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An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot – About the Paris Commune of 1871

December 30, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot (2015) Original French title: Une plaie ouverte.

*Sigh* A missed opportunity, that’s what An Open Wound is. Patrick Pécherot supposedly wrote historical crime fiction here. The setting is Paris, back and forth between the Paris Commune of 1871 and 1905. Here’s what Wikipedia sums up about the Paris Commune:

The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871. The Franco-Prussian War had led to the capture of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, the collapse of the Second French Empire, and the beginning of the Third Republic. Because Paris was under siege for four months, the Third Republic moved its capital to Tours. A hotbed of working-class radicalism, Paris was primarily defended during this time by the often politicised and radical troops of the National Guard rather than regular Army troops. Paris surrendered to the Prussians on 28 January 1871, and in February Adolphe Thiers, the new chief executive of the French national government, signed an armistice with Prussia that disarmed the Army but not the National Guard.

On 18 March, soldiers of the Commune’s National Guard killed two French army generals, and the Commune refused to accept the authority of the French government. The Commune governed Paris for two months, until it was suppressed by the regular French Army during “La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) beginning on 21 May 1871.

Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune had significant influence on the ideas of Karl Marx, who described it as an example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The pretext of the plot is that Dana, a participant in the Commune of Paris has been sentenced to death in absentia for a murder on the Haxo street during the Paris Commune. In 1905, Dana is still missing and no one knows where he is or if he’s still alive. Rumors say he might be in America.

Dana was part of a group of activists during the Paris Commune, a group of historical figures (Courbet, Verlaine, Louise Michel, Vallès) and fictional characters like Marceau, the man who wonders what has become of Dana.

So far, so good. Good blurb, excellent idea for a book. Its execution was a death sentence for this reader. There are so many things that went wrong for me that I abandoned it, despite a genuine interest in reading about the Paris Commune.

The layout of the book:

Different typos to help the reader know where they are: normal for relating the Paris Commune in 1871, italic for the quest in 1905 and normal with another font to write about the murder. Tedious. I wonder how it turns out in audio book. I hate this device: the writing should be good enough to make the reader understand they’re back in time or moving forward or changing of point of view. It’s a lazy way to overcome the difficulty of changing of time, place and narrator.

Losing the plot line

The investigation to discover what has become of Dana should be our main thread except that we have a hard time figuring out it’s supposed to be the plot line. Thank God for the blurb. It’s not a real and methodical investigation so, right after I finally got it was the purpose of the book, I lost sight of it.

Missing key elements on the historical events. 

The Paris Commune events are told in short paragraphs with their date, to give the reader a chronology of the movement and its fall. Fine. But, as a reader who knows next to nothing about the Paris Commune (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) I didn’t understand how it happened, who were Communards, the ones fighting against the Thiers government. Thank God for Wikipedia.

Mixing historical characters with fictional ones. 

Except for the obvious ones, I couldn’t figure out who were real participants and who were literary characters. I don’t know how much Verlaine was involved in the Paris Commune or if it’s true that his wife was one of Louise Michel’s pupil. I suppose it’s true.

The style

The last straw that broke my reader’s back was the style. At times some sort of lyrical prose overflowing with words and at other times, half sentences, almost bullet points. Add to the mix, embedded verses by Verlaine when a paragraph features the poet, like here:

Il faudrait questionner Courbet, savoir ce qu’il peint d’un modèle. Ou Verlaine. Son rêve étrange et pénétrant n’est jamais tout à fait le même ni tout à fait un autre.

Patrick Pécherot, Une plaie ouverte, p141

Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant

D’une femme inconnue, et que j’aime, et qui m’aime,

Et qui n’est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même

Ni tout à fait une autre, et m’aime et me comprend.

Paul Verlaine, Mon rêve familier.

And the language is uneven, moving from one register to the other, often using argot from I don’t know what time. 1871?

I tried to soldier on but I was at the end of my rope page 166, out of 318. I say I gave it a good shot. Like the one Dana gave to Amédée Floquin, the man he murdered? I guess I’ll never know whether he actually killed him or if he’s still alive in 1905. The style is really what made be abandon the book, it grated too much. I was still learning things about the Paris Commune (with Wikipedia on the side) but the style was too unbearable for me to finish the book.

That’s a pity. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe I’m too demanding, I don’t know. An Open Wound won a literary prize for crime fiction, Le Prix Transfuge of the best Polar. I fail to see how this book is a polar at all but I’m not proficient in putting books in literary boxes.

The good thing about aborted read is that I got to browse through the list of books that are based upon the Paris Commune. I need to read La Débâcle by Zola, at least I know the style will be outstanding. There are poems by Victor Hugo, L’Année terrible. There’s L’Insurgé by Jules Vallès and Le Cri du peuple by Jean Vautrin, that was also made into a BD by Jacques Tardi. And Tardi is a reference in the BD world.

  1. December 30, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Oh dear. Like you I’d be very interested to read about the Commune but I’d struggle with the same things as you did. Shame…

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  2. December 30, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    Yes, Zola, La Débâcle, the ultimate novel about the Paris Commune:)

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    • December 30, 2018 at 4:05 pm

      I think it’s going to be on my 2019 Reading List.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. December 30, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    Oooh, thanks for the suggestions for other books about the Commune de Paris – I am a little obsessed with that topic. So I will avoid this polar. I’ve got two good historical books that I acquired recently, but it would be nice to read some fiction. For a long time, I thought Les Miserables was about that period. The Tardi BD sounds particularly interesting…

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    • December 30, 2018 at 2:03 pm

      Do you want to do a Zola readalong?
      I’m curious about that topic too.

      Like

      • December 30, 2018 at 7:10 pm

        If I can find a copy here… You made me buy the Vautrin book, saw it on a French 2nd hand book site and managed to order it just before the deadline tomorrow!

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        • December 30, 2018 at 7:37 pm

          The Zola is free on ebook.

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          • December 30, 2018 at 7:38 pm

            OOoh, will investigate right away!

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            • December 30, 2018 at 7:42 pm

              All the 19th century classics are free of rights, so they are available!

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              • December 30, 2018 at 7:45 pm

                Found it on Project Gutenberg in French! Downloaded and ready to go! I might do a little Commune de Paris reading month, as I have at least 4 books that want to read on the topic.

                Liked by 1 person

              • December 30, 2018 at 9:42 pm

                Great! When do you want to do your Paris Commune month?

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              • December 30, 2018 at 10:23 pm

                March would be suitable, because that’s when it started, but might be difficult to fit in for both of us? Perhaps May to commemorate ‘la semaine sanglante’?

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              • December 30, 2018 at 10:31 pm

                March or May are OK with me. Which do you prefer? You’ll be the one reading more than one book.

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              • January 2, 2019 at 12:17 pm

                OK, I’ve put down May then. With my son having exams that month, I don’t think I’ll do much else except read. And feed him.

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              • January 2, 2019 at 1:28 pm

                Same here. Bac + Brevet year.

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              • January 2, 2019 at 1:44 pm

                Yep, just brevet this year, but in 2 years time it will be bac and brevet for me too. So we’re good to go then! FictionFan might be tempted to join us, by the way…

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              • January 3, 2019 at 12:19 pm

                Great. May it is, then and nice of FictionFan to join us. Plus on est de fous, plus on rit!

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              • January 1, 2019 at 6:16 am

                I was trying to think why I had read up on the Paris Commune recently and by chance I see that I was writing about Rimbaud and Verlaine in a review of Kathy Acker’s In Memoriam to Identity.

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  4. December 30, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    What a shame, but at 166 pages you definitely gave it a shot. Thank you for the other Commune suggestions.

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    • December 30, 2018 at 4:06 pm

      I think I tried long enough with this one.
      Zola will probaby be my first choice. Or the Tardi BD.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. December 30, 2018 at 5:34 pm

    I have ‘The Paris Commune of 1871’ by Frank Jellinek. Years ago I was reading a chapter at a time and there is a book mark at page 280 (of 420) where I finally ran out of steam. Too much detail I think. I’m fascinated by all France’s revolutions, and particularly by the failure of May 1968 to become one. Despite all their protestations of independence, Australians love their bosses too much to ever consider revolting.

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    • January 1, 2019 at 9:40 pm

      That’s the problem with historical book: you have to find ones with the right level of details for you. Too little, you get bored, too many, like you said, you run out of steam.
      They’re book equivalent of Goldillock’s bed: you need to find one that is just right.

      We seem to be a people very keen to revolutions and upheavals. I think the memory of 1789 is rather vivid, probably because it’s been promoted in school for a long time. I imagine it was quite an important chapter in the early mandatory school programs since it was a way to anchor the country into a Republic. (The Third Republic born after the 1871 débâcle)

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  6. December 31, 2018 at 8:51 pm

    Another Paris Commune novel to add to your list is Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, a hoot of a book maybe without much to interest committed history buffs but some fine scenes recreating the atmosphere of the Commune. It’s by an American author who was obviously French enough to write the novel nearly in Franglish.

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    • January 1, 2019 at 9:44 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, Scott.

      Why did he choose Franglish? After all, I imagine that the French characters spoke in their native language (even if it was of course in Englis) and were not trying to speak English, which could be a great way to convey all the grammar mistakes and latin structure of sentences that don’t sound English at all.

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