L'Insurgé by Jules Vallès
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jules Vallès was a central figure in the Paris Commune of March-May 1871: popular orator, creator and editor of the most-read newspaper, Le Cri du Peuple, elected deputy and even an elected battalion commander. He remained at the barricades throughout the "Week of Blood", la Semaine Sanglante of annihilation, but survived — through a combination of lucky breaks, discreet risk-taking friends, and clever improvisations — to tell the tale. In 1886, the year of his death, he told this part of it in this fictional autobiography, published posthumously and narrated by his alter-ego "Jacques Vingtras".
We can't know how much of it he fictionalized — very little, apparently, except that "Jacques Vingtras" focuses especially on the comic and self-deprecating details, careful not to attribute to himself anything like heroism, a notion he distrusts. Thus we see "Jacques" as a battalion commander with no military aptitude or tactical sense who issues contradictory and at times nonsensical orders, a loudmouth so brash he enrages people who should be allies, and so much in a hurry all the time that he can't get his official deputy's sash on straight. In the context of an immense tragedy he describes other moments not comical but so strange that I'm sure he didn't make them up: For example, when a handful of National Guards (the Commune's defenders) are running for their lives under a fierce cannonade, they pass an old, blind beggar still begging at his accustomed spot before a now-destroyed church, and — they stop to give him coins! The old urban habits of those men survived even under such enormous stress. It is the attention to such minute detail, in the context of broad involvement in all the politics of the Commune, that makes this book invaluable for feeling and reliving the immense drama. And because Vallès/Vingtras is so unpretentious, he's good company, even if his shorthand phrases and extensive use of slang sometimes make him hard to follow.
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