t r a n s l at o r ’s a f t e r w o r d
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 “demoralizing effect” on their young minds. Leaving aside the question of the desirability of judging literature on such criteria, what seems most astonishing is that even now, over seventy years after his torture and execution in a Soviet prison, Jasieński is still such a socially awkward commodity, certain to make Anglophone readers as uncomfortable as Polish ones. Most of the greatest writers seem to have been born at the wrong time, but only a small handful of the truly odd ones feel as though they wouldn’t be quite at home — or embraced — at any time.
objective section Bruno Jasieński arrived in Paris in the fall of 1925. In his last surviving statement for the Russian nkvd before his execution, he listed three reasons for leaving Poland: (1) he had graduated from university and was due to serve twenty months of compulsory military service, (2) he was being sued for alleged blasphemy during one of his poetry readings in Lwów (today’s Lviv, Ukraine), which could have resulted in a year or two in prison, and (3) he was an unemployed literature graduate whose scandalous reputation scarcely promised him work as a high-school teacher. Difficult as it may be to imagine from today’s perspective, his *The school is now officially the Urszula Ledóchowska Liceum, named after the plucky
poetry readings had been banned by the police in many Polish cities, and on one occasion an audience had even stoned him for his work. Jasieński intended to learn French and to write novels in his new language. Instead, he immediately enrolled in Chinese and Japanese classes, and wrote freelance articles for the Wiek Nowy* newspaper in Lwów. Among other events, he covered the exhumation of renowned Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki’s remains in Paris and their shipment back to Poland. He also worked as a director at the Polish Workers’ Theater, where he staged an adaptation of one of his own poems. The decision to write I Burn Paris is immortalized in Aleksander Wat’s conversations with Czesław Miłosz in My Century. Wat claims that Jasieński misunderstood the title of Paul Morand’s newly-published novel Je brule Moscou (“bruler” also has the idiomatic meaning, to “travel through quickly”), and was so enraged that he set about writing a retaliation piece: Je brule Paris. Poland’s most untiring Jasieński advocate, Krzysztof Jaworski, suggests in Bruno Jasieński in Paris that this story might have been somewhat embellished: Jasieński had written positive reviews of Morand’s work, a rarity in Jasieński’s critical output, suggesting that the “rage” might have been colored in for effect. But such is the appeal of Wat’s story that it retains its hold in the popular imagination. Jasieński was indeed expelled from France for this novel, and import of the book (it was originally serialized in L’Humanité) was forbidden on the grounds that it “exuded blind and stupid hatred for Western European culture.” Nor did it do much for his popularity in Poland, though in Russia it became a legitimate phenomenon: the first edition of 140,000 copies sold out in a matter of days, prompting a second edition of 220,000 copies. *The New Age, remembered as Poland’s first tabloid. Sample headlines from the period
include: “Hypnotism Used by Human Traffickers,” “Child Boiled in Pot, Cut to Pieces,” and “Secret Den of Licentiousness Uncovered in Lwów.” 294
quasi-objective section I Burn Paris remains a reluctantly acknowledged masterpiece in part because of all its ambiguities. The effect comes from following moral impulses so obsessively that they sometimes become their own opposites. The novel marks what is generally thought to be Jasieński’s transition from Futurism to Catastrophism. His Futurist poetry took the staccato rhythm and mechanics of typewriters, trams, factories etc. as their substance, a quality echoed in Part 1 of the novel: the thousands-strong, hundred-street cities pumping out thousands of papers a day, the long black columns of words shouting loud on the boulevards written by little old men in spectacles. wrong. the City writes them stenographing a thousand collisions. in sync, in time, in blood. a hundred thousand camera clicks mark long forty-column epics. [. . .] power-plant strikes, suicide, adultery, there’s your big fat poetry. [“Song of Hunger,” 1922] The pulse in Jasieński’s poetry is a mechanical one. It was (remains) shocking for its bold disregard of what this mechanization means, preferring merely to hand us a portrait of the state of things in the modern world and creating a poetry that reflects it. Yet in his works of prose the wonderment is gone, the machine has run amok, and the ramifications of this state of things has become the focus. Even so, the 295
recurrence of these images retain some of the young Futurist’s fascination for the factory-made man, and his prose holds onto the one-two punch of the poetry’s mechanized rhythm. The repetition of such adjectives as “matte” and “flickering” tell us something else: Jasieński’s novel is an early example of literature with a distinctly cinematic sensibility (Eisenstein is certainly a reference point), a narrative viewed through a camera lens. A similar ambiguity emerges in Jasieński’s treatment of the moral decadence and degradation of society, which takes many forms: brothels, child prostitution, racism, grinding poverty, jazz music, the lifestyles of the upper classes and the bourgeoisie, and so on. Pierre, the novel’s initial protagonist (whose death occurs early, in a strangely offhand gesture), appears as a kind of interwar Candide, stumbling through the dark woods of modern French society, pummeled by its various mechanisms. Of course, in the midst of detailing the horrors that await Pierre in his descent into madness, Jasieński ends up writing passages that very much resemble a decadent novel. Everything is grotesquely bent out of shape, but the sections detailing the revulsion and vileness are, from a literary point of view, some of the most compelling to read. It is a dilemma familiar to the religious painter: Hell is more fun to paint. Finally, there is a strange and unresolvable contradiction in the fact that a novel which culminates in celebrating the triumph of socialism and its potential to spread across Europe is also a novel whose central motif is the spread of a deadly and unstoppable plague. None of this is to doubt the sincerity or conviction of Jasieński’s aims. The violent imagery of anti-Semitism in the form of a Jewish refugee casually murdered by a Russian officer seems a precursor to the jarring images from World War II. The impression is made all the more powerful when one recalls how rare such graphic depictions were in European literature then. Jasieński’s humane treatment of P’an, the Chinese communist, again runs counter to the period’s common fear of a yellow horde ready to sweep across the Continent. What remains 296
impressive in I Burn Paris is the fact that, whatever the moral or political status of the characters, Jasieński gives them full rights to our understanding and sympathy. In this disease-infested Paris everyone may well be cutting everyone else’s throats, and the portrait of humanity as it stands might be dismal beyond repair, but as individuals, everyone gets a fair hearing, a fleshed-out literary existence. But the ambiguities I have mentioned do seem to suggest that there is a subconscious, or subterranean, life to the narrative, one that goes unacknowledged by the writer as such, but which is perhaps the chief source of discomfort in reading the novel. Whether it is the Futurist undermining the Catastrophist, Jasieński casting doubt on his own best intentions, or a classic case of attraction/repulsion syndrome, it is a tension that runs through much of the book.
non-objective section I should note in passing (though without the humility of a footnote) that the translator’s introduction — surely the most conservative of all arts, save perhaps typography — has undergone a shift in demeanor over the past few decades, which is, not surprisingly, reflective of the shift in the so-called art of translating as such. This shift might broadly be defined as one from creative virtuosity to academic fidelity — both approaches with their own pitfalls — and accordingly, the sometimes disarming sincerity and eccentricity of translators’ introductions of the 1960s and 1970s has largely given way to those that are at best blandly informative, and at worst larded with an academic rhetoric that puts the translator in a position of authority over his subject (i.e., the writer being translated). As I have no intention of playing such shabby tricks with the reader, because I am old-fashioned enough to believe that a translation should be motivated, above all, by a kind of bald enthusiasm for the author at hand, and ultimately, because this particular writer is 297
one of painful, and sometimes uncomfortable honesty, I should like to include the following. Any introduction to I Burn Paris should explain what I see as the real tragedy of Bruno Jasieński, though I would like to refrain from wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth. The tragedy has less to do with the conventional pathos of a highly gifted writer sentenced to death in the vast slaughter of Stalinist Russia (though surely this is tragic enough), than with a more unconventional sort of tragedy: that of an artist pursuing his own delusions to the bitter end. From his earliest poetry, Jasieński was a writer with a powerful sense of his own showmanship and the manufacture of his own identity. This included the monocle he liked to wear, the pseudonym (real name: Wiktor Zysman), affiliation with various literary movements, manifestoes, public statements, rallies, and performances. Even as an aesthetic writer (as opposed to the politically engaged writer he later became), he had an acute sense of creating a persona — the writer himself was viewed as another fictional character. Jasieński’s literary voice is seldom, if ever, an intimate one — it is that of a man holding forth from a tribunal or a podium. It is a Romantic impulse, a sign that a writer sees his role as a spokesman for the people (compare Bruno Schulz’s “secretly clasping his reader’s hand under the table”). There is a certain inevitability, perhaps, in such writers finding politics. Like many avant-garde artists of his time, Jasieński identified with Marxism. When he found himself expelled from France after the publication of I Burn Paris, the Soviet Union gave him a hero’s welcome (a surviving photograph: crowds with banners at the train station, gathered there to greet him). His public addresses maintained the confidence and bluster of his early Futurist manifestoes. That is to say, one has the creeping suspicion that the character of Jasieński the writer (as opposed to Zysman — whoever he was) had not been fundamentally altered, it was only the rhetoric and the vocabulary that had changed. When the purges began in earnest in the 1930s and it became very dangerous to 298
be a public persona, Jasieński had already made a few enemies, and he was soon fighting accusations of being a Polish spy and an enemy of the people. He was arrested on July 31, 1937, and executed on September 17, 1938. There survive a few of his letters written from captivity directly to Stalin, begging for clemency. In his last letter of many pages, written in self-defense, he lists the shocking tortures to which he’d been subjected (fingernails pulled out, teeth kicked in), but just as shockingly, for the first time, we seem to hear Zysman speaking, begging to be allowed to die rather than continue the tortures. Zysman drops all the swagger of his character. And if I am not wholly mistaken, there is a dim recognition of the insanity of having arrived at this point simply for having played his role — and a confusion at the notion of all this fiction ultimately having such brutal consequences. A warm clasp of the hand to Marcin Piekoszewski, Howard Sidenberg, Stan Bill, and Scotia Gilroy for their patient and intelligent help. Soren A. Gauger Kraków, 2012
Published on Jul 26, 2017
I Burn Paris by Bruno Jasieński translated from the Polish by Soren A. Gauger & Marcin Piekoszewski Artwork by Cristian Opriș ISBN 978808626...