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literature

A worker’s revenge MARCI SHORE Bruno Jasie±ski I BURN PARIS Translated by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski 309pp. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press. 978 80 86264 37 0

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runo Jasie±ski was the dandy of the Polish avant-garde. Born in 1901 in the small town of Klimontów, he began university in Cracow just as the First World War ended and a new Poland appeared on the map. By then he had completed secondary school in Moscow; 1917 had found him in revolutionary Russia; he had seen it all. Aloof and arrogant, with a pale complexion, Jasie±ski affected a debonair elegance: manicured nails, a wide tie, a monocle on the right eye, and a lock of hair framing the left. He would light a cigarette as he prepared to read his poetry. Young women found him marvellously attractive. The old world had gone up in flames – and Jasie±ski and his Futurist friends found it neither desirable nor possible to salvage anything from it. On the contrary, they took to heart Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim that “what is falling we should still push”. In a 1921 manifesto, they called for a “great transvaluation of values”. They announced the sale of “old traditions, categories, habits, colouring books and fetishes” at bargain prices. It was time to cart away in wheelbarrows the mummies of Romanticism, to turn over the pedestals, to “clear space for those who are on the move”. The Futurists would throw open the gates leading from the ghetto of logic. They would liberate art from its representational mandate: art was no longer to mirror the world, but to create it. Art should be unexpected, for “only a life grasped as a ballet of possibilities and surprises” could bring joy. This deliberate ungroundedness was a special kind of nihilism, whose content was radical contingency: an embracing of a world in which anything could happen at any moment. Jasie±ski was twenty years old when his debut poetry collection appeared. It included the poem “Nic” (“Nothing”), which contained not a single word. He believed that every artist was obliged to undertake a “salto mortale”, a leap into a void. This was an exhilarating emptiness, nothingness as Jean-Paul Sartre would later conceive it: absolute nothingness as absolute freedom. “Now I am sunny, selfassured, and pleased,” wrote Jasie±ski in another poem in that first collection, “young and ingenious, my hands in my pockets, I go / taking mile-long steps . . .” Futurism thus gave voice to an ecstatic self-confidence of youth, as well as to a selfindulgence and a scandalous, unabashed sexu-

ality that took seriously Charles Baudelaire’s call to “shock the bourgeoisie”. “And I want to stroke your breasts without the blouse, / I want to be wildly insolent and powerful, like an untamed ox”, wrote the young Jasie±ski. Following the example of the Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, he dedicated this debut collection “to Bruno Jasie±ski, ingenious artist”. That was in 1921. In 1923 Witold Wandurski, a fellow Polish Futurist, published a poem that included the line “How does it fail to disgust you, poets, this verbal onanism?”. Among the Futurists, breathtaking narcissism began to give way to self-disgust. Radical nihilism and radical contingency proved existentially unbearable. They began to feel the need to commit to some values, to something. (The choice, as Wandurski put it, was Revolution or masturbation.) That same year, 1923, Jasie±ski and his friend Anatol Stern published the poetry collection Ziemia na lewo (The earth to the left), in which they declared, “We hate the bourgeoisie . . . the bourgeoisie as an abstraction, its view of the world and everything that belongs to it”. Futurism, via Dadaism, gave way to a proletarian modernism of an unconstrained sort. The Bolshevik Revolution had captured the Futurists’ imagination, although what it truly was none of them yet knew. The visceral disgust for the bourgeoisie shared by Jasie±ski and Stern was less in the spirit of Karl Marx than of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the bourgeoisie as superficiality and inauthenticity, as decadence and passéisme. In 1925, Jasie±ski and his wife Klara left Poland for Paris, where they lived in poverty. It was there that Jasie±ski wrote I Burn Paris, which was first serialized in L’Humanité in 1928 (as Je brûle Paris), before publication the following year in its original Polish (Pale Pary.). The novel opens with Pierre, a worker at a car factory whose girlfriend Jeanette wants him to buy her evening slippers. The timing is not good. The economy is in decline; in Paris people are no longer buying cars. Every day more and more workers are fired, and now it is Pierre’s turn. “Pack up your tools!” the foreman tells him. In vain he seeks work everywhere and anywhere. He has nothing. Because Jeanette wanted new clothes, he has fallen behind on his rent and is evicted from his small room. He sleeps in the métro. He searches rubbish bins for scraps of food. Still worse, Jeanette flits off into the arms of other men. Pierre is not a Communist. On the contrary, in the past he always kept his distance from agitators, and during strikes he even broke through picket lines. No, he is only angry, desperate, full of despair. One day a childhood friend finds him asleep on a street bench. Proud of his menial position at a bacteriological institute, the friend takes Pierre to visit the laboratory, where Pierre pilfers two test tubes of a thick, whitish liquid: a new bubonic plague. It is Bastille Day when he empties the test tubes into Paris’s water supply. The plague quickly claims its first victims. The panicked city divides into autonomous republics: French monarchists, White Russians, Jews, French Bolsheviks, Anglo-American imperialists, Chinese Communists, African jazz musicians and doormen who behead white intruders in ceremonies borrowed from the Ku Klux Klan. Wildly diverse characters emerge in heightened depictions: the wealthy

The Times Literary Supplement, June 22, 2012, pp. 10-11

American businessman with a mistress on the Champs-Élysées; the reclusive rabbi who can speak with God whenever he pleases; the Chinese urchin-turned-Communist whose feet white imperialists have had beaten with canes; the aristocratic White Russian officer condemned to driving a taxi in Parisian emigration; the French Bolshevik leader ashamed of his intelligentsia origins and literary talent. Everyone and everything appears in this novel: plague and famine; brothers who find themselves on opposite sides; the Exodus of the Israelites from ancient Egypt; the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolu-

reveals a still largely forgotten moment: post-avant-garde and pre-Socialist Realist. Aesthetically, this moment was a fantastical one: quasi-Surrealist, hallucinogenic and grotesque. The homeless Chinese urchin, now a Communist leader, enters a cotton mill, where “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”. On that Bastille Day “gluttonous Europe” was “dying in its last convulsive spasms”, “croaking like a mare who has broken its leg

caption caption caption caption caption caption caption tion, the Bolshevik Civil War, the Apocalypse. Like Karel Capek’s War with the Newts, I Burn Paris is eerily prescient of the real-life catastrophe to come. The ghettoization of Paris leads to food shortages; the White Russian officer orders his men to pull down the pants of a captured fugitive who denies he is a Jew; and the rabbi and the Jewish elite plot to save only the best Jews – the wealthiest ones. Moreover, “In the violent and unforeseen clash of powers taking place before our eyes, the French democracy has shown itself to be a quantité négligeable”. While much has by now been written about the relationship between the avant-garde and Stalinist literature, Jasie±ski’s I Burn Paris

before the final hurdle”. The disgust in I Burn Paris remains Rousseauist: a disgust with licentiousness, with Chablis, cigars and Portuguese oysters. In the Anglo-American republic, “the first floor of the Café de la Paix was already squealing with jazz, and goggle-eyed gentlemen with one foot in the grave were sitting around tables like gigantic mosquitoes sucking the red blood of cocktails through the proboscises of their straws”. Capitalist Paris is, above all, a city of prostitutes. Rue de Rochechouart caters to paedophiles, boasting brothels where pimps and madams serve customers thirteen-year-olds in short dresses and pigtails. The cab of the White Russian émigré Captain Solomin “reeked of semen from a mile off”.

Following the publication of I Burn Paris, Jasie±ski was attacked by Marxist literary critics for portraying Paris less as a capitalist industrial metropolis than as a debauched Sodom. He had committed the sin of drawing on metaphysics as opposed to materialism; of writing a narrative that was less revolutionary than apocalyptic. For its author, I Burn Paris was fateful for other reasons. He was deported from France and headed for Leningrad, where he arrived to a hero’s welcome: the persecuted revolutionary given shelter by the homeland of the proletariat – at least for a time. The once Polish Futurist became a Soviet writer. He took part in pitiless Stalinist cultural politics with great gusto – until the NKVD came for him in 1937. His interrogators tortured him and extracted false confessions of Polish nationalist conspiracy. He was executed on September 17, 1938. Jasie±ski was among the many executed during the Great Terror who were posthumously rehabilitated after Stalin’s death. Yet only in the post-Communist years has his work enjoyed a renaissance, and I Burn Paris the status of a retro cult novel. The Polish literary historian Krzysztof Jaworski has published an annotated Polish translation of Jasie±ski’s NKVD file as well as a careful and engaging biography. A literary fan club has created a website devoted to his work and, since 2002, has held an annual Futurist festival in Klimontów, with concerts, poetry readings, body popping, and “happenings” named “We are all artists”. Jasie±ski’s twenty-first-century enthusiasts have also mobilized against recent attempts to reverse his rehabilitation. In 2009, Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance informed the Klimontów town council that the street named after Bruno Jasie±ski was in effect “a glorification . . . . of the politics of Joseph Stalin, of the criminal ideology of Communism”. Jasie±ski’s fans gathered signatures in protest: “If language is our spiritual Homeland and the testament of our ancestors”, they wrote in a petition, “then as a poet Jasie±ski did much more for Poland than have those custodians of patriotism who are currently accusing him”. The petition reminded Jasie±ski’s attackers that his biography was itself the perfect cautionary tale against Stalinist totalitarianism. “I am old-fashioned enough to believe”, writes Soren Gauger in his afterword to I Burn Paris, “that a translation should be motivated, above all, by a kind of bald enthusiasm for the author at hand.” The explanation was unnecessary: this translation, the first into English, was palpably a labour of love. It is not an easy novel to render: the vocabulary is intricate and vast, the literary registers multiple and shifting, the allusions at moments disorientingly wide-ranging. That Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski succeed in making the novel so readable in English while channelling the author’s vertigo-inducing voice is a remarkable accomplishment. At the same time, their translation is the recovery (and, in English, perhaps the discovery) not only of a talented writer and a fascinating personality, but also of an overwhelming historical drama. Read against the fate of its author, the sheer scope of I Burn Paris illuminates something of the dazzling enormity of the worldremaking experiment – and the catastrophic enormity of its failure.

Review: I Burn Paris in the TLS  

Marci Shore's review of I Burn Paris in the Times Literary Supplement, June 22, 2012, pp. 10-11.