Editor’s note: On this May Day 2020, with Donald Trump abusing the Military Production Act to potentially send workers to their deaths by asserting he has the right to pre-empt state decisions to close the meat-packing plants which are loci for virus contamination (where’s Upton Sinclair when you need him?), and with the governors of Iowa and Nebraska insisting that those who refuse to return to hazardous working conditions will see their unemployment benefits cut off, we thought the moment propitious to revise and share our translated excerpts of Michel Ragon’s “La mémoire des vainçus” (literally, “the memory of the vanquished”), as proof that if the struggle is still not over, the battles of the vanquished are never really in vain. And can still serve as inspiration for the labor and human rights struggles to come. (To read the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager serialized publication of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil,” click here. )
“The ideal is when one is able to die for one’s ideas. Politics is when one can live for them.”
— Charles Péguy, cited on frontispiece, “The Book of the Vanquished.”
“Books can also die, but they last longer than men. They get passed on from hand to hand, like the Olympic flame. My friend, my father, my older brother, you have not entirely slid into oblivion, because this book of your life exists.”
— Michel Ragon, Prologue, “The Book of the Vanquished.”
Part One: “The little girl in the fishmongers’ wagon” (1899-1917)
“As for me, I’m just a poor sap! For those of us at the bottom of the heap, there’s nothing but bad breaks in this world and the one beyond. And of course, when we get to Heaven, it’ll be up to us to make sure the thunder-claps work.”
— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck,” cited on the frontispiece of Part One of “The Book of the Vanquished.”
“Sometimes it’s better to be the vanquished than the victor.”
— Vincent Van Gogh, cited in Lou Brudner’s preface to “Büchner, Complete Works,” published by Le Club Français du livre, Paris, 1955.
Translator’s note: With the exception of Fred and Flora, who may be real, may be fictional, or may be composites, all the personages cited below and in Michel Ragon’s novel are based on real historical figures, notably Paul Delesalle (1870-1948), the Left Bank bookseller. Later adopting the pen name Victor Serge, Victor Kibaltchich (1890-1947) would become a noted Socialist theorist who, like Fred in “The Book of the Vanquished,” eventually broke with the Bolsheviks. Rirette Maîtrejean was his actual companion. Raymond-la-Science, René Valet, and Octave Garnier were real members of the Bonnot Gang, the details of their denouement recounted by Ragon as translated below accurate. For the other personalities evoked, including leading figures in the European Anarcho-Syndicaliste milieu in its heyday, as well as certain events alluded to, I’ve included brief footnotes, as these personalities and events may not be as familiar to an Anglophone audience as to Ragon’s French readers, for whom they represent markers in the national memory, notably the infamous “Bande à Bonnot,” whose exploits still resonate in a contemporary France wracked by youthful alienation and haunted by the terrorism in which this is sometimes manifest.
Every morning the cold awoke the boy at dawn. Long before the street-lanterns dimmed, in the pale gray light he shook off the dust and grime of his hovel at the end of a narrow alley flanking the Saint-Eustache church. Stretching out his limbs like a cat he flicked off the fleas and, like a famished feline, took off in search of nourishment, flairing the aromas wafting down the street. With Les Halles wholesale market coming to life at the same time, it didn’t take long for him to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before debating over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his share. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between the trailers loaded with heaps of victuals. Every Friday he’d march up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, drawn by the aroma of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which he pictured as a catastrophic inundation — cut a swathe through the countryside before it descended from the heights of Montmartre. He could hear the carts approaching from far away, like the rumbling of thunder. The churning of the metallic wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, amplified by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, enveloped in their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, mechanically hanging onto the reigns. The horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of the brakes rose up in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated all the way back up to the Poissonnière quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, spat out a string of invectives, and righted themselves in their seats. Those farther back had to wait until the first arrivals unloaded their merchandise. The horses pawed the ground and stamped their feet. The majority of the men jumped off their carts to go have a little nip in the bistros just raising their shutters.
On this particular Friday, at the rear of one of the wagons sat a small girl. Her naked legs and bare feet dangled off the edge of the cart, and the boy noticed nothing more than this white skin. He drew near. The girl, her head leaning forward, her face hidden by the tussled blonde hair which fell over her eyes, didn’t see him at first. As for the boy, he only had eyes for those plump swinging gams. By the time he was almost on top of them, he could hear the girl singing out a rhymed ditty. He approached his hand, touching one of her calves.
“Eh, lower the mitts! Why, the nerve!”
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