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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

I Burn Paris

Bruno Jasieński

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To purchase I Burn Paris

Title: I Burn Paris
Author: Bruno Jasieński
Genre: Novel
Written: (1929) (Eng. 2012)
Length: 309 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: I Burn Paris - US
I Burn Paris - UK
I Burn Paris - Canada
I Burn Paris - India
Je brûle Paris - France
Pest über Paris - Deutschland
  • Polish title: Palę Paryż
  • First serialized (in French) in L'Humanité in 1928
  • Translated by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski
  • With an Afterword by Soren Gauger

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinating as a document of the times; curious piece of political fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Lire . 7/2003 Daniel Bermond
TLS . 22/6/2012 Marci Shore

  From the Reviews:
  • "Il ne faut pas voir dans ce roman, paru en feuilleton dans L'Humanité en 1928, un chef-d'oeuvre de rigueur littéraire mais il est exemplaire de cet art prolétarien tel qu'on le cultivait dans ces années de bolchévisation à outrance." - Daniel Bermond, Lire

  • "It is not an easy novel to render: the vocabulary is intricate and vast, the literary registers multiple and shifting, the allusions at moments disorientingly wide-ranging. That Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski succeed in making the novel so readable in English while channelling the author’s vertigo-inducing voice is a remarkable accomplishment. At the same time, their translation is the recovery (and, in English, perhaps the discovery) not only of a talented writer and a fascinating personality, but also of an overwhelming historical drama. Read against the fate of its author, the sheer scope of I Burn Paris illuminates something of the dazzling enormity of the worldremaking experiment -- and the catastrophic enormity of its failure." - Marci Shore, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       I Burn Paris is a product of Europe in the 1920s and the economic and political turmoil of those times across the continent, and the world. While largely set in Paris, the city here is a mirror of the global situation, with two of the significant representative characters Chinese and American respectively. (The publishing history of the novel already suggests its broad scope and specific appeal: though written by a Pole, it was first serialized in a French newspaper, and became a bestseller in the Soviet Union (where the author spent the last decade or so of his life).)
       I Burn Paris begins as the story of Pierre, a factory worker who loses his job in these depressed times and is unable to find work. Everywhere he turns it seems he spots his love, Jeanette -- but she remains just out of reach. His tale is that of the everyman who has lost everything, the far too common figure of the times -- and that in Paris, the anonymous, densely populated city which, regardless of the individual's plight: "rumbled as always, an eternal ebb and flow". Eventually, Pierre does find work again, at a water tower at a city filter station; even so, "it was too late", despair having clawed itself too deeply into him.
       A friend who works as an attendant at Pasteur's bacteriological institute and ill-advisedly gives Pierre a tour, and Pierre's own position make for a lethal combination, allowing the damaged Pierre to succumb to his temptations and unleash the plague on the entire city, to devastating effect.
       Coming to this place and time from an entirely different point of origin is P'an Tsiang-kuei. He grew up in an unsettled China, and became a political activist. Typically, there:

     Then -- faces, factories, cities ... image after image, like a high-speed film. No way to retain it all. Groups, meetings, strikes, demonstrations, prisons. The flesh on his heels stripped to the bone. Two months in the slammer. Two death sentences. Two jailbreaks.
       P'an Tsiang-kuei is sent to study in Europe, where he is able to familiarize himself first-hand with the ideologies and philosophies that he feels have been undermining China. Eventually, too, he feels confident in concluding:
Europe is dying in its last convulsive spasms. No cordon sanitaire will save it. The plague will surge unstoppably across the whole of the continent when its done with Paris. To tell the truth, its meddling in our age-old conflict is entirely superfluous.
       Yet the actual plague remains largely localized: walled off and quarantined from the rest of the world, Paris itself becomes a microcosm of potential: an independent Chinese republic is established in the Quartier Latin, the Jewish population claims their own piece of land as well, expelling all the (conveniently apathetic) Christians from it, and the workers' populations of Belleville and Ménilmontant declare: "their territories an autonomous Soviet Republic". Eventually, Paris is carved up into "over a dozen tiny states".
       Among those getting stuck in plagued Paris is a good, old-fashioned American capitalist, too: "David Lingslay, king of an American metal trust, owner of fourteen major newspapers". With: "the whole of the United States naval fleet" in the palm of his hand, Lingslay is drawn into a grand escape plan to get a Jewish contingent to America (a part of the novel where later history is rather uncomfortably prefigured).
       Unfortunately (or not), the plans don't pan out: Paris-as-global-microcosm goes remarkably badly; as do attempts at escape. Aside from the deadly plague itself, the various mini-states with their competing ideologies and interests don't manage to get along, and all in all it's pretty much a disaster.
       Yet out of complete destruction perhaps, like the phoenix, the grand can rise from the ashes ? That's how Jasieński sees it. He finds redemption and potential in the sole surviving class and elements -- and they actually manage to get their act together (buying some time through a ruse that continues to keep pernicious outside influences at bay). Yes, I Burn Paris actually is optimistically utopian -- even if the price for the new society is very high: Paris proper isn't exactly burnt to the ground, but the vast majority of Parisians ... well, very few get to see and enjoy the promised (or newly-founded) land.
       It is surely this short, last third of the novel, suggesting that a better world is possible (and suggesting some of what must or should be done to reach it) that made I Burn Paris palatable to the Soviet authorities (and, no doubt, played a major role in getting Jasieński expelled from France). Nevertheless, I Burn Paris is less blueprint than a very dark twist on reaching the conditions allowing for an ideal(ized) society.
       It should be emphasized that I Burn Paris is not a programmatic novel. Yes, there's a message here, and an ideology on offer, but Jasieński's expressionistic instincts take over for wonderful long stretches: he's good at setting his scenes and describing the tumult of the times; he's especially good at crowds and teeming masses. A slight problem with the novel is how characters come to the fore and then disappear -- as is the case with characters such as, in turn, Pierre, P'an Tsiang-kuei, and David Lingslay (and how odd, then, in the book's closing pages, to stumble across Jeanette and Pierre again ...); hence, there is no individual whose fate engages readers from the book's beginning to its end.
       A collection of vivid stories and well-developed fates, as well as a much broader take on the politics and social inequality of the time, I Burn Paris doesn't quite come together as a novel. Still, it's an unusual and often fascinating document of the times, by a talented writer.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 April 2012

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I Burn Paris: Reviews: Other books by Bruno Jasieński under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Bruno Jasieński lived 1901 to 1938, emigrating first to France and then, after he was deported, the Soviet Union.

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