Outside of Poland, Bruno Jasieński is a little known name, and I can imagine that inside of Poland he’s probably an obscure name, although he has a street named after him, and an annual “Brunonalia” literary festival is named after him, both in Klimontów. But when you read his biography, let alone his works, it is amazing that he is not more well known.
A Polish-Jew, he is considered one of the founders of the Polish futurist movement and moved to Paris in 1925, listing 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, which could have resulted in a year or two in prison, and (3) he was an unemployed literary graduate whole scandalous reputation scarcely promised him work as a high-school teacher. Whilst there his novel Palę Paryż was serialised by the leftist L’Humanité newspaper in French as “Je Brûel Paris” (“I Burn Paris”), the title reportedly being a rebuttable to Paul Morand’s pamphlet “Je Bruel Moscow”, (“bruler” having the idiomatic meaning, to “travel through quickly”). Paul Monard’s (who would later collaborate with the Nazis) pamphlet was a short anti-Semitic and anti-Soviet ’s satire. The novel was quickly translated into Russian, where the first edition of 140,000 copies sold out in a matter of days, prompting a second edition of 220,000 copies. In 1929 the original Polish text was published in Warsaw, but Jasieński was expelled from France for the novel and importation of the book was forbidden on the grounds it “exuded blind and stupid hatred for Western European culture”. Unable to be admitted to Belgium or Luxumborg, Jasieński stayed in Frankfurt Germany until the extradition order was withdrawn, only to return to France and be expelled again for communist agitation.
Settling in Leningrad in the USSR in 1929 he accepted Soviet citizenship, moving to Moscow in 1932. As a strong supporter of Genrikh Yagoda’s political purges within the writers’ community, Jasieński lost support when the Stalin appointed director of the Soviet’s security and intelligence agency was himself arrested, charged with the crimes of wrecking, espionage, Trotskyism and conspiracy, found guilty and shot. Jasieński’s first wife, Klara Arem, who had had an affair with Yagoda, was also arrested, sentenced to death and executed, as a result Jasieński was expelled from the All-Union Communist Party (the Bolsheviks). He was fighting accusations of being a Polish spy and an enemy of the people and was arrested on 31 July 1937, and after being sentenced to 15 years in a labour camp he was instead executed on 17 September 1938. Surviving letters from his time in prison still remain, they are written directly to Stalin, begging for clemency, and listing torture such as fingernails being pulled out, teeth kicked in. Jasieński’s second wife, Anna Berin, was arrested in 1939 and spent seventeen years in various Soveit gulags, and his son was stripped of his identity and sent to an orphanage, but managed to escape during World War II. After the war he went on to become a prominent figure in Russia's criminal underworld. Eventually discovering his true heritage, he took a Polish name and became active in various illegal organizations in opposition to the Communist regime. He was killed in the 1970s.
This all reads like a film script and although a lengthy introduction to a review of “I Burn Paris” it is valuable information to understand the political and historical motivations of the author.
Our opening chapter tells of Pierre, one of many to lose his job in the period of economic decline, he doesn’t receive the correct paperwork, cannot receive welfare and wanting to buy his girlfriend a pair of slippers to wear to the ball he can’t as he has “exactly three sous in his pocket”. He waits outside her home to explain his predicament, but to add to his woes she doesn’t come home. It doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that they’re in for a dark novel, an opening of despair;
Somewhere far off, in some invisible tower, a clock struck two. Slowly, like schoolboys who had learned their lessons by heart, the other towers repeated it from above the pulpits of the rooftops. Then silence again. His heavy eyelids fluttered clumsily like insects caught on flypaper, flapping upward for a moment, only to drop once more. Somewhere on the faraway bumpy pavement a first tentative cart began to rumble. Soon the garbage wagons would appear. The naked, coarse cobblestones – the bald, scalped skulls of the masses buried alive – would greet them with a long, clattering scream, passed from mouth to mouth as far as imaginable down the endless length of the street. Black men with long spears would run across the sidewalks, sinking their blades into the lanterns’ quivering hearts.
The dry rattle of aching iron. The groggy, waking city struggling to life the heavy eyelids of its shutters.
Very early on in this novel I thought of the despair in Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger”, which I reviewed recently as another entry on my Classics Club listing;
His greedy, tamed hunger lay at the threshold of his consciousness like a trained dog, without crossing over uninvited, content that every thought that hoped to enter his mind had to tread on it first.
Also hallucinating, as the protagonist in “Hunger” does, our protagonist here is homeless, hungry, wet and cold, and finds warmth inside a bordello;
From time to time a man would raise himself slowly, staring at one of the angels surrounding him, his eyes wide with astonishment – as though in her face he had suddenly seen that of another, someone familiar and long lost. Then the couple, taking each other by the hand and tracing slow semicircles with their feet, approached the altar of the counter, where in exchange for the mystical writ of a banknote the motionless Buddha of the puffy feminine visage made a ceremonial, liturgical gesture and handed the woman the symbolic ring of the number and the narrow stole of a towel. The betrothed then ascended in the majestic spirals of a twisting, celestial staircase, guided only by fluttering butterfly glances from the odd women wrapped in furs.
It is understandable that these descriptions would cause controversy in the 1920’s, decadent, futurist literature on display. Pierre deranged with hunger, assaults a man who he believes has just been in a hotel with his missing girlfriend, and our protagonist ends up in prison, but with no work, no food, no lodgings, this is a blessing. Whilst in prison he is forced to share a cell with the numerous worker protestors and as a result he learns;
Back in the factory Pierre had heard long and monotonous stories about this new world, a world with neither rich nor oppressed, where the factories would be owned by the workers, and labor would change from a form of slavery to a hymn, to hygiene for the liberated body. He didn’t believe them. No one would budge the diabolical machine, not one inch! It had grown deep into the earth. It had been running since time immemorial, ever since it had been set in motion. Seize the cogs with your bare hands? It wouldn’t stop, it would just rip off your hands. He saw blood on soiled bandages, hands bound in bloody rags, and he thought: another exercise in futility. The battered bodies were flung off the transmission belt and onto the sidelines, behind the wall, with a flick of the wrist.
Remembering that this work was written in 1928 the imagery is quite astonishing;
If the miles of film of the average human life could for once be played in reverse, the eye, like an all-seeing probe plunged in the fathomless stream of human consciousness, would hit upon a point somewhere deep down, a hard bedrock, a fact, an event, an image, and undefined and flickering sensation. It would be tattered and faded, yet inflicted with such a strange hue that the current of time flowing through one’s life would absorb its indefinable color for good.
Who we believe to be our main protagonist, Pierre, quickly meets his demise and we then move to a new hemisphere and the memories of P’an Tsiang-Kuei, a hatred of western civilisation, his life as a street urchin, his distrust of Europe and their pursuit of the holy grail, knowledge, and his discovery of the industrial age.
“White people like money. You have to work for money. White people don’t like to work. They like other people to work for them. Where they live, machines and their own kind, whites, do the work for them. But there’s never enough money for the white people. That’s why they came to China and yoked up all the Chinese to work for them. The Emperor and the Mandarins helped them. That’s why Chinese people live in such poverty, because they have to work for both eh Mandarins and the Emperor – and above all, for the white people, who need lots of money, and so there’s nothing left for us.”
Nothing is sacred in the book, all of societies norms are put to the sword, for example Religion;
Oh, as Father Francis said not more than a week ago: “Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” And every Sunday he accepted all sorts of presents from rich white people, wine and fruit, and spoke with them cordially for hours at a time, and when they finally left he would see them to their cars, not troubled in the slightest that they wouldn’t be entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Clearly it wasn’t so terribly important if someone was entering the Kingdom of Heaven or not, if the rich fold weren’t so eager to get there, and Father Francis didn’t see much of a problem with this. Obviously this Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t anything special if only the poor folk were being sent there. No, P’an didn’t much care for this docile god. The rich fold and the Caesars had clearly bought him out, so that he would convince people to be subservient. He could set an example by letting himself be beaten to his heart’s content. If he was in fact God, it would hardly hurt. And he could die as much as he like. No, you couldn’t believe in a god like that. That kind of god was a scam.
As always, at this blog, I don’t want to give away too much of this novel’s plot, however the events that transpire in Paris cause the inhabitants to declare independent states, Chinese, Jewish, Russian, Monarchists, Anglo-American, and each of these groups leaders are revealed in differing detail. Futuristic to an extent that it reminded me (slightly) of Huxley’s “Brave New World”, or in part Orwell’s “1984”, even the recent novel by Houellebecq “Submission” as well as the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”.
Switching between decadence, futurism, manifesto, propaganda and remembering that this was written between two World Wars and prior to the Great Depression this is a revolutionary work. Yes, a deeply political work, references to Karl Marx are not uncommon, and as a result it is no surprise to learn that it was met with uproar, the obvious political leanings of our author and the majority of the action taking place in dark settings or at night, we have the shadows pervading people’s lives. A capitalist system in decline, a dystopian future with utopia an elusive, but realistic possibility, this work is thoroughly recommended.
The cover is also an interesting design, the artwork by Dan Meyer, a play on the geometric designs of the art deco era, another wonderful publication by the independent Twisted Spoon Press, based in Prague, they are slowly becoming one of my preferred suppliers of translated works that enlighten.
Source – personal copy.