Le Cri du peuple by Jean Vautrin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is an immensely agitated, minutely detailed, ridiculously plotted police thriller, full of exaggerated characters, improbable coincidence and lots and lots of blood and sex, set in Paris during the 1871 Commune.
An emotionally disturbed cop and ex chain-gang convict (Charles Bassoucissé, a.k.a. Horace Grondin) obsessively pursues his murder suspect, who is now the gallant army captain Antoine Tarpagnan, and who we know almost from the beginning is quite innocent — like Inspector Javert on the heels of Jean Valjean in Les misérables, but Grondin is even crazier than Javert. These and other invented characters — other cops, crooks, prostitutes and various low-lifes — come into contact with historical figures, including Louise Michel and Gustave Courbet (very briefly) and especially Jules Vallès, whose newspaper Le Cri du Peuple provided Vautrin his title.
It is fast moving. I kept flicking the pages on my Kindle to find out what these crazy characters were going to do next, and one of the sex scenes, though a cliché, is quite lovely (a whore with a heart of gold tutors a timid youth in his first encounter). But the reason I read this instead of some other police thriller was to find out more about the Paris Commune, a far more dramatic story and with far more extraordinary personalities than the cop, the gallant and lovesick army captain he believes murdered his protégée, the troupe of loveable carnival freaks or even the gang of murderers with their grotesque symbol of brotherhood — glass eyes to be left in the hands of their victims.
The gruesome slashings of the "Glass Eye" gang, presented in bloody detail, pale into insignificance beside the more extreme and massive violence of the "week of blood" (la semaine sanglante) when government troops from Versailles virtually annihilated the communards, women and children included. Vautrin makes that suffering extremely vivid, and the (real, historical) violence is so massive that the (fictional) pursuit of Tarpagnan by Grondin seems of small importance. Vautrin is especially good at conveying the smells, most of them awful — of people, mildew, exhausted horses, bombs and rotting corpses. But the writing is so overwrought — people don't merely "say" something, they "snort" it or "grunt" it or even "whinny" it (I'm translating from Vautrin's over-abundant use of underworld argot) — that you know the story must have been conceived as a comic book, which it has now become, with illustrations by Jacques Tardi.
In short: You can learn some things about the commune, especially the minuscule details of how people lived and ate and traveled through the city, and a sense of the fear and smells and rage during the massacres of that last week. What you won't get clear is what it was all about and what it means to us.
That wasn't what Vautrin set out to do, so I'm not objecting. But it looks as though if I want to read the kind of novel I have in mind, I'll just have to write it. It's underway now.
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