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Post Card - El_114_de_infantería,_en_París,_el_14_de_julio_de_1917,_León_Gimpel Coll Post Card Aged

On our arrival in Paris, Georgy was anxious to go to ground, to reestablish himself in a city he knew. As always, I followed him, and for hours, he led me on a hard march through the packed streets.

The entire city was drunk. At every corner and in any square, old men and women tended pails of charcoal where they grilled sausages on sticks and toasted pieces of bread on home-made wire grills. The air was filled with smoke from the charcoal fires and the fat that fell into them. We could buy a sausage on a piece of toast from any of these old cooks, and with some wine, make a meal. The fires that didn’t roast meat roasted shallow pans of chestnuts or potatoes, charred black. Old men sold them in cones or packets of newspaper, scooping them out of the smoky piles they tended on the pavements beside their fires. Everywhere gangs of boys scurried like ferrets between legs in the crowd, lighting firecrackers with their cigarettes, throwing them under the feet of people passing by, and especially under the skirts of young women. A very pretty girl might earn an entire string of firecrackers. The girls struggled to keep their dignity in all this, but ran at the first opening in the crowd. The boys roared with glee when one fled. The air was filled with charcoal smoke and the stink of gunpowder and burning fat and the shrieks of young women and the roaring of boys and the bellows of old men and the bawling of old women, telling them to buy a meal or leave off with their damned noise. More men and some women sat on stools and chairs and boxes along the pavements watching the parade of people and drinking red wine, passing the bottles around while the children shot through the crowd here and there, salvaging dud firecrackers and long cigarette stubs and escaped chestnuts, and caging bits of burned sausage or potato from anyone desperate enough to buy some. The city was a madman’s battleground, with bad boys and panicked girls for soldiers, and drunken spectators for officers, and children bearing stretchers of dead firecrackers and cigarette stubs and stray chestnuts and pieces of sausage and potato away to the rear. This was the eve of Bastille Day, a festival for the mob of Paris. I did not understand, and thought all of Paris must be a drunken brothel house.

We walked into La Villette, into a crooked gray street where the buildings leaned stupidly face-to-face, where timbers propped one tumbledown building against another across the street. We got to a rough café, no more than seven meters by seven meters, with a hut for a kitchen in the yard behind it, with Polish workers drinking and a Polish waiter serving vodka and wine, where everyone was in the same mad holiday mood. We stayed most of the night and spent all our money. A blind beggar sat on a stool in one corner, cranking the lira he held on his knees. The lira is a hurdy-gurdy, a music box with strings, shaped like a large violin body with a keyboard and a crank. This one was worn out and no longer very loud and the lirnyk had only a few tunes he knew, all old village dances he played over and over, often not so well, so he was not much of a distraction. Russian officials despised the Lirnyky, who traveled from village to village, singing traditional songs. The Bolsheviks purged them for the songs in their heads. It’s hard to kill a song, to erase men’s memories, to make silence. Easier to kill them, which they did in the terror, rounded up by the hundreds with tricks, taken out of sight, and murdered. The Ukrainians, the Eastern Poles and the Galicians, the Belarusians, the Hungarians – the country people – loved them for their songs. Patrons put fresh glasses of wine in front of the lirnyk, and between bouts fingering the keyboard, he drank them off without any apparent effect. He never stopped turning the crank on the box, so the drone of the chanter strings was constant, as he nodded his head and smiled into the abyss in front of him. Another beggar, with only one hand and one foot and dressed in a filthy-gray military great coat with the skirts buttoned back, was not so gifted, and kept time, tap-dancing the fingers of his last hand on a wooden box between his knees. He wore a glove with coins sewn to the fingertips, so the tap-dancing was more distracting than the mazureks, but no one cared. Sometimes there were songs in the bar, but never in tune with the hurdy-gurdy or in time with the fingers, and they were in several languages. Sometimes there were jokes. Sometimes there were arguments in several languages and sometimes a fistfight, but no one got into a knife fight so no one cared. When it got too loud, or too vile, or too violent, the barman would point to an offender with a hand all scars and knuckles and blunt fingers like stubs, and threaten to cut him off or hit him, and the din would die down for a few moments. In the lull, someone would make a rude joke and men would laugh and we would go on celebrating. The din only settled when the drumming tap-dancer, the mutilated veteran, stopped his drumming and began to sing, first softly, indistinguishably, to himself it seemed, and then, by fine degrees, with more and more force.

Gradually, through the racket, I could distinguish the words, which were in French. But even I knew the tune. Everyone in the bar did, and as if by common accord, except for the singer’s voice, there was a silence that spread like a fog through the bar, a fog to find comfort in. And the voices, raw and drunken and tuneless, began to join in, first softly, respectfully, unwilling to drown out the drummer, and then with more force. By the third stanza, they were roaring, standing at attention, fierce with the song. Some were weeping, others were beatified, and still they sang. Most knew no more than two stanzas but they sang and sang anyway. Some knew different lyrics, for this was an anthem that had been put to use in many places for more than a century. And when we got to the end, and could remember no more words, we began again. And this time it was a blood-curdling song, a war song, a song of the mob, and of the revolution. And each of us felt the thrill of it, and each of us would justify murder for it.

We roared for twenty minutes, louder and louder, triumphant in our song, before we collapsed, many in tears, many laughing through the tears. We embraced; we – all of us foreigners – were French that rebellious night. We, all of us, were willing to war for the Republic, and if we thought that might be a republic that made a place for us, so much the better, and we were all revolutionaries and congratulated ourselves in our revolutions. And then, filled with the satisfaction that the song made in us, and filled with the hunger that such a song induces, we feasted. With our knives we cut pieces off the black sausages that were spread out on boards on the bar. We gnawed on the sausage. We drank a jug of dirt-flavoured red wine, and another jug, then vodka, and ate boiled eggs with beans cooked in oil and herbs and garlic and onion, smooth and creamy in their own gravy, more food than I had eaten in a week. And more vodka. Just before dawn, I vomited most of the food and drink into a gutter on the way to the house where, Georgy promised, there would be water to wash with and beds to sleep in.

The next morning a square of sunlight the size of the palm of my hand found my face, smeared with blood, dirt, and the last scraps of my meal. My throat was acid-scorched and my face ached. My ribs ached more. I counted my teeth to see none were broken. I examined my head. I found myself sick and awake in the narrowest of rooms, a sulfurous space two cots wide, with a few centimeters between them to get to the door, or stand under the gable to dress, or reach the tiny casement window that was the only light to the room, the light that crept in to wake me. I was alone, but someone had slept in the other cot. I examined myself and my surroundings closely, first to see if I had lost the camera which had become, in the last few weeks, a part of me (I had not), to see if I had vomited on myself (I had not), and finally, to find my miserable boots. I found them under the bed. There were a few more scraps of half-eaten food on the left boot toe, where my vomit had missed the gutter. I looked for something to wipe it, with no success. I shrunk from using what bedclothes there were, and I recoiled from wiping my boot with my own, filthy clothing. I put on the dirty boots. Following the sound of voices, I climbed down two flights of crumbling stairs, past several doors – open to cells even more miserable than the one I woke in – and through a sort of kitchen with laundry in piles on a sideboard that seemed to be the entire ground floor of an awkward house. I followed the voices into a small courtyard with thin light, a double privy, a covered well with a spigot and pail, and a rough table. I went looking for a hole to piss in and the water to wash with.

Georgy, looking perfectly sound, and content to rearrange the dominos spread out in front of him, sat at the table on a common bench with an old woman in grey housekeeper’s clothes and a boy about my own age, dressed in a jacket from one suit and trousers from another, all drinking brandy for breakfast . What sunlight reached the court was a silver knife, and looking into it hurt, so I kept to the shadows. I was too sick to be hungry, and too hungry to mind my own stink, which was so bad it made me too tired to wash.

The young man, named Yvon, stood a little drunkenly as we were introduced and excused himself, explaining he should be leaving to meet someone across the city; it was a long walk. He left a place on the bench for me in front of the bottle, but first I needed to wash, and to wash, I needed to expose myself, and the camera. As I removed layer-by-layer of clothing – the jacket I’d slept in for nights and nights, the vest, first one shirt, and the next – I was unearthing that camera in its case. With one shirt to go, it was there. I could not have been more naked if it had been my soul I unearthed. I didn’t know if I was proud of having stolen it and of having protected it so well, or ashamed for having hidden it from Georgy for so long.

 

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