Her name is Laure. And the place is Paris. Her name, which she dislikes because of its ubiquity in that city, was given to her by her parents precisely for that reason: so that she would fit in. I met her in Le Piano Vache, a bar on Rue Laplace. With a typical male predatory instinct, I waited until her friend had gone to the toilet before approaching her. When I introduced myself she laughed at l’englishman ivre. Her voice was like the tinkling of small bells; when I heard it I felt as though I was being called to worship. I told her she was beautiful; she told me she was Algerian. I did not understand.
In Paris, she said, there is no solidarity. You would not love me; and I could not love you. I am not French here; not Parisian. Only to you I am. She sounded gay; I suspected that she could not sound anything but gay. They are obsessed and now I am obsessed too, and it is because we are all scared. The way she told it there was no Paris at all, only a number of independent communities or small states eyeing each other suspiciously, each convinced that the others are intent on killing them. She made it sound like a large-scale Mexican stand-off, one that would inevitably descend into bloody chaos when the strain of inaction became too much to bear.
I took Laure out once. She was right, we were destined not to love each other; but not for the reason she had envisioned. I had to return to England, of course; and, although we stayed in touch for a while, eventually she became just another in a series of my life’s small, but still painful endings. However, what she said to me that first night still plays on my mind; it troubled me that someone could feel that way, could live feeling despised and dispossessed in the city that they ought to be able to call home. Motivated by a desire to explore, or indulge, these thoughts and feelings, I initially picked up Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris, but, for all its virtues, its light and airy tone was like eating candyfloss; it upset my stomach with its sugary sweetness.
Yet with literature, much like with music, there is, if you look long enough, or know where to look, always something out there to suit your mood; whatever your feelings, whatever your ideas, someone else will have had them before you and fixed them on paper. It was, therefore, only a matter of time before I came upon Bruno Jasieński’s I Burn Paris. First published in 1928, the novel, which was apparently met with a fair amount of controversy when it saw the light of day, ostensibly deals with an outbreak of plague in the French capital. As one would expect, the spread of the disease results in Paris being essentially quarantined by the authorities. But more interesting than this is the effect it has on the general population, not physically but psychologically.
“Left to their own devices, the police found themselves for the first time in a troublesome quandary. Suddenly stripped of the compass of the law, unable to decide which of the emergent governments should be considered lawful, and realizing the fictitiousness of any government outside the ring of the cordon, the unemployed blue people swiftly came to realize that they were less real creatures with every passing day, becoming metaphysical fiction.”
We are, of course, all aware that one day we will cease to exist, but for many of us this knowledge is stored away in one of the least accessible corners of our minds as we carry on with our mundane lives. A tragedy such as a plague epidemic, however, makes this impossible, and Jasieński’s novel includes some impressive writing about what it is like to make sustained eye contact with almost certain death. My favourite passage in this regard involves the rich American David Lingslay who is said to safeguard the ‘wretched formulation of hope, that one percent chance of salvation, somewhere deep inside him, like a nestling coddled in his bosom.’ There is, moreover, also the suggestion that some of the inhabitants of Paris consider themselves to be, in a sense, superior to the disease. The Jews, for example, believe it to be a punishment that has ‘descended upon Aryan Paris for their centuries of oppressing the Jewish nation’, and, as such, they – the Jews – will naturally be ‘spared’.
While for the Jews the catastrophe is arrogantly deemed to be a sign of favour, others actively seek to use it to their advantage. Indeed, according to the author, the plague ‘levelled social stratification,’ such that Lingslay cannot, despite the ‘gravity of his surname’, arrange to leave the city. As a consequence of this levelling, this shuffling of the cards, men like Captain Solomin, an emigre Russian, who had been working as a taxi driver prior to the outbreak, are able to gain power and prestige. Similarly, the communists view the plague, not necessarily as a punishment for certain groups, but as a convenient, welcome, event that will eradicate, or at least weaken, their enemies – the bourgeoisie – and give them a chance to create a proletariat, communist Paris.
What ought to be clear at this point is that Jasieński’s vision, his take on humanity and its impulses and behaviour, has much in common with Laure’s. When faced with this hardship, these difficulties, the people of Paris, in both the novel and the experience of my friend, do not come together, they move even further apart. In fact, in I Burn Paris there is an organised division, i.e recognised independent city-states are created, some along racial or national lines – Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Anglo-American, etc – and others social. Once this separation takes place, these groups indulge their prejudices or biases; the opposing city-states become other and therefore something to be feared, denigrated, ridiculed and ultimately eradicated. ‘Russians are savages’, one character thinks to himself, and one cannot but see in this the similarly absolute, and similarly misguided, belief that ‘Muslims are terrorists.’
“Your science, of which you are so proud and which we travel here to study, is not a system of tools to help man conquer nature, but rather to help Europe conquer non-Europe, to exploit weaker continents. This is why we despise your Europe and why we come here to study you so fervently. Only by mastering the achievements of your science will we be able to shed the yoke of your oppression.”
In the small number of reviews of that I have encountered there seemed to be an emphasis upon the important role of socialist politics in the book, even to the point of suggesting that it is a kind of [sometimes morally dubious] anti-capitalist manifesto. However, I find it difficult to reconcile this view with what I read. Certainly, there is discussion of socialist politics and concerns, and Pierre, who sets the story in motion, is made redundant as a result of France’s ‘lousy economic condition.’ Yet while you might argue that unemployment is responsible for the plague, that it motivates Pierre to act, Jasieński makes it clear that, to quote his own first line, things that are ‘private in nature’ are equally or more significant. For me, the first section of I Burn Paris is, at heart, about jealousy. Yes, Pierre loses his job, but he also loses Jeanette, and, for the remainder of his life, sees her, or imagines her, in the company of other men everywhere he goes.
To his credit, the author avoids lazy moralising by giving depth to, or breathing some life into, his characters. For example, the adult P’an Tsiang-kuei is a psychopathic communist, who thinks nothing of killing for the greater good [where have we heard that before?]; but we are also allowed access to his backstory, his history, as a mistreated orphan. We come to see how he became what he is, and it felt kosher to me. I believed it, and I believed in P’an. In Jasieński’s world, as in the real world, there are no absolute villains [or heroes]. People frequently do bad things, but in most cases one understands their motivations, even if one does not agree with the resulting act or behaviour. Another example of this is when a Japanese deliberately infects the man who ordered the death of his wife. Indeed, I Burn Paris is full of wonderful, often moving, minor portraits; and this is, I believe, its greatest strength. ‘You cannot feel concern for everyone,’ Jasieński writes at one point, and yet his own work goes some way to disproving this statement.