I Burn Paris was written in a climate of uncertainty, nihilism, social and political upheaval, and precipitous change. The Great War had ended, the Bolsheviks were in power, Europe was trying grotesquely to forget the damage it had caused, labor was cheap, and prosperity was shifting to a smaller and smaller segment of the population. The translation by Soren A Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski appears in a moment when materialism and avarice are at their zenith, social unrest is spanning continents, and the disparity of wealth is at its’ largest point since, well, the original publication of I Burn Paris that saw Polish émigré author Bruno Jasieński escorted to the French-German boarder and warned not to return. This moment marked the beginning of the end of Jasieński’s life. He wound up in Moscow, a place he hadn’t been since graduating from secondary school, where he was met by banners and applause as a writer persecuted by a bourgeois society for exposing the realities of working class oppression. After ten years- and one too many self-criticisms- he was imprisoned and tortured for over a year as an agent provocateur of Polish Nationalism before finally being executed on September 17th, 1938.
Je Brule Paris was first serialized in L’Humanite in Paris in 1928, and then published in Polish as Palę Paryż in 1929. SG: “The French version is a translation from the Polish – and not Jasieński’s own translation – and it is heavily bowdlerized. I was working from a later Polish edition, because the first Polish one was censored whenever Polish politics were mentioned (most seriously in Part 3).”
The book is laid out in three sections like an idealized Marxist construction of communism, revolution, transition: utopia. The first section, revolution by way of catastrophe, is reminiscent of Marx’ famous opening sentence, “A spectre is haunting Europe…” An apolitical factory worker named Pierre is dismissed, his girlfriend Jeannette leaves him without explanation, and he is kicked out of his apartment. The nightmarish quality of his search for Jeannette could be the accompanying narrative of a painting by Otto Dix, “gigantic green cylinders, red cones, white cubes, rough-hewn pyramids, a real kingdom of geometric forms that have sprouted from the earth overnight.”(p20) Pierre travels down streets with “course cobblestones-the bald, scalped skulls of the masses buried alive-“(p11), through a debauched Paris inhabited by pimps, dealers, prostitutes. A Paris where “(t)hey stopped passersby with alluring staccato clicks of the tongue, just as dogs are called all over the world. In Paris, this is how they call people.” (p22)
In this merry-go-round of hell where people slept in alleyways “coiled like orange peels”(p21), Pierre’s life is spinning out of control. He meets a friend who works in a laboratory, then steals two vials of bubonic plague and promptly pours “the contents into the wildly splashing larynx,” (p53) the water supply to a city whose arrondissements are arranged in a giant spiral, now infected.
The dogmatic second section introduces leaders of all the various factions that have overtaken Paris. The Chinese Communists, French Reds, Whites, Anglo-American Imperialists, Jews, African jazz musicians, all attempting to claim a piece of Paris based on their own ideologies. It was easy for the French government to label the book propaganda. The socialist tract is presented through P’an Tsiang-kuie, a Chinese orphan turned militant and future leader of the Chinese communist municipality, in whom class-consciousness awakens. The dismissal is unjustified as P’an becomes as fully realized a character as any in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or the less referenced di Donato’s Christ in Concrete or London’s Iron Heel, and in far fewer pages, as one would expect from an accomplished poet. SG: “I have a lot of sympathy for the early Marxism of Central/Eastern Europe, and I believe that some of the most profoundly humanist and moral writing emerged from writers involved in it (Aleksander Wat, Victor Serge, early Ilya Ehrenberg, Mayakovsky). It makes no difference that this humanism was often expressed through a kind of disgust – it remains a defense of the human spirit much more compelling than anything we have in our day, and a rare example of political writing that never becomes mawkish or cloying. It is also probably not by accident that these writers gave a remarkable wholeness to each of their characters – everyone is fleshed out. This is not to be confused with realism (I see Zola’s and Dickens’s characters as cardboard), it is a sense of responsibility to the human animal as such.”
The plague has no social allegiances and rampages rich and poor alike. Jasieński spares almost no one. While each municipal leader meets a violent end, none of them die directly from the plague. SG: “My sense is that Jasieński’s characters die the way they do out of narrative, not political necessity. After all, the masses dying of the plague include aristocrats, university professors, politicians, and factory workers, and if anyone “rises above it,” or rather, is excluded from it, it is because society has excluded them from everything (i.e. the prisoners), and why should the plague be an exception.”
The true “prisoners” of a society are the wage slaves that constitute its’ ranks. In I Burn Paris, it is the jailhouse inhabitants that form a new society. Socialist Paris is shown in stark contrast to the rest of Western Europe, from which it tries to remain isolated, and especially America. So great is this isolationism that when the American Imperialists and the richest of the Jewish sector escape Paris and attempt to land on American soil, rather than risk spreading the plague and, therefore, initiating the demise of Capitalism, King of the American metal trust and frequent Parisian visitor David Lingslay, whom has orchestrated the escape, has the boats sunk, ending his own life. SG: “My understanding of the narrative is that it’s an abstract kind of tribute to Archibald, his nephew, an enthusiastic communist and his stand-in conscience. But it’s also certainly another example of the almost superstitious clinging to national identity that Jasieński sees as the source of so much ill in society, as much as it is a gesture of magnanimity.”
A text is the means for the production of meaning. While the French government saw Jasieński’s work as an affront to the Western way of life they failed, or chose not to, find virtue in the human and literary elements of the story. SG: “I think what keeps Jasieński important is less the politics than the sheer literary puissance of his work, or perhaps: how the political values uniquely translate into literary values. Jasieński clearly believed that new convictions required a new formal approach, and as such he reinvents his language every fifty pages or so, and entirely rethinks how a metaphor might be used. A metaphor consists of two parts, obviously, the literal and the figurative, with the latter being used to highlight some aspect of the former. In Jasieński the literal part of the metaphor slips into the background for pages at a time, giving the figurative aspect a life of its own, allowing it to become more “real” than the “reality” of the narrative at times. To get back to the question – it once seemed logical that a political revolution needed a corresponding revolution in the arts. Now the politics struggle to change while the artists keep doing the same old thing.”
David Lingslay opines, “Love is a question of free time.” (p144) Translation is certainly a labor of love. And through their labor Gauger, along with Piekoszewski, have amplified for readers of English an echo from a neglected and important author. With his ‘free’ time Gauger is currently at work on “something about an Expressionist Polish/Jewish artist named Ryszard Apte who died during World War Two, another volume of Jasieński for Twisted Spoon (novellas, manifestos, essays, short stories) together with Guy Torr (who’s handling the Russian ones), which will be out next year, Witkacy’s writings on narcotics, and then Michał Choromański, a woefully neglected Russian who wrote in Polish, and who, at his best, was much like Nabokov.”
Craig Chisholm is a writer and chicken farmer. He lives in Brooklyn and is the fiction reviewer for Gigantic Sequines. He is also Michael Nardone’s lifemate.
Soren A. Gauger grew up and was educated in Vancouver Canada. He moved to Krakow, Poland in 1998 to study Polish language and literature. Having taught literature at Jagiellonian University, he is now a freelance writer and translator, regularly contributing articles on culture to the Krakow Postand Month in Krakow. His fiction has appeared in journals internationally, including Capilano Review, Chicago Review,Jacob’s Ladder, and Prague Literary Review, as well as a chapbook of short stories, Quatre Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus(Ravenna Press, 2004). His translations include Waiting for the Dog to Sleep by Jerzy Ficowski, Bruno Jasienski’s novel I Burn Paris (both with Twisted Spoon Press) and Wojciech Jagielski’sTowers of Stone (Seven Stories Press).