Friday, July 20, 2007

The Voice of the People by Jean Vautrin

(Book Review)

This book is a historical novel based on the Paris Commune. It may be compared with "The Debacle" by Emile Zola, although only the last quarter of "The Debacle" actually dealt with the Paris Commune (the rest of the book being about the Franco-Prussian war that preceded it.)

In "The Voice of the People" the rise and fall of the Commune plays a much more integral part to the story. The very first scenes of the book take place on the first day of the Commune uprising on March 17th, and the very last scene deals with the fall of the Commune. Numerous historical characters from the Paris Commune also make appearances and interact with the book's fictional characters.

The plot is a bit complex and slightly Victor Hugo-esque . Grondin is an ex-convict prisoner who has escaped from his past and become a police commissioner under an assumed identity. He seeks revenge on Tarpagnan, who he believes killed his heir. Tarpagnan is a former army officer who turns over and joins the Paris Commune on the March 17th Revolution. He also falls in love with Gabriella Pucci, who is the mistress of the most powerful crime underlord in Paris. The three paths eventually converge on the barricades during the fall of the Paris Commune (okay, maybe that's more than slightly Hugo-esque).

The first confrontation between Grondin and Tarpagnan is cleverly woven in with the historical March 17th uprising on the Butte Montmarte. The final scenes are again interwoven flawlessly with the collapse of the Commune and the fighting on the barricade.

Although the book starts with a bang and finishes with a bang, it lags a little in the middle as the plot turns towards the Paris criminal underworld, and moves under the radar of the politics of the Paris Commune. I suppose the meeting rooms of the Central Committee and the Paris Commune government debates don't make for as exciting a back drop as the barricade scenes, but it would have been nice if the book had explored a little more about life under the Commune rather than simply using the rise and fall of the Paris Commune as a way to book end the plot.

Nevertheless numerous historical characters from the Paris Commune pop up during the book. Louise Michel is prominent at the beginning of the book during the initial uprising, and she is referenced repeatedly throughout the story. Dombrowski, the Polish general who was in charge of the defence of the Paris Commune (and became a symbol of the Commune's internationalism) is also featured in this book and fights alongside the fictional Tarpagnan. Gustave Courbet, the Communard artist who was accused of organizing the destruction of Napoleon's Vendome Column, pops up as another friend of Tarpagnan.

But of the historical Communards it is Jules Valles who figures most prominently in this book as a kind of mentor to Tarpagnan.

Jean Vautrin has obviously read Valles's memoirs, and at times seems to be trying to show off his knowledge by cramming too many biographical references into all of Valles's conversations. This book provides a fictional explanation for why Valles chose to write his memoirs under the roman-a-clef name Jacques Vingtras, although that part is also slightly overdone. It should have just been a throw away joke, but it is really over emphasized as if the author is afraid we won't catch the reference.

Valles also seems to serve as a mouthpiece for Vautrin's own views about the Commune. Although most of the views Vautrin puts in Valles's mouth fall short of profound analysis and are are more vague and cryptic. When describing the reasons for the fall of the Commune, for example, Valles answers, "It's because philosophers and artists confuse their dreams, their cigar smoke and the range of their spectacles with the hopes of hands distorted by toil!"

On the whole though, Valles comes off more or less how I pictured him after reading his books, and his dramatic escape from the massacre at the end of the Commune is also integrated into this story.

While this book may fall short of analysis about the Paris Commune, it does attempt to give it a fitting eulogy. Vautrin laments the slaughter of the poor by the Versailles army. He has several scenes depicting the slaughter, and even integrates Victor Hugo's famous poem about a Communard boy who asks to return his watch to his mother before being executed.

That said, I'm not sure he entirely succeeds in this either. Maybe I'm just unromantic, but I thought the systematic listing of the Versailles atrocities by Lissagary in his "History of the Paris Commune" made the massacres seem a lot more real than Vautrin's or Hugo's poetic interpretations.

Stylistically the book is a bit confusing. I'm not sure if it is the author's fault or the translator's fault, but here is a typical example:

"Thirty-six years old, a townsman born and bred, he was a long pallid beanpole of a man, dressed in dark blue and at present giving a fair imitation of a heron being mobbed by rooks. He was sticking his head out from behind the timber piling."

This is further compounded by Vautrin's aversion to using the same name for a character twice on the same page. Vautrin might refer to a character once by his given name, once by his family name, once by his rank or position, and then once by his height, hair style, or home town before he feels comfortable reverting back to the proper name again. It's a bit confusing at the beginning remembering who is who, but it got better as I read through the book. I think the style just grew on me after a while.

All in all, a good read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It requires a bit of patience at first, but if you stick with it you do get caught up in the story and forget about the clunky prose. Also it should probably be supplemented with a non-fiction history of the Paris Commune.

This review has also been put on Media Mouse here.

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