Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Man Who Ate Death (4th 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 5th part HERE
He waited the whole of August for the third death sentence.

He was not afraid of any difficulties arising from the Chutier woman. Hers was a small nail, a minor wrong. Nobody cared whether she was dead or alive. But he did not even look at what the other woman was sentenced for. He was carried away by his own enthusiasm before reason could protect him and allow him to see what her crime was. She could have been someone whose survival would not go unnoticed.

Guillotine & King's Head.jpg
He dared not leave to chance the choice of which death sentence to eat. He had to examine each one of them, especially the general details of the condemned person and their nail. (Eventually he realized that the name alone sufficed. It was always accompanied by the corresponding nail. Indeed, the name determined it. The nail was hidden in everyone’s name, like an anagram. The court simply made it visible. He had to choose his condemned from the anonymous majority, about whom nobody knew or cared.

It made him feel all the better that he did care.

The third death sentence in August was against Moulin, a vegetable vendor from faubourg Saint-Antoine. He had a friend Monnard, also a vegetable vendor, whose stomach had growled at a meeting of the Section. Pascal had dubbed the phenomenon “The Voice of the Revolution”, but when Moulin, being neither a philosopher nor an expert on nonsense, reiterated this opinion he was arrested and condemned to death. The sentencing judgment revealed that he had been reported by the patriot Monnard. This infuriated Popier and so he decided that this was the death sentence he would have for lunch. The question of whether the enemy of the people Moulin lived or died could be of no concern to anyone but the patriot Monnard. And the patriot Monnard, arrested on other charges, had been guillotined three days earlier.

Before entering the revolutionary month of September, called Vendémiaire, the “Law on Suspects”, proclaimed on the eve of the Sans-Culottides, brought Popier even more official work, but also some relief in his unofficial endeavors. The wheel of Terror began to turn at a dizzying pace. The number of trials grew, creating a bustle of comings and goings in the Records Room of the Tribunal, making it easier for him to carry out his personal interventions in the administration of revolutionary justice. Even the most fervent patriots among his colleagues, frequenters of the Jacobin Club, hoarse from having shouted all night, were unable by day, on top of their official duties, to perform their primary civic duty. Recording the uncovered enemies of the people left them no time to keep an eye out for those still under cover. And so, due to the increased number of death sentences, Popier managed to increase the number of people he saved, though we doubt he was aware of the paradox.

But he never saved more than one person a day. And never in trials where the Revolution sat in judgment upon itself. Its initiators were now in the dock, people whose names were too well-known and too famous to be saved by Popier’s unusual appetite.

The reason, of course, was his fear of being discovered if he tried. But, leaving this to the following chapter, we can assume there was another reason as well, one without which this story would be deprived of its subject.

On 16 October 1793, in Vendémiaire, he entered into his Book the name of the ousted French queen, Marie-Antoinette, who had run afoul of the people by telling them to eat cake in the absence of bread. (It was established only much later that she had not meant anything bad. During the ancien régime, whenever there was no bread Parisian bakers would have to sell their cakes at the same price.)

On 31 October 1793, in Brumaire, he inscribed in the Protocol the names of the twenty-one leaders of the Gironde, who were called Brissotins at the time and had constituted the Revolutionary government before becoming the Counter-Revolutionary conspiracy; among them were Brissot, Vergnaud, Valazé and Gensonné.

On 8 November 1793, also in Brumaire, he entered into the Protocol the name of Madame Roland, who was to write the night before: “Nature, open your arms to me! Righteous Lord, receive me! In my thirty-ninth year!”

On 24 March 1794, in Germinal, he added to the Book the names of Hébert and nineteen of his comrades. Popier never went to the window to watch the condemned being piled into the cart, and he did not do so now either, tempted though he was. He had not heard such a clamor since the Federalists, whom some citizens called “the pillars of la liberté and la patrie” and others “scum disgorged by the prisons of Genoa and Sicily”, entered Paris singing La Marseillaise. The people saw its best friends off to their death with more enthusiasm than it had shown for its worst enemy, Louis XVI, when the streets had fallen silent and all that could be heard was the muffled roll of the National Guards’ drums.

Eleven days later, on 5 April 1794, in Germinal, he inscribed in his Book the greatest of them all, the founder of the Tribunal that had now condemned him, Georges- Jacques Danton. Danton roared his brilliant defense into the ears of Justice. But revolutionary Justice, while not blind to the enemy, was deaf to it.

However, during those eleven days between 24 March and 3 April of 1794, a turnabout of incalculable consequence to his fate and to the outcome of this story occurred in the life of citizen Jean-Louis Popier. Indeed, it might be fairer to say that the consequences became apparent between the executions of Hébert and Danton, while the turnabout itself occurred gradually, after he had eaten and digested the death sentence of the vegetable vendor Moulin.

Choosing which death sentence to eat was not always a simple matter. The more systematic and brutal their elimination, the more enemies there were. Once the aristocrats had been executed or had emigrated, the search for enemies shifted to the bourgeoisie, and then to the people at large. Peasants, craftsmen, tradesmen, servants, whores, even beggars fell under the blade of the guillotine. Their nails did not allow him to make a spontaneous choice. The charges against them all seemed equally petty, equally insignificant, and equally unfair. Most of the names allowed him to hope that no one would notice if one of them survived.

Whose death sentence should he pick to eat?

The sentence pronounced on the cripple who complained that he had earned more as a beggar during the monarchy or the sentence that sent an old woman to her death because she had talked about the wonderful time she had had in her youth, a youth that, unfortunately, coincided with the reign of Louis XVI, when any decent person must have been having a terrible time?

Whom to save and whom to leave to the blade of the guillotine?

Popier spent sleepless nights thinking about the impossible choice. Had he been wrong? Should he have eaten the cripple’s death sentence and sent the old woman to the guillotine? The trouble lay in the word sent. It somehow seemed that it was he who was sending them to the guillotine. At least, the one of the two condemned whose sentence he could have eaten but didn’t.

He had saved the old woman.

A dream gave credence to his fears. In it the cripple, wearing the executioner’s hood, was standing at the foot of the guillotine, which again looked like a metal spindle, and when he helped Popier up to the platform, he did so with blood-soaked stumps. And again he could hear the music of the invisible flutist.

The only thing he found confusing was that in his first dream the person standing under the phantom guillotine had been Germaine Chutier, the woman he had saved, whereas as now it was the cripple Pierre, the man he had not saved. The dream seemed to be equating the two acts, at least as far as his own role was concerned. The only difference perhaps was that Chutier was killing him without premeditation, because she might be the cause of his discovery, whereas the cripple Pierre was out for revenge.

Thereafter, Popier left unclear cases up to the luck of the draw. He picked a number at random, closed his eyes and, counting as he moved his index finger from one death sentence to the next (using only those that came into consideration, of course), opened them when he reached the said number. He ate the death sentence where his finger came to rest.

He felt better, slept better and released less water.

Unfortunately, this feeling of relief was short-lived. Between the old man who had grumbled about prices and the young man who had complained about having no work, luck had favored the old man. Popier rebelled and ate the young man’s death sentence instead. He expected the old man to come to him in his dream. He could already see him reaching out with his blood-soaked hands under the spindle of the guillotine. But it was the young man who appeared and helped him lie under the blade.

He understood the message. He did not have the right to leave his God-given power to the whim of chance. He had to be accountable for his choice, whatever it be.

Just as Robespierre, Danton and Marat were held accountable for theirs.

From now on he would pay closer attention to the choices he made. They could not be made automatically. Or haphazardly. And especially they could not be based on fear or haste. Anyone in a position to decide about life up close, had to know why he was saving the one and letting the other die. He needed to know more about the people condemned to death than could be learned from the tersely worded death sentences, which were concerned merely with the nail, with the person’s counter-revolutionary guilt, and not at all with the person’s life or human values. Since he was being given the opportunity to do something good, was it not right for it also to be just, for him to let live those worthy of living, those who would dedicate their lives to virtue rather than to its abuse?

Was it not more beneficial to eat the death sentence of Rigout the cobbler, who had cursed the president of his Section, which was seen as an insult to the country, than that of his namesake, Rigout the thief, who had stolen a pouch full of livres from that self-same president, which was declared an attack on the state?

Indeed, was he not already doing just that? He had never destroyed the death sentence of a revolutionary. He inscribed in the Protocol the names of both the Enragés and the Hébertists with equal disinterest. They were all, of course, well-known names, and he was afraid that their survival might expose him, but even among them one could find the occasional poor soul whom no one would ask about. Yet he had not saved such a one either.

So he made his choice, though he did not recognize it as such. He felt it had been motivated by fear. But also by his conscience. These were people who had sent others to the guillotine, and had kept sending them until they fell to the blade themselves. They did not deserve compassion. Their nail was too big. And it was to be found not in Fouquier-Tinville’s ridiculous accusations, but in their own lives.

Unfortunately, he knew next to nothing about the people condemned to death. Often, not even what they looked like. Although the trials were held in the adjoining courtroom, he did not attend them. Except for the fulminating Danton, he had never heard any of them speak. Of course, he had met some of them in the Records Room while they were still revolutionaries, before they had become counter-revolutionaries, And since they were former revolutionaries they were of no interest to him and he ruled them out for saving.

Troubled by this lack of information, which made his choice all the more difficult, sometimes dubious and even wrong, he hit upon a bold idea, one that was at odds with his own introverted nature. The Office of the Prosecutor was preparing the trial of a group of anti-Republic conspirators who had been so shrewd and cautious that they did not even know each other. He chose the two most innocuous names on the list of the accused, Rigout the cobbler and Rigout the thief, even though he could also have picked someone else as they were all equally anonymous, and even though the choice seemed to be self-evident, for it was fairer to save the life of a cobbler than that of a thief. But Popier wanted to use his personal choice of Rigout the cobbler to prove a point.

The idea was simple and exciting. Truth be told, more exciting than simple, He would go to the neighborhood where the prisoners had lived and inquire about them with their neighbors. In the case of Rigout the cobbler that would be relatively easy. The indictment against him, which, if Popier did not intervene, would soon become his death sentence, and immediately after that his death certificate, listed his address. But in the case of Rigout the thief there was no such information. afterwards his death certificate, listed his address. But in the case of Rigout the thief there was no such information.
for 5th part HERE

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