I’m rather horrified to find that “I Burn Paris” by Bruno Jasienski (translated by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski) has been languishing on Mount TBR since 2014, when I picked it up hot on the heels of reading and reviewing “The Legs of Izolda Morgan” for Shiny New Books (you can read that post here). Both of Jasienski’s books are published in beautiful hardback editions by Twisted Spoon, an independent publisher based in Prague, and in fact I read and enjoyed another of their releases, “Severin’s Journey Into the Dark” by Paul Leppin, back in 2016.

As I said about Jasienski at the time, “born in Poland in 1901, his family moved to Russia in 1914 (before returning to Poland in 1918). He was old enough to be affected by the First World War, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, as well as the Polish-Russian war, and this coloured many of his writings. During his peripatetic life Jasieński moved about between Paris (from where he was expelled for writing the subversive novel, “I Burn Paris”), Poland and finally Russia, accepting Soviet citizenship.” Sadly, he was executed in 1938, a fact which was only confirmed in the 1990s.

However, it certainly seems that “Paris” is his best-known novel, so why has it taken me so long to pick it up?? Well, to be truthful, this is at least the third time I’ve started the book, and I’ve always stalled at the sections where the protagonist, Pierre, starts to unravel mentally and imagine he’s seeing his erstwhile love, Jeanne, in the arms of every fat capitalist he comes across. However, this time I was determined to read to the end, because the writing is excellent and there’s no reason not to; although I rather ended up with more than I bargained for…

The book (which was published in 1928) opens with Pierre, a lowly and impoverished factory worker, finding himself out of work. It seems impossible for him to find another job, and his beloved Jeanne has expensive tastes. Pierre is soon on the streets, starving and struggling to survive, and then imprisoned. On his release, a piece of luck comes his way when an old friend finds him work in Paris’s water system; but this gives the disillusioned man, still suffering from what’s happened to him, access to a laboratory containing all manner of viruses. Before long, he’s released a deadly plague into the water of the city and the residents begin dropping like flies. The resultant chaos sees Paris disintegrate into a dystopian nightmare, with various characters coming to the fore. There is a Chinese communist, a group of rabbis, disillusioned scientists, a cynical American millionaire and all manner of different groups fighting for survival in a plague ridden place. The French authorities wall off the city, the various groups grab a section each, banding together on the basis of ideology, religion or race, and plots develop to escape the blockade and make it into the wider world. Will they succeed – and what’s the future for the City of Light?

One evening the tide chucked him from the Montmartre boulevards and thrust him against the glass frontage of a grand music hall. A gigantic fiery windmill slowly turned its blades on their axis, summoning the ludicrous Don Quixotes of pleasure from the endless avenues of the world. The windows of the surrounding houses glowed with the bright-red embers of the unquenchable fever burning within.

It was time for the show to begin. The lobby was glassed in like a lighthouse, and around it a furious wave of automobiles crashed onto the sidewalk, only to recede moments late, leaving the white foam of ermine capes and tuxedo mantles, shirtfronts and sleeves on the rocky shore of the pavement.

“I Burn Paris” is such a deep and multi-layered book that it’s hard to summarise, and what I’ve said above can only give a flavour. For a start, the writing is superb; Jasienski’s modernist montage techniques give a vivid visual impression of the action and settings, while the metaphorical desciptions he uses are just stunning, and he brilliantly captures a world which had certainly moved irrevocably into the machine age, with all the dehumanisation that came with that. His narrative ranges far and wide, too; the characters he introduces, most particularly P’an Tsiang-kuei, are given a lengthy backstory and have a real depth, so that their actions are always believable.

The clash of various belief systems allows Jasienski to explore these thoroughly too, and it’s quite clear he feels nothing but distaste for corruption, decadence and the bourgeois liberals in Paris. The working class are always his heroes, and in fact it will be those from the lower echelons of society who will have more chance of making it through the plague. However, Jasienski is not so shallow as to condemn all non-working class characters, and the thread of the story following the American millionaire, David Lingslay, is powerful and moving, allowing the man redemption for his past. The resolution of the story is dramatic and perhaps unexpected, but I shall reveal nothing because this book greets you with unexpected twists and turns all the way through and I would hate to spoil this for anyone.

Like a shoddy machine, the world destroys more than it produces. This cannot go on. You have to strip everything down to the screws, throw away whatever’s useless, and after taking it apart, build it all over again, once and for all! The plans are ready, the builders’ fingers are itching, but the old, corroded scrap iron won’t give away. It has taken root, a coat of rust has formed in its seams, they’d have to yank out every screw with their teeth.

Had I known quite what I was getting into, I suspect I wouldn’t have chosen a dystopian plague novel to read right in the middle of a pandemic, although it’s reassuring to be living in a time when there are proper medical procedures and vaccines to help deal with such things… But having committed to the book, I carried on to the end and it was an exhilarating, often very moving, read. Despite the darkness he portrays, Jasienski *does* offer hope at the end, and the chance for humanity to move into a better, fairer phase. And stylistically, the book is stunning – Jasienski’s descriptions of the city, his use of metaphor, his characterisation are all unforgettable and the book really did get under my skin. There *were* minor flaws; a book written in 1928 does at times use character descriptions that might be a little unacceptable nowadays; and the influence of communist beliefs is perhaps a little naive, knowing what we do about the Soviet regime now. These elements didn’t detract for me, however, and I found “I Burn Paris” compelling reading all the way through.

So more than seven years after I bought it, “I Burn Paris” found its time, jumped off the TBR, and actually turned out to be an absolutely unforgettable book. I said in my (much) earlier reviews of Twisted Spoon books that they were a publisher I wanted to explore more, and of course I’ve completely failed to do that. However, I’m really, really glad I chose to read this brilliant, dark and haunting work just now; not always an easy read, but certainly one which will stay with me. Yes, I know I’m meant to be denting the TBR this year – but I may have to take another sneaky look at Twisted Spoon’s website… 😉