Friday, June 02, 2006

The Man Who Ate Death (2nd part)

Novel published in Serbian as "Čovek koji je jeo smrt", u Novi Jerusalim, Beograd, Nolit, 1988, © Borislav Pekić; English translation © by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić; published in The Man Who Ate Death: An Anthology of Contemporary Serbian Stories; Belgrade, Serbian P.E.N. Centre, 2003, pp. 65-105.

for 3rd part HERE
Fortunately, the procedure was later simplified. Otherwise, the Convention, following its humanist principles, might have abolished the death sentence for the condemned of the future, and left the guillotine for the condemned of the here and now. The law of 22 Prairial, 10 June 1794, abolished the right to a defense, which was declared to be a demonstration of counter-revolutionary mistrust in the Peoples’ Tribunal.

As proof of the “indivisibility of virtue”, anything other than the death sentence or acquittal was prohibited.

Revolutionary practice followed the natural process of simplifying judicial procedure by refraining from acquittal and placing all the accused – charged with anything from prostitution to conspiracy, from being of dubious origin to looking askance at the never-ending patriotic street festivities organized by the revolutionary sections of Paris – under the all-embracing notion of enemies du people, enemies of the people.

Only then could Popier breathe a small sigh of relief. That is to say he might have done had he not already become deeply involved in an act which, in the eyes of the Homerians of the Restoration, made him a saint, but to my colder eyes, made him the subject of this story.

Little is known about the kind of man he really was. The stories about him have come down to us from admirers of his deed, who, in their inordinate exaggeration, managed to turn what might have been a more or less persuasive biography into an apocryph.

If we discard eulogies to his exceptional humaneness, warmth and dexterity, and avoid the other extreme of attributing to him only recklessness, unreasonableness and even mania, the silhouette we find standing before us is a figure whose footprints even life’s thickest clay was unable to preserve.

He was, it seems, neither so big nor so small, neither so tall nor so short as to attract attention; he was probably thin rather than fat, but at a time when starvation was rampant, no more so than anyone else; he was certainly pale, but that was a normal complexion during this period of terror, and probably quiet, but in those days who but the naive and powerful was chatty?

It is pointless to look for any defining traits where Popier is concerned. Had he possessed any, he would have been sitting on the straw in the Conciergerie and not in the office of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

All sources agree, and as these facts contradict the counter-revolutionary tone of the stories subsequently told about him they must be believed, that Jean-Louis Popier never laid eyes on the guillotine (nor, for that matter, did Robespierre until the day of his execution), or on the carts that transported the condemned (nor, it seems, did Robespierre); he never went down to the Conciergerie or entered the courtroom of the Tribunal (where Robespierre appeared only to hear his sentence and Jean-Louis came only because I brought him there on my own authority, in keeping with the logic of the story). So he never saw history actually at work.

He did, however, encounter in the office of the Tribunal some of the movers of history. Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, the driving force behind the Committee of Public Safety at a time when the only safe thing was to run; the cripple Couthon and his mechanical chair, the industrial sister of the guillotine; Fouché, who killed in the name of the Revolution, the Counter-Revolution, the Empire and the Restoration, but died in his bed; Barère who, in condemning the King, condemned himself; Brissot, whose moderation took him to the guillotine, and Hébert, whose lack of it did the same; Baron Cloots, who proclaimed himself a Citizen of the World at a time when every foreigner in Paris was seen as an English spy; Collot d’Herbois, author of Paris vaudevilles and co-author of the Lyon massacre; Desmoulins, who wept because of the guillotine, not realizing why until he himself had to stand under its blade; Chaumette, who strove to reconcile Reason with the Guillotine by mechanizing the former in order to bring reason to the latter, but all that was left of this union of smoke and iron was the unreasoning axe; Danton, who knew how to initiate Terror but not how to stop it; Fouquier-Tinville, the state prosecutor, Popier’s employer, who prosecuted both friends and enemies of the people with equal impartiality; and, above all, of course, Maximilien Robespierre, their Saint and Executioner.

Jean-Louis Popier merely listened to history.

He could not but have noticed the canon fire that sounded the fall of the Bastille, or that saw off the anointed head of Louis XVI in celebration of the peoples’ freedom. The wailing cries of the September Massacre and the hymns to Reason from celebrations of the Supreme Being were bound to have reached his ears.

He could not but have heard the strident bell of the Tribunal’s President, Herman or Dumas, and if he was not always able to recognize a counter-revolutionary defense, he certainly had his fill of hearing the Great Danton declaim. Every afternoon he heard the baying crowds waiting in front of the Palais de Justice’s iron balustrades for the carts to carry away the condemned.

He listened to the creaking wheels roll down rue Saint Honoré toward the Place de la Révolution and death. And every so often, when some of these illustrious personages came and met in the Records Room, history would acquire a human voice, and he could hear it without raising his head from the Protocol, without looking it in the eye.

One such conversation sealed his fate, signaling the start of our story.

It was 31 Thermidor by the revolutionary and 18 July by the reactionary calendar, two days after the funeral of citizen Marat and one day after the execution of the devil woman from Calvados. Although Popier’s desk was covered with the day’s latest death sentences, the name of Charlotte Corday still rang in his ears.

Mlle Corday had caught the Friend of the People sitting in his clog-shaped bath, writing on a plank of wood, smelling of vinegar and dreaming of the purifying properties of blood. She had plunged a large ivory-handled knife into his chest.

For the first time in a long while, Popier had entered an actual crime in the guilt column. It finally looked the way he, who had been trained in lawyers’ offices, thought that a proper, legally binding death sentence should look.

Did he believe that the sentence passed on the girl from Calvados marked a turning-point in the contents of his Record Book, and by extension in the spirit of revolutionary jurisprudence, one that would allow him to enjoy his work not only as a scribe and calligrapher but also as a man of justice?

We will not go so far as to say that he had a particularly developed sense of justice. He did, it is true, have a highly developed handwriting, and we can content ourselves with that rather than turn him into a hero or martyr before he decides, for whatever reason, to be one himself.

Marat by David.jpg
A desire to savor the well-argued punishment meted out to Marat’s murderer, was not, then, the real, or at least not the demonstrable reason why, when handed the day’s sentences, he had dispensed with custom and regulations, and had not immediately entered them in the book.

Without even giving them a passing glance he had pulled from his pocket a crust of barley bread and a piece of hard Normandy cheese and stopped to eat his lunch. Monsieur Joachim Vilate, the Tribunal member on duty that day, who would be overseeing the execution of the sentences in the afternoon, was not due to come for the list of condemned persons in scribe Chaudet’s charge until three.

He still had time, but, though the hero of this chronicle gives him no grounds for it, the biographer wishes that the reason for delaying the moment had been Popier’s faith in the restoration of justice to his work. Let us, therefore, examine this possibility.

First of all, are there any elements in his life for making such a bold assumption?

Yes and no (an ambiguous formulation that applies to most of our intelligence about Jean-Louis Popier.)

The legitimist school of thought reported that he was a secret enemy of the Republic – indeed who would have dared been one publicly? – who had been infiltrated into the Palais de Justice administration by his former employer, a lawyer, whose membership in the Gironde was but a cover for his part in a plot to restore the monarchy.

A situation that allowed the most dangerous counter-revolutionaries to be unmasked among the very people who had raised the Revolution suited the bizarre tastes of the times. However, by divesting Popier of his political innocence, Homerian poets of the Restoration deprived his life of its greatest value - spontaneity.

In their desire to paint him as a hero they shaded the picture with invented motives. Thus we have a palimpsest wherein the face of the real Popier has completely disappeared underneath its many layers.

Once these layers are stripped away, he emerges as a man on the outside of history. He would be better described as a moderate supporter of Change rather than its opponent. He had no reason to resist the Revolution. The ancien régime had not indebted him in any way, he did not owe it anything. Not empathy, let alone action.

Were he not already fifty, an age when one no longer hopes for anything but an easy death, he would have had every reason to welcome the abolition of old privileges and a clean slate for the acquisition of new ones. There was nothing the Revolution could either give him or take from him. In the early days it probably made him more equal with other citizens than he had been before, and possibly, though I doubt it, freer as well.

If he ventured to take an evening stroll among the cafés of the Palais Royal, whose tables were rife with talk and conspiracy, he could not but feel that most of the acquired Equalities and Liberties did not concern him and that, however enlightened they might be, he personally would benefit very little from them.

His pay of 12 livres was not enough, despite his lack of desire - a lack that might well be explained by these same 12 livres – for him to treat himself to a girl and a pitcher of punch for five or six livres at “La Paysanne” (132 rue du Palais Royal), let alone to pay a visit to Mme Dupéron (33 rue du Palais Royal.) for twenty.

With time, the salary in his pocket would grow, but never enough to catch up with runaway prices, while his purchasing power would continue to drop.

True, he could say whatever he wished. Not exactly everything, of course. After the king’s abortive flight to Varennes it was not exactly advisable to shout “Long Live the King”, and after Vendémiaire 1793, when he was executed it became well nigh impossible. But he had felt no particular need for the king even before the Revolution. And so he could express his opinions at will.

The problem was that either he had no opinions to speak of or, out of modesty, he did not consider them worth voicing. Freedom of speech, stemming from the celebrated “Declaration of Human Rights” of August, did not have the same importance for him as it did for Robespierre, Desmoulins, Danton, Vergnaud or Hébert, the orators of the Revolution.

Lastly, he could not even enjoy the third advantage bestowed by the new state, that of Brotherhood, because it entailed the concept of sharing, and he – all sources concur – had no one to share with. No family, no relatives, no friends, not even people of like mind.

Discarding the bias of oral legends and their reactionary motives, I feel I am entitled to identify indifference as Jean-Louis Popier’s distinguishing feature. Indifference to everything happening around him. A state of mind that has nothing in common with its kindred Christian sin and that entails disinterest not so much in people as in their common enterprises, in what later becomes their history.

And so Popier lived an eremitic life, cut off from the times, until the day he found himself in the Palais de Justice and within the magical triangle formed by the Revolutionary Tribunal, the prison of the Conciergerie and the guillotine at Place de la Révolution.

It was only at his desk, hunched over the court records, that his indifference began to dissolve. It was only here, in the office, where it was least expected, where others were removed from life, that life preoccupied him. Though he had never attended an execution or seen the guillotine, he must have known that every completed column in his Book of Records meant one person less in the Book of Life.

I am not talking off the top of my head. I have proof and the fact that it is indirect makes it no less compelling, though a cynic might interpret even this as proof of the most callous type of indifference, the type that does not accompany an act but rather prevents it.

It was fashionable in the Paris of those days to collect mementos from executions. Life resisted death and rebelled against the scaffold by turning it into harmless entertainment. In the offices of the Tribunal, there was a vibrant trade in rare collectors’ items among the scribes who had privileged access to the executioner Sanson and his assistants at the guillotine.

His neighbor, the archivist Chaudet, possessed a tuft of hair from the wig of Louis XVI, and, while Popier was methodically munching his lunch, the man was negotiating with the scribe Vernet about trading several hairs from the king’s head for a lock from the golden tresses of the girl Corday.

Later, a scrap of Danton’s last shirt came into circulation, there was the blood-soaked bandage from Robespierre’s wounded jaw, and even the occasional skilled piece of forgery, because until the scandal broke, in his office alone there were three shells that were claimed to have been fired on the Incorruptible Being, though only one of them could have been the real shell.

Popier never participated in the trading. Nor did he bet a single sou on the number of people who were going to be executed that day. Such restraint, at a time when Reason devoured up to sixty lives a day, making Parisians indifferent to death, could mean only one thing: that it was on his mind and that he sympathized with the dying.
for 3rd part HERE


Anonymous said...

Oh ne, zasto nema 3. dela, mislim nije valjda da vise nema cele price?

(published by Ljiljana Pekić) said...

Evo popravili smo link na početku i kraju teksta gde piše "HERE". Imate takođe 4, 5 i 6. deo. Pozdrav