the street is a river:
‘The precipitous banks – full of the phosphorescent, magical grottos of jeweler’s windows, where virgin pearls the size of peas, shucked from their shells, slumbered on suede rocks – stretched upward. Their perpendicular walls vainly groping for the surface.’
But once you get into the rhythm of Jasieński’s prose, it doesn’t feel ponderous, and it’s not quite that heavy throughout. The middle section takes us through the histories of various characters who use the plague to claw their way to political dominance – capitalist and communist alike – and though Jasieński’s sympathies clearly lie on the side of the communists, nobody escapes his ghastly fate, or, indeed, the writer’s scathing tongue. A wise and beloved Rabbi concocts an abominable plan to save his people; a misfortunate Chinese orphan and Party activist becomes a callous leader, condemning others to death; the native Parisians are a garrulous pile of dilettantes and their city is an inter-war Sodom and/or Gomorrah. You can see why the authorities were lukewarm about the writer. But the story isn’t all Swiftian mockery; there’s countless pockets of gentle sadness and personal tragedies, as people, even rather scary people, lose their homes and their loved ones to a very, very nasty disease. So it’s sad and it’s funny and it could just as easily have been written today. The books that most sprang to mind while I was reading it were John Dos Passos’ USA, published only a few years after I Burn Paris, and taking the same multi-stranded approach to history and politics, albeit over a much longer timescale – and José Saramago’s Blindness and Seeing, another pair of societal-meltdown-following-apocalyptic-epidemic novels. Saramago and Jasieński differ wildly on a sentence-to-sentence level, but their approaches to political analysis aren’t all that far apart, hopping from one character’s schemes to the next with deft authorial control and a wink to the reader. And the ultimate triumph of communism (sorry, but I’m sure you saw that coming before you ever cracked the spine) gives the end of the book a sort of fist-in-the-air optimism, though, as one of the translators points out in his Afterword, it’s a bit odd to align the rise of the Left with the grim march of a deadly plague. However you read it, though, it’s a fascinating text, and it’s a real shame it was left untranslated for so long. Kudos, as always, to Twisted Spoon, for a nice save and a very classy hardback.
Any Cop?: A Futurist novel-in-translation about the destruction of one of Europe’s most beloved cities and the rise of Soviet Communism? It’s funnier than it sounds. Probably not a beach read, but if you do like Saramago and his ilk, I’d check it out.