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Anatol Stern’s Preface to I Burn Paris

The fate of this novel has been as remarkable and stormy as the fate of its author — one of our most outstanding revolutionary Romantics — was remarkable and tragic. Bruno Jasieński was born in 1901, in the tiny town of Klimontów in the Sandomierz Township. “My father,” he wrote in his autobiographical sketch, “was a provincial doctor who spent all his life in this backwater, thirty-five versts from the nearest railway station. The peasants, who spent much of the year in starvation, he generally treated for free . . .” There is a touch of Stefan Żeromski in these words. He attended grade school in Warsaw and entered the university in Kraków in 1918 — the year Poland regained independence. This was a year when a great wind of new poetry was blowing through Europe, and Jasieński became one of the leaders of our literary avant-garde. From the very beginning his poetry was a revolt against the bourgeoisie, but soon Jasieński was to give it the force of fiery social revolution — in the epic “Song of Hunger” (1922), and in the poems of “Earth on the Left” (1924), with its waft of new Romanticism. His readings were broken up by the police, while the issues of the Lwów Worker’s Tribune he published in were confiscated as furiously as our poetry pamphlets had been . . . In 1925 Jasieński went to Paris, sentencing himself to a voluntary emigration, from which he vowed never return. What was the experience of the twenty-four-year-old poet, finding himself in this “strange city he’d never set eyes upon”? From the start of his recollections, there is all his bitterness and revolt linked with his native country. He is plagued by the thought of his homeland’s most dramatic conflict — between the peasant and the landowner. This finally took form in the tragic leader of the Galician peasant uprising of 1846, and thus was born the poem The Lay of Jakub Szela. At the same time, a novella by Paul Morand appeared in a volume entitled Europe galante. This was a piece on the lifestyle of the Soviet proletariat, entitled “Je brule Moscou.” Morand was all that Jasieński despised most: a suspect elegance of style that stood in for real art, a contempt for the tragic side of life, and a disbelief in its highest aims. So as a response to Morand’s text, I Burn Paris was born. The difference was that while Morand sought to burn down the capital of the hardworking Soviet proletariat, the protagonist of Jasieński’s novel . . . What Paris did Jasieński have in mind when he sentenced this beautiful city to symbolic annihilation? . . . Let’s recall the political context of the period preceding the novel’s appearance. 1

Here we have Paris — the capital of a colonial empire whose surface area then exceeded that of Europe’s — an empire that was suppressing an uprising in Morocco no less brutally than it is behaving today in Algeria. Consistent with its political traditions, France’s officials changed in a flash, but the economic situation remained in steady decline. Crisis! . . . Inflation and prices grew at a dizzying pace, leading to constant strikes (in 1927 nearly ninety thousand miners went on strike in Saarland); unemployment was on the rise. The government responded with a fierce crackdown on communism (Jacques Duclos was sentenced to two years in prison), the standard response in such circumstances. One of the main causes of the catastrophic situation was to be found elsewhere: France was collapsing under its war debts and was being manipulated by its creditor, the United States. Jasieński symbolically uses the hand of his unemployed protagonist to destroy the Paris of the great capitalists, rentiers, and political operators, selling France for capital from across the Atlantic. He destroys a city where the well-fed have scooped up everything for themselves: beauty, love, joie de vie. Seldom has a novel more responded to the social situation of its time than Jasieński’s. In the same year, after all, the International Anti-fascist Committee, led by Romain Rolland, the noblest heart of the West, began its struggle against fascism in response to an upsurge of concern around the world. The editor of L’Humanité, Henri Barbusse, printed I Burn Paris in the magazine in installments. It was published shortly thereafter in book form by Flammarion and was translated into a score of languages, including Russian, with Roman-Gazyeta Publishers printing an astonishing run of 140,000 copies. At the same time, few are the works that have met with such a storm of conflicting opinions, from the greatest enthusiasm to the harshest condemnation. Among the latter were some critics from the socialist camp. Writing on the “revolutionary significance of the novel,” T. Ordom states that the “author exaggerates the role of the erotic, devoting too much space to images of debauchery and metropolitan perversity.” Apart from this amusingly prudish voice, there were more ominous ones known to us from the recent past, trying to find a formula for a great proletarian art that was strictly tied to sociology. Epitomizing this cultish conception of the essence of art was J. Szymański, who claimed: “In this novel we search in vain for something that approaches the revolutionary, the final link in the class struggles; with Jasieński there is no class struggle at all.” And he ultimately found the novel to have “a moral-metaphysical skeleton,” even traces of the “mystical apocalyptic.” Today’s reader will doubtless pay more attention to the radical colors in which Jasieński paints his characters, to his tendency toward almost paroxysmic mental shortcuts, toward a clustering of metaphors. He will be less inclined to protest that the depiction of all the circumstances and 2

incidents of the revolution are not entirely in accordance with the theory and historical practice we know. Jasieński’s novel is, after all, primarily a fantastical one, combining the two most critical elements of social literature in those restless times: Catastrophism and the belief in a miracle — in this case, the miracle of the Revolution. It infects us with its unrest, its hatred for the world of the gluttonous and moneyed, with its faith in the ultimate victory of the starving and disinherited. We are affected by this visionary fantasy with the extreme, sometimes even brutal realism of its texture, its innovative literary form, and the ambitious courage of its concept. Above all, however, I Burn Paris grips us with its eternal — forever old and forever new — story of the human heart that dreams of a better tomorrow. What happened to the author after that is by now well known: Jasieński’s deportation from France, protested by the most outstanding progressive French writers, led by Barbusse, Duhamel, and Romain; the writer’s journey to the USSR, where he was greeted by thousand-strong crowds of Soviet workers; finally, his nearly ten-year creative and socio-cultural work in the Soviet Union, interrupted by a criminal plot. In the Soviet Union Jasieński wrote a number of novels, plays, and novellas of lasting value, first and foremost Man Changes His Skin. Yet none of these eclipse his bizarre tale of a marvelous city that experiences a plague to become purified, to be prepared to shelter people both unlike and better than ourselves. translated from the Polish by Soren Gauger

First published in the Czytelnik edition of 1957 Translation © Soren Gauger, 2010 All rights reserved


Anatol Stern's Preface to I Burn Paris  
Anatol Stern's Preface to I Burn Paris  

The preface by Anatol Stern to the 1957 edition of I Burn Paris by Bruno Jasienski. Translated from Polish by Soren Gauger