I Burn Paris

Bruno Jasieński

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

The following day was the 14th of July.

Paris's intrepid shopkeepers, those who had stormed the Bastille to erect in its place an ugly hollow column "with a view of the city," twelve bistros, and three brothels for average citizens and one for homosexuals, were throwing a party in their own honor, as they did every year, with a traditional, republican dance.

Decorated from head to toe in sashes of tricolor bows, Paris looked like an aging actress dressed up like a country bumpkin to star in some folksy piece of trash at the church fair.

The squares, illuminated with tens of thousands of paper lanterns and light bulbs, slowly filled with the strolling crowd.

With the coming of dusk an unseen switch was flicked, and the gaudy footlights of the streets exploded in a gala show.

On platforms cobbled together from planks, drowsy, grotesque musicians — rightly assuming that a holiday meant a day of communal rest — blew a few bars of a fashionable dance tune out of their strangely warped trumpets every half-hour or so, and then rested long and extravagantly.

The gathering crowd, stuffed into the cramped gullies of the streets, thrashed impatiently like fish about to spawn.

Dancing broke out in places. With no space to dance in, the entwined bodies were reduced to a sequence of ritual gestures, soon thereafter performed in the solitude of the only truly democratic institutions, the nearby hotels, which were not observing this holiday of universal equality.

Over it all rose the smell of sweat, wine, and face powder, the ineffable, translucent summertime fog exuded by the surging rivers of crowds.

The smoldering houses endlessly perspired dozens of new residents. The temperature rose with each passing minute. In the scorching frying pans of the squares the crowd started to bubble like boiling water around the improvised lemonade and menthe glacée booths. Chilled glasses filled with the greenish and white liquids were snatched from one hand by another.

Clearing away the crowd with the oar of a hoarse siren, the packed arks of the tourist companies floated down the streets in regular intervals, bearing aloft on the waves of this flood of democracy chosen couples of the pure and the impure — generally of the same Anglo-Saxon stock — curiously observing the well-fed, tame, and amiable conquerors of the Bastille through their opera glasses and binoculars, in silent, though profound conviction that the whole French Revolution was in actual fact little more than another ingenious concoction of the immortal Cook, a pretext for sumptuous annual celebrations, reckoning on tourists and calculating a margin into the cost of the bus ticket.

Generally, dancers were far fewer than spectators, and one disappointed gentleman aptly informed his embarrassed guide that the Parisians didn't put much enthusiasm into their holidays.

The foreigners' districts — Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter — were, however, pulling out all the stops for the 14th of July.

Eight jazz bands were scattered about the tight square between La Rotonde and Le Dôme, their sharp cleavers of syncopation quartering the live meat of the night into chopped bars of entrails. The multilingual crowd of Americans, Englishwomen, Russians, Swedes, Japanese, and Jews showed their boundless joy with spasmodic dances, all for the storming of the grand old Bastille.

A few streets down, on dark Boulevard Arago, La Santé Prison was celebrating the holiday in silence, surrounded by a military cordon, with larger-than-usual portions of food. La Santé, at any rate, was not the Bastille, and holiday celebrants could dance without fear, knowing full well that the walls on Boulevard Arago were high and secure, the military detachment well-armed and obedient, and that in a democratic and civilized society certain excesses — though permissible during the era of the ancien régime — could in no way be repeated.

A garland of faded letters hung on the prison frontage, courting passersby with their blackened inscription: "Liberty–Equality–Fraternity," like a discolored mourning ribbon for the abandoned tomb of the Great French Revolution.

The paper lanterns rocked gently like water lilies on the shiny surface of the night.

Sweaty, ruddy-faced waiters only just managed to keep the cool, clear lemonade flowing to the tables that had miraculously proliferated for these festivities, spilling off the sidewalks and taking possession of the streets.

Above the jazz band, a breathless Negro shattered invisible plates of noise on the heads of the listeners with the motions of a hapless juggler, shaking in cataleptic convulsions over the empty dishes of the cymbals. Sixteen other Negroes hollered their throats raw shouting the magic incantations of faraway continents into the brass speakers of trumpets loud as Jericho's, confirming with horror that not only were the walls not tumbling down, they seemed to be climbing higher in jagged lines of flickering windows.

Cool, crystalline water flowed with a gurgle from thousands of taps like cut arteries, and an exhausted Paris went pale, wilting in the sweltering heat.

The first ambulance was observed at ten o'clock that evening at Place Hôtel de Ville. The crowd, shunted and smothered by the endlessly drifting tour buses, at first mistook it for another bus and greeted it with a scowl. The error was soon recognized, and people swiftly moved aside. The band was just starting up a third Charleston. The dancing continued unabated.

Not twenty minutes later a second ambulance showed up, only to disappear in the black crevice of a neighboring alley. Nobody paid it any mind.

The third, fourth, and fifth arrived just after the second, filling the festive square with the echoes of their ominous sirens.

The first minor turmoil was visible around eleven o'clock. In the middle of the fourth Charleston, one of the dancing couples fell on the slippery asphalt and showed no signs of getting up. They were surrounded by laughter. The pair shook in convulsions. They were brought to the nearest pharmacy. Five minutes later, an ambulance arrived and collected the unfortunate dancers. For the first time someone dropped the word "epidemic," which clattered like a coin and rolled through the crowd. Nobody believed it, and the dancing resumed.

The next dancing couple to collapse showed strange symptoms of poisoning, and they were picked up from Place de la Bastille. The third from Montparnasse, in front of the veranda at La Rotonde.

A few dozen cases were reported before midnight. More and more mutterings were heard about a strange epidemic. Yet the dancing carried on.

A Negro playing in the jazz band on the terrace of Le Dôme Café crashed spastically onto his drums halfway through a bar, kicking his legs up in the air to comic effect. The amused audience rewarded this new trick with a spontaneous round of applause. But the man did not get up. His face was turned skyward. He was dead.

The ambulances' ominous horns wailed in the black tunnels of the streets, like a lonesome scream for help. The dancing stopped here and there and the unsettled crowd quickly dispersed to their homes. In Montparnasse, the Latin Quarter, and in a few other districts inhabited by foreigners, the dancing continued.

The horns howled relentlessly, mournful and terror-stricken.


The next day, Paris awoke in fright at the wet ink of the morning gazette. On the front page, in big black letters, ran the spine-chilling announcement: PLAGUE IN PARIS!

The news was alarming. Over the night of July 14, eight thousand cases of plague were reported, almost all fatal.

The day rose pale from emaciation, dry and sweltering. Feverish crowds had been roaming the streets since morning, snatching shreds of special newspaper editions from one another's hands. The hollow, piercing horns of the hospital vehicles wailed incessantly, and simultaneously on all sides of town. People began dropping in the streets by the dozens.

When evening fell, attempts were made to dance in Upper Montmartre and Montparnasse, in spite of it all. Those dancing were few.

In denial over the loss of their traditional holiday profits, the café owners managed to slap together new bands, and hearing the bouncy beats of the Charleston, excited crowds of pedestrians swooped from the dusky streets to flood the abandoned terraces. The musicians going wild in front of La Rotonde blew the last shreds of their lungs out through their saxophones, vainly trying to drown out the cheerless jazz of the ambulances.

In the blink of an eye, the tight rectangle formed by La Rotonde, Le Dôme, and La Coupole was populated with swarms of dancing couples.

The frenzy erupted unexpectedly, and relatively late. It began as it had everywhere else. In the middle of a dance, a girl suddenly toppled to the ground, dragging her partner with her. Nobody noticed them at first. Trapped by the crowd, the other dancers were still undulating to the music. Another couple stumbled over the fallen pair. In the space of a minute, a mound of bodies was thrashing about in the center of the square. A commotion erupted. The music broke. The crowd gushed onto the sidewalks. The dancers struggled to their feet, running after the rest of the crowd. The square emptied.

Only a slender girl was left on the asphalt, writhing in zigzags of inconceivable pain. Her short pleated skirt was hiked up, revealing a small, almost childlike pair of knees wreathed in luxurious garters, and the shy white of boyish thighs, peeking out like supple, frenzied snakes from a thicket of cream-colored lace. The pointed heads of her slippers quivered unabated.

The dancers pressed themselves against the wall in panic.

Cutting through the crowd and clearing a path with his fists, a lanky, red-haired man in workman's clothing emerged from the mass, heading for the other side of the street, probing the eyes of the throng as he went. He walked up to the girl stretched out on the pavement, stopped, bent over, and looked carefully. Another painful convulsion jerked the girl's face upward. The red-haired man let out a strange shriek, a rooster's crow, and sat abruptly on the ground. Grasping the girl by her slender arm, he made a futile attempt to lift her. The girl flailed in violent paroxysms. The red-haired man took her in his arms and got up, but with another thrust of her body he staggered and fell with her to the ground. Leaning over her on all fours, muttering inarticulate sounds, he covered the twitching body of the girl with hot kisses.

This extraordinary spectacle lured some onlookers down from the terraces of the cafés to the edges of the sidewalks, forming a tight circle around the odd pair. The despair of the red-haired man was so palpable, so unbridled, he immediately won the sympathy of the ladies observing the scene in their décolleté dresses.

The man, vainly trying to make the girl's twitching body lie still in his arms, was hoarsely repeating the same word between his kisses. The audience edged closer. The first one to hear hurried to share the news with those beside him:

"He's calling out her name. I think it's Jeannette."

"His girlfriend, no doubt."

"So young!"

"And so elegant! While he's . . . a simple worker . . ."

"Her brother, maybe?"

"Hardly! Have you ever seen a man kiss his sister like that?"

Yet the spectators were not to unravel these riddles entirely. The girl suddenly shot up in the air with her whole body, struck her head on the asphalt with superhuman force, and fell silent. The crowd shuddered. A hush reigned. Even the excited ladies went silent, without having finished their stimulating exchange. The filigreed legs, wrapped in an imperceptible cobweb of stockings, froze stiff, protruding the aghast heads of her slippers.

Bent over the girl in silent despair, the red-haired man had also fallen silent. When he lifted his head a few minutes later, his face was disfigured from fighting back the tears. The crowd was expecting him to sob and groan, to hammer his head against the asphalt. A policeman had been drawn by the crowd, and was discreetly squeezing his way in from the back.

The red-haired man took in the crowd with a glassy stare. A jealous motion of his hand pulled down the girl's skirt, covering the exposed legs and lace dessous. His angry, canine gaze scanned the faces of the men surrounding him, and rested on the policeman's, and the polished number pinned to his collar.

"I'm the one who killed her!" he said in an indifferent, raspy voice, his eyes fixed on the policeman.

The crowd rippled with excitement. The policeman bristled.

The red-haired man pressed his face once more to the motionless girl's and stayed for a long while in this position. Vaguely sensing the solemnity of the moment, the policeman decided to hold back. Finally, finding the mute scene to be dragging on a bit too long, his hand delicately touched the man's arm.

When the red-haired man turned to face him, everyone felt a wave of unease. His tangled, disheveled hair hung in his eyes in clumps. Two black veins pulsed on his forehead, like cords binding his bursting skull. The blood rushing to his face turned it crimson.

The crowd retreated in panic. Even the fearless policeman preferred to take a few cautionary steps back.

The red-haired man raised his fist and shook it at the retreating crowd.

"You'll all croak, you bastards!" he screamed in a hoarse, shrill voice, waving his fist in the air. "There was nothing to punish you! I am your punishment! It was I who poisoned you like rats! I stole the test tubes of plague from Pasteur! I poisoned the water supply! Run! Save yourselves! There's nowhere to hide!"

The crowd inched backward in panic and terror.

"You'll never escape! This is the end!" roared the red-haired man, shaking his fist at Boulevard Arago. "If you don't croak from the plague . . . THEY will come out from behind the walls! Thousands of them! Tens of thousands! For me! For my wrongs! For everything! Not a pile of stones will remain! Bastards! Swine! Scum!"

His face flushed scarlet, the red-haired man made straight for the well-lit veranda.

The guests knocked over chairs in panic, rushing to the back. Glass shattered. Women squealed and took cover under tables. Someone gave a long holler:

"Help! Marauders!" and suddenly fell silent.

"The police! Where are the police? Are there really no police?" came the voice of a hysterical woman.

Then, amid the general confusion, a well-built gentleman rose up from behind a corner table, an athlete to judge by his broad shoulders, and aimed a heavy champagne bottle like a tennis racket and flung it at the red-haired man. Glass flew. Blood mingled with wine and gushed onto the terrace in a sparkling, foamy stream.

"In one throw!"

"Do it again!"

"We were supposed to croak? What about him?"

"Maybe he really poisoned the water? They wrote in the papers that test tubes of plague were stolen from Pasteur!"

"He definitely poisoned it! The bandit! You can see it in his face!"

"Pound the maniac!"

"Hit the scum!" roared dozens of savage voices.

"Gentlemen — this is clearly a madman!" someone yelled, but the shout sank like a stone in the sea of tumult.

"Where did the plague come from?"

"What about the test tubes?"

"He obviously poisoned it!"

"Kill the dog!"

Struck down by a third well-aimed bottle, the red-haired man staggered and collapsed onto the sidewalk, spurting blood. He was smothered by a wave of rabid people, a forest of raised sticks, the crash of breaking bottles and the piercing shrieks of women.

When the tide ebbed, there was no more than a motionless, red splotch left on the sidewalk.

The majestic policeman — he had gotten lost somewhere and was suddenly located — looked the other way with a grimace of disgust. Five minutes later the café was evacuated.

At one o'clock a.m. bulletins from the prefecture were hung up all around town calling an end to the festivities and banning gatherings. They appeared, as usual, after the fact, at a time when the streets were more or less already empty. Ambulances had already taken the last stubborn dancers, still spinning in convulsive contortions, to the local hospitals.

The nightly editions of the newspapers, which by now only the newsboys read, noted sixty thousand new cases on the day of July 15.

A hollow vacuum reigned in the streets. Cars flying Red Cross flags were practically the only ones about.

On July 16, a second proclamation from the Parisian prefecture appeared on the walls. The prefecture announced that in the interests of localizing this exceptionally pernicious epidemic and preventing its spread throughout France, Paris had been surrounded by a military cordon during the previous night. Any attempt to leave the city was futile and would carry the death penalty. The prefecture urged the residents to stay calm and rational, and not to leave their apartments.

The day arrived pale, shaky and scorching. Stores remained closed. Café chairs sat motionless in the streets, as if frozen where they had been strewn.

Cheap paper lanterns swayed over the abandoned streets like bubbles over a petrified whirlpool. Half of the newspapers went unpublished.

The radio reported that by noon one hundred and sixty thousand fatal cases had been recorded. Even when all the city and municipal vehicles had been converted to ambulances, there still weren't enough for all the victims. A wide range of public institutions were hastily converted into hospitals. A mandatory Red Cross confiscation of private automobiles was forecast.

At six p.m., the Eiffel radio station broadcast political news.

Having spent his vacation at the seaside, the President of the Republic arrived in Lyon, where he immediately summoned the majority of vacationing deputies and senators, as well as the members of parliament enjoying some recreation in the provinces. At midnight an emergency assembly of the Chamber of Deputies was to be convened in Lyon, presided over by the president himself, to discuss the lamentable events of the past few days.

Paris was perishing softly, with dignity, to the clamorous funeral march of car horns and the jazzy clattering of bells. Eiffel Radio reported half a million fatalities.

On the fifth day, in defiance of the prefecture's ban, Parisians who had been impatiently crammed in their apartments — from which many corpses still awaited removal — wandered irresolute into the streets. Somebody decided that alcohol was the best antidote to the plague. The bistros pulsed. Corks flew. Jazz bands rattled. Hotel signboards once more began flashing. A possessed Paris numbed itself with wine.

Down the riverbeds of the streets, down the ribbons of slick, asphalt streams, flowed a flock of automobiles like dead, powerless birds carried along the surface of a glossy, black current.

translated from the Polish by Soren Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski

I Burn Paris will be released in bookstores in Apr 2012.

Clich here for more information about the book.

Click here to read an essay on Bruno Jasieński by Soren Gauger.