- "Song of Hunger," 1922
Compare (from Part One of I Burn Paris, after the protagonist has been thrown in prison):
On the other side of the wall, in the neighboring cramped cells — a strange society of castaways, discarded like waste by the scrupulous, unforgiving machine of the world to this place, behind the high wall on Boulevard Arago and, by someone's inconceivable will, tied and hitched to a new and bizarre mechanism, governed by the new and bizarre laws of the World of Readymade Things.The pointless walks around the symmetrical circles of the courtyard, regular as a carousel, under the low, sooty bell jar of the prison skies. The long rosary, manipulated by some unseen hand, of which each bead is the live, pulsating guts of human existence. The machinery built of cogs that had no place beyond the wall, but which unexpectedly meshed when thrown together in this monstrous lumberyard, clinging to one another and creating a new collective organism, functioning according to a new guiding principle, one scarcely conceived on the other side.
In the novel, the wonderment is gone, the machine has run amok. The pulse in Jasieński's poetry is a mechanical one. It was (remains) shocking for its bold disregard of what this mechanization means, preferring merely to hand us a portrait of the state of things in the modern world, and making a poetry that reflects it. His novel, on the other hand, focuses precisely on the ramifications of this state of things. Yet the recurrence of these images retain some of the young Futurist's fascination for the factory-made man, and his prose holds onto the one-two punch of the poetry's mechanized rhythm. The repetition of such adjectives as "matte" and "flickering" tell us something else: Jasieński's book is an early example of literature with a distinctly cinematic sensibility (Eisenstein is certainly a reference point), a narrative viewed through a camera lens.
A similar ambiguity emerges in Jasieński's treatment of the moral decadence and degradation of his contemporary society, which takes many forms: brothels, child prostitution, racism, grinding poverty, jazz music, the lifestyles of upper classes and bourgeoisie, and so on. Pierre, the novel's initial protagonist (whose death occurs early, in a strangely offhand gesture), appears as a kind of inter-war Candide, stumbling through the dark woods of modern French society, pummeled by its various mechanisms. Of course, in the midst of detailing the horrors that await Pierre in his weird spiral to madness, Jasieński ends up writing passages that very much resemble a decadent novel. Everything is grotesquely bent out of shape, but the sections detailing the revulsion and vileness are, from a literary point of view, some of the most compelling to read. It is a dilemma familiar to the religious painter: Hell is more fun to paint.
Finally, there is a strange and unsolvable contradiction in the fact that a novel which culminates in celebrating the triumphant spread of communism is also a novel whose central motif is the spread of a deadly and unstoppable plague.
None of this is to doubt the sincerity or conviction of Jasieński's aims. The treatment of the Jew by the White Russian officer will seem shockingly prescient to the twenty-first century reader with any knowledge of the Holocaust. The impression is made all the more powerful when one recalls how rare such depictions are in the European literature of the 1920s and 1930s. In his later novella entitled "The Nose" (forthcoming from Twisted Spoon, in The Legs of Izolda Morgan and Other Writings), written in Russian, he offers a rare, if not unique example of a writer with Jewish roots satirizing the sick morality of Nazi Germany before the war broke out. In the present novel, his humane treatment of P'an, the Chinese protagonist, again finds few parallels in the European literature of the time. What remains impressive in I Burn Paris is the fact that, whatever the moral or political status of the character at hand, Jasieński gives him/her full rights to our understanding and sympathy. In this disease-infested Paris everyone may well be cutting everyone else's throats, and the portrait of humanity as it stands might be dismal beyond repair, but as individuals, everyone gets a fair hearing, and a fleshed-out literary existence.
But the ambiguities I have mentioned do seem to suggest that there is a subconscious, or subterranean, life to the narrative, one that goes unacknowledged by the writer as such, but which is perhaps the chief source of discomfort in reading the novel. Whether it is the Futurist undermining the Catastrophist, Jasieński casting doubt on his own best intentions, or a classic case of attraction/repulsion syndrome, it is a tension that runs through much of the book.
We should note in passing (though without the humility of a footnote) that the translator's introduction – surely the most conservative of all arts, save perhaps typography – has undergone a shift in demeanor over the past few decades which is, not surprisingly, reflective of the shift in the so-called art of translating as such. This shift might broadly be defined as one from creative virtuosity to academic fidelity – both approaches with their own drawbacks – and accordingly, the sometimes disarming sincerity and eccentricity of translators' introductions of the 1960s and 1970s has largely given way to introductions that are at best blandly informative, and at worst larded with an academic rhetoric that puts the translator in a position of authority over his subject (i.e. the writer being translated). As I have no intention of playing such shabby tricks with the reader, because I am old-fashioned enough to believe that a translation should be motivated, above all, by a kind of bald enthusiasm for the author at hand, and ultimately, because this particular writer is one of painful, and sometimes uncomfortable honesty, I should like to include the following.
Any introduction to I Burn Paris should explain what I see as the real tragedy of Bruno Jasieński, though I would like to refrain from wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth. The tragedy has less to do with the garden-variety pathos of a highly gifted writer sentenced to death in the vast slaughter of Stalinist Russia (though surely this is tragic enough), than with a more unconventional sort of tragedy: that of an artist pursuing his own delusions to the bitter end. From his earliest poetry, Jasieński was a writer with a powerful sense of his own showmanship and the manufacture of his own identity. This included the monocle he liked to wear, the pseudonym (real name: Wiktor Zysman), affiliation with various literary movements, manifestoes, public statements, rallies, and performances. Even as an aesthetic writer (as opposed to the politically engaged writer he later became), he had an acute sense of creating a persona – the writer himself was viewed as another fictional character. Jasieński's literary voice is seldom, if ever, an intimate one – it is that of a man holding forth from a tribunal or a podium. It is a Romantic impulse, a sign that a writer sees his role as a spokesman for the people (compare: Bruno Schulz's "secretly clasping his reader's hand under the table").
There is a certain inevitability, perhaps, in such writers finding politics. Like many intellectuals of his time, Jasieński was a Marxist. When he found himself expelled from France after the publication of I Burn Paris, the Soviet Union gave him a hero's welcome (a surviving photograph: crowds with banners at the train station, gathered round to greet him). His addresses to the Soviet public maintain the confidence and bluster of his early Futurist manifestoes. That is to say, one has the creeping suspicion that the character of Jasieński the writer (as opposed to Zysman – whoever he was) had not been fundamentally altered, it was only the rhetoric and the vocabulary that had changed. When the purges began in earnest in the 1930s and it became very dangerous to be a public persona, Jasieński had already made a few enemies, and he was soon fighting accusations of being a Polish spy and an enemy of the people. He was arrested on 31 July 1937, and executed on 17 September 1938.
Soren Gauger has translated Jerzy Ficowski's short fiction (Waiting for the Dog to Sleep, Twisted Spoon Press, 2006), Wojciech Jagielski's reportage (Towers of Stone, Seven Stories Press, 2009), and a novel (I Burn Paris, Twisted Spoon, 2011) and a short-story/manifesto anthology (The Legs of Izolda Morgan, Twisted Spoon, 2012) by the inter-war Catastrophist/Futurist Bruno Jasieński. He has also published two books of short fiction, and has a short novel soon to be published.