Authors: Claude Izner
To those without whom
Claude Izner would never have existed:
Ruhléa and Pinkus
Rosa and Joseph
Étia and Maurice
To our bouquiniste friends on the banks of the Seine
When Paris closes its eyes at night
In the dark of the cemetery
Screams escape from the stones
Of the wall
Jules Jouy (
So who ordered this terrible violence?
Victor Hugo (
‘Un cri’, L’Année terrible,
Paris, spring 1891
opened on the second floor and the light glancing off the panes caught the attention of a passer-by. He saw a woman leaning over a pot of geraniums, and next to it a little dog watching the comings and goings on Rue Lacépède, its muzzle pressed up against the latticed railing. The woman tipped a small watering can.
Water dripped onto the pavement.
The corpse lies face down on the ground. A pinkish trickle seeps from the faded blue jacket, staining the gutter. Already stiff, the fingers rest on the butt of a bayoneted rifle. A soldier in a grey greatcoat seizes the rifle; the blade pierces the lifeless body. The soldier braces himself to pull it out.
The little dog barked; the image dissolved. The man quickened his pace, anxious to escape the past. But just as he reached Rue Gracieuse a horse yoked to a delivery cart stumbled and fell. The cart tipped on its side and began sliding down the hill, dragging the poor creature by its harness. The mare kicked, struggled and then gave up, defeated.
The linesmen swarm before the shattered barricades. They take aim at the Communards who flee, trying desperately to rip the red stripes, their death warrant, off their trousers. A volley of machine-gun fire ploughs into a trench where a bay horse is trapped. A terrible whinnying rings out above the thud of bullets.
A cry goes up: ‘The Versailles Army!’
A headlong rush, caps, flasks, haversacks and belts scattered everywhere. The city has turned out its pockets.
The man leant back against the shop front of a dairy. Eyes closed, jaw clenched, stifling a sob. He must rid himself of these images once and for all! When would they stop tormenting him? Would the passing years never drown out the horror?
A few people had gathered around the cart. The driver, with the help of a local constable and a couple of passers-by, managed to get his horse back on its feet and with a crack of the whip he was off.
The man moved on, calmed now by the peaceful surroundings of Rue de l’Estrapade. He passed a blacksmith’s reeking of singed hoof, then a confectioner’s and a drycleaner’s. A delivery girl came out of a bakery carrying a load of four-pound loaves. A costermonger wheeling her barrow cried out, ‘Cabbages! Turnips! Bushels of potatoes! Who’ll buy my lovely lettuces! Handpicked this morning at dawn!’
In her curlpapers and faded calico dress she looked like a princess fallen on hard times. She winked at the man as he stepped aside to let her pass, and bawled at the top of her voice, ‘Cherry ripe! Cherry ripe! First crop of the season! Don’t be the last to taste them!’
‘Too dear,’ retorted a woman coming the other way.
‘That’s because they’re like gold dust and they still make cheaper earrings than rubies!’
The man found himself singing:
‘I will for ever love the cherry season
Those distant days have left in my heart
A gaping wound!’
Ravaged façades of buildings, cobblestones blackened with gunpowder and strewn with belongings thrown from windows. In Place de l’Estrapade soldiers from the Versailles Army with their sabres and tricolour armbands form a firing squad. They aim their rifles at a Communard officer with double-braided silver bands on his cap.
In Rue Saint-Jacques, the clatter of a passing cab freed the man from his nightmare. Some sparrows and pigeons were fighting over a pile of dung as a woman scooped it up with a shovel. A drunkard stumbled out of a bar-cum-cobbler’s, run by a man from the Auvergne.
‘What will those ministers of
justice cook up next to crush us common folk!’ he roared through wine-soaked breath.
The man felt a sudden thirst and was about to enter the bar when a sign caught his eye:
Certified, refined paraffin oil, deodorised, non-flammable…
A brunette with a plunging neckline was adjusting the flame of a lamp whose red shade stood out against a bluey-green background.
The poster was now a palimpsest. A long list appeared on the grey wall. Six columns with hundreds of names:
Outside a wine shop, an old man is sprawled across the pavement. He is barefoot, his legs covered in sores. A policeman leans over and presses the neck of a bottle to the man’s lips; laughter rings out. Inside, at the counter, Versailles Army officers and civilians loudly toast victory, their faces flushed with drink. In Rue des Écoles, firing squads are carrying out summary executions on a huge expanse of wasteland.
A wagon crawls along, a pile of corpses visible through its open door. Policemen in shiny-buttoned uniforms force the locals to take down a barricade. A woman cries over some bodies, their skulls smashed in. A soldier slaps her.
On Rue Racine, a firing squad trains its rifles on a boy accused of stuffing a handful of incriminating cartridges through the grating of a drain to help his father. The officer raises his arm.
A beggar next to the boy is resisting efforts to push him forward.
‘I took these shoes off a dead soldier, I swear!’
‘Line them up!’
Line ’em up!
We heard the captain shout
Stuffing his mouth
’N’ filling his cup
Line ’em up!
The man realised that he would have to give in: he hadn’t the strength to bury the past.
The leaves on the horse chestnuts cast pools of shade over the alleyways in the Luxembourg Gardens. Boys in sailor suits rolled their hoops around the statue of a lion guarding the Observatory steps. The man collapsed onto a bench and watched the hoops turning under the light touch of the sticks. Twenty years on, he could still see the woman.
Clasping an infant to her bosom, her expression frozen like a death mask, she has just recognised her husband among the prisoners. She hurls herself towards him. A blow from a rifle butt sends her reeling; the baby falls to the ground.
A hoop rolled up to the man’s shoe, wobbled and fell over.
The sightless eyes of the statues contemplate the bodies piled up on the lawns. Rows of men, their faces pale with fright, file out of the Senate and are led over to the central pond: Communards, civilians informed on by their neighbours, people with dirty hands or who just don’t look quite right. The rifles dispense death. The first rows of men crumple and are immediately buried under those falling on top of them. The blood flows; the soldiers doing the butchering, the endless butchering, are knee-deep in blood. The mass graves are numberless: L’École Militaire, the Lobau barracks, Mazas, Parc Monceau, Buttes-Chaumont, Père-Lachaise. Upholsterers bear the bodies away. Paris reeks of rotting flesh.
Eight days was how long it went on for. Eight days. Every afternoon, at the foot of Pont Neuf, respectable folk gathered to witness the massacre. Twenty thousand souls put to death in Paris by court-martials and summary executions.
Eight days that refused to dissolve into the thousands of others the man sitting on the bench in the Luxembourg Gardens had experienced. Eight days that would haunt him until his dying breath.
The gunpowder, the blood, the hatred, the walls – people had been lined up against the nearest wall and shot.
Would he go insane? Or would he find his own walls, his own way of meting out justice?
A toy boat streaked across the central pond. Cries, laughter, bursts of music, a refrain:
Here comes the flower seller.
Buy a spray of forget-me-nots
To brighten up your day.
Forget? He couldn’t forget. He must act. It was the only way of freeing himself from this insufferable burden: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Two years later
Sunday 11 June 1893
train deposited a dozen punters in striped pullovers and straw boaters on the platform before letting out a long jet of steam. The passengers clogged the exit for a moment before setting off towards the riverbank, where families dressed in their Sunday best and a podgy man in a checked bowler hat were also headed.
The man made a beeline for Pont de Chatou without so much as a glance towards the shimmering water, which was dotted with boats in the unseasonably warm spring weather. A barge whistled. The man dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief and paused to light a cigar before shuffling off again.
Meanwhile an imposing-looking fellow sat sipping a glass of beer at a table outside Cabaret Fournaise in the middle of the island. His eyes were fixed on the potbellied figure in the checked bowler. He was momentarily distracted by the couples dancing beneath the poplars to a lively polka being played by three musicians on a nearby bandstand; tapping his foot to the music, he admired a narrow skiff as it darted out from behind the bend in the Seine. But his attention soon turned back to the portly chap, who was making the floorboards creak as he approached.