Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Man Who Ate Death (6th 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.

back to 1st part HERE
The festival of the Supreme Being was held in the Champs de Mars on 8 June, in Messidor of 1794.

This was Popier’s only free day, the only one when neither he nor the Revolutionary Tribunal worked, and so nor did the guillotine. Led by Fouquier-Tinville, officers and staff of the Palais de Justice went off to the festivities. Citizen Popier was among them. In his dark blue jacket, with the white jabot, white knee socks, blue wig and round, metal-framed glasses, which looked slightly tinted, he marched solemnly at the head of the judicial administration.

Girodet - Ghosts.jpg

But he never arrived at the Champs de Mars. He never saw the archpriest of the new faith, Maximilien Robespierre, present to God the Revolution, its Convention and its people. Seizing the opportunity, he pulled out of the official procession and headed for the Place de la Révolution. He wanted to see the death machine which he had been depriving of food for so many months. Now he dared to do so. He felt up to it. In his dreams it assumed the form of the spinner Germaine Chutier’s spindle. He knew that this was not what it looked like, but in spite of all the detailed descriptions he had heard at the Tribunal, he could not imagine it otherwise.

The Place de la Révolution was bathed in sunlight and deserted. The whole of Paris was either at the Champs de Mars or in the city’s dungeons. The skeleton of a platform rose up in the middle of the square, and dozing in its shade was an old National Guardsman, leaning against his musket. Popier could not see the guillotine. It was covered with a black drape, like a monument waiting to be unveiled. He guessed that it was angular, gothic in shape, extending in the back to a wooden board and it was to this that the condemned person was tied. Not very different from a spindle. He was not disappointed that he could not see it.

A Jacobin, a disciple of the Encyclopedists, once described the guillotine as a horizontal plane with a vertical extension, from which a triangular attachment was dropped to separate the rectangular from the round part of the body. A description that would fit any spindle.

He returned to the Palais de Justice and went to the Salle de la Liberté, where the Revolutionary court convened. It left no impression on him either. Light flooded in from the elongated windows cut into the stone. Three busts stood on display: those of Brutus, defender of the Roman Republic, and citizens Marat and Le Pelletier, defenders of the French Republic. The rest of the furnishings consisted of tables, chairs and benches: for the court and prosecution in the middle, for the jury on one side and for the defense on the other of the room. Arranged over six steps behind the latter were benches for the accused, ending with a chair for the first accused. On the other side were benches for the witnesses, and behind that a balustrade separating the public from the court.

He walked out, feeling nothing.

He had wanted to go down to the Conciergerie as well. But he changed his mind. Fifty-two of the prisoners had had their executions deferred because of the festivities in celebration of the Supreme Being. Though he had not yet recorded their death sentences, he knew their names. He was afraid he might meet one of them and then face the same sort of torment he had experienced with the two Rigouts. He had to remain impartial, beyond the illusion of reality, beyond the reach of its influence.

Anyway, it was questionable whether the guards would let him in.

He went back to the Records Room and spent the rest of the day drawing columns in his Protocol. When he finally lifted his head from the book, darkness was clinging to the bare walls like gray moss and outside he could hear the cheerful chatter of citizens returning from the marriage between God and the Revolution. He would not have to worry about adding more columns to the Book until Pluviôse, the fourth week of January 1795.

Only a few days later, he saw that his prediction may have been a bit optimistic. People began whispering in the corridors of the Palais de Justice about the shaky position of the government and a conspiracy by the moderate wing of the Convention against the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre withdrew from public life; he no longer went to the Assembly, or the Committee or even the Jacobin Club. Rumor had it that he had left Paris, that he was probably in Ermenonville, visiting the grave of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. At the Palais Royal, the pilgrimage was considered to be natural. The Revolution had depended so much on death that only graves could help it now. The end of the reign of Terror was being increasingly heralded. Even the most bloodthirsty newspapers became less strident in their praise of the Place de la Révolution. The “Furies of the Guillotine”, frenzied Jacobin women who sat all day in the gallery of the Convention, knitting winter socks for children and Guardsmen, calling for the heads of the enemies of the people, now fell silent. At the Palais Royal, always well-informed, they gave Danton’s killers less than a month. The crowds at executions began to thin out, some people even allowing themselves the occasional feeling of disgust. The better-off women citizens ceased wearing earrings shaped like miniature bronze guillotines. No longer did one hear the streets ring out with the strains of that cheerful ditty devoted to the inventor of the guillotine:

“En rêvant à la sourdine
J’ai fait une machine,
Tralala, lala, lala, lalala,
Lala, lalala,
Qui met les têtes à bas ! «

A new wind was blowing but Popier had too much work to give it serious thought. He had not been feeling well of late. He had severe stomach cramps. Increasingly often he would find pale yellow traces of undigested death sentences in his stool. And when he did manage to think about the talk of a coming change in the situation, he was surprised by how little it gladdened him. It wasn’t that he was despondent, but he did not believe in about-turns. Paris ominously resembled the days of Danton’s departure, when everybody was demanding an end to the Terror. But it was only Danton to whom the end had come. The Terror had survived him and become even more inexorable. He was more worried that well-known personages, whose death sentences he dared not eat, would again fill the courtroom of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Afraid that by the time Robespierre recovered from his lethargy there would be no more death sentences left for him to eat, in July, in Messidor, Popier began eating two a day. There were enough people dying for him to swallow several without anyone noticing. The limitations were set not by his powers, and especially not by his lack of determination or diligence, but by his weak stomach.

Sometimes he even vomited. That was what he feared most. One day he had to swallow the death sentence of the coach-driver Marolles quickly, with no time to tear it up or chew it properly and he almost threw up into the lap of the duty judge.

On 8 Thermidor, or 26 July, Robespierre reappeared at the Convention and delivered a speech which left even his supporters unmoved. No one understood him. Having failed to hear him call for peoples’ heads, the Tricoteuses, the knitting women in the gallery, did not realize that the Republic was once again in danger. They continued to knit their socks in silence, and nothing happened. The court office interpreted the event as boding ill for the Incorruptible Being. The very next day, 9 Thermidor, the scribe Chaudet dared to give vent to his long repressed jealousy of Popier. He proposed, albeit in whispered tones of course, that Popier not wait to inscribe Robespierre’s name in his Protocol.

“And you would do well to stop looking like him”, he added maliciously.

Popier did not hear him. Nor did he realize, a few hours later, that the Convention had voted for Robespierre’s arrest. Stacked up in front of him were the death sentences of forty-five people, the guillotine’s meal for the day. They included the sentence he was going to have for lunch. This time there was only one. Only one man was sufficiently anonymous that he dared to save him at no risk to himself. Doubt, which had prevented him from hearing Chaudet, stopped him from proceeding with his meal. The man’s name was Joseph Garinio. He was a landlord on the city outskirts. His tenants had accused him of giving counter-revolutionaries the extra money he pocketed from the high rents he was charging them. Popier did not believe it. Garinio was loyal to the Republic. But he was a swine. In 1789, in the dead of winter, he had evicted Popier from the small room he was renting.

He did not deserve to live.

And with his spiky handwriting, he entered the man’s name in the Protocol.

It was then that the second transformation inside him occurred, more powerful than the first.

He did not want everyone to be deprived of his mercy that day, just because of Garinio. That would not be fair. The remaining forty-four people condemned to death were more prominent figures, of whom he used to steer clear. But now he did not feel afraid. He was surprised that he ever had.

What was it Chaudet had said? Something rude, for sure. Pity he could not inscribe Chaudet in the Book instead of one of the forty-four condemned persons from whom he would have to choose that day.

That, too, he would probably be able to do one day.

Leaving the choice to the whim of his hand, he picked from the death sentences stacked on his desk that of Arnoussé, a character who claimed that anyone killed at the guillotine would go straight to heaven, and he ate it with a relish he had long since forgotten.

That same evening, while Maximilien Robespierre was being arrested at the Hôtel de Ville, where he had placed himself under the protection of the Commune, Popier himself was being arrested in the mansard of the Palais de Justice. He did not protest, or even ask what the charges were.

He learned about his own nail by accident.

Citizen Arnoussé wanted to go to heaven at any cost. When the execution list was read out and his name was not on it, he protested. He kept insisting that he too had been condemned to death. Usually the duty judges had a hard time with people who denied that they were on the list. It was only because the claim was so unusual that Vilate agreed to check it. The Minutes of the trial confirmed Arnoussé’s story. So why was he not on the execution list? They checked Popier’s Protocol. They did not find him there either. They arrested Popier, but in order to be certain, they also locked up the man who had compiled the list, Chaudet. They threw into the Conciergerie a few other people, Arnoussé among them, left over from the previous day’s crop, expanded their nail to include membership in a secret society whose aim was to harm the general cause. Thus was born yet another dark conspiracy against the Revolution.

They were tried on the same day as Robespierre, at a separate, morning session.

They were all executed together on 10 Thermidor, or 28 July.

From the moment he was arrested to the moment he “sneezed into the bag” at the guillotine Popier uttered not a single word

He was somewhere else, far away.

According to historical sources, that same day of 10 Thermidor (28 July) 1794, 104 condemned persons were guillotined along with Robespierre. According to our story, there were 107. The extra three were Jean-Louis Popier, who ate death, Arnoussé, who wanted to go to heaven, and Chaudet, who died an innocent man.

Why they were executed and yet not on the execution list cannot be explained. For the same reason, probably, that it took us so long to explain why others who were condemned to death were not executed.

Crowds thronged the streets, as in the days of the people’s festivities. Though there were quite a number of such festivities in the Revolutionary calendar, it was never enough for a people enamored of liberty. It was as if the Supreme Being had returned to the capital of the Revolution. Paris saw Robespierre off on a road polished smooth by the relentless wheels of Virtue. The long procession of carts wended its way across the Pont-Neuf, down the rue Saint Honoré toward the Place de la Révolution.

All eyes were fixed on the Incorruptible Being, many wanted to touch him and grab a memento to remember this day. In his torn, dirty shirt, a bloodstained bandage around his jaw, limp in the arms of his friends, he did not look so formidable. Thoughtful, perhaps, surprised, disgusted, but not terrible.

The crowd cried out: “A bas le maximum!”[1] Again the strains of the ditty could be heard:

“Monsieur Guillotin
Ce grand médecin
Que l’amour du prochain
Occupe sans fin … «

Nobody paid any attention to the last cart in the procession, until a woman, Germaine Chutier, a spinner who had just been released from prison, noticed the resemblance between the condemned man in the cart and Robespierre as he once looked. Citizen Chutier threw a stone at him, crying: “A bas le Maximilien!” The crowd picked up on the joke, hurling insults and ridicule at the double.

Jean-Louis Popier did not notice a thing. In his dark blue jacket, with his neatly coiffed blue wig, he was listening to the distant strains of the flute, squinting through his round glasses as he watched the approach of the guillotine from the Place de la Révolution.

He was right.

It did look like a spindle.

[1] Adopted by the Convention on 29 September 1793, the General Maximum Law instituted wage and price controls on necessities.

back to 1st part HERE

1 comment:

Anthony Howell said...