Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Book Review - The Last Days of New Paris

 [From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 Summer 2017]


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The Last Days of New Paris
By China Miéville
Picador, London, 2016, £12.99, 207pp
ISBN 978-1-4472-9657-7

That historical novels can offer insights and perspectives to historians is widely recognised. The case of China Miéville is a bit more complex. Miéville has a deserved reputation as a writer of fantasy or “weird fiction” – he is also a political activist, now associated with the journal Salvage. His latest work, a short novel – novella – presents an alternative history set in the mid-twentieth century.

It is 1950, but Paris is still occupied by the Germans and violent, vicious warfare persists between the occupiers and the forces of the Resistance. But the Resistance have mobilised what are described as “manifs”, weapons based on Surrealist artworks. Miéville’s narrative powerfully evokes the strange world of wartorn Paris, with sentences like: “As Thibaut cowered and watched the wings beat down on them and they gasped and tried to run she had said something else and made a caterpillar longer and fatter than a horse with the head of wicked bird, and it rippled after the eagle over the shattered brick.” The book is full of what Miéville calls “living art” and even “artflesh”. By presenting an
alternative history, Miéville insists that history is not fixed, but that there are alternatives ahead of us; his central character, Thibaut, concludes that he has a “mission” : “Start from scratch, redo history, make it mine”.

Miéville’s account is presented on the basis of a detailed map of Paris, complete with street names. But some features are changed. The Sacré-Coeur, built to celebrate the crushing of the Paris Commune, is (following a suggestion by André Breton), painted black and turned into a tram depot. Doubtless it would be possible to read this book, as the cover blurb suggests, simply as a “thriller”. But Miéville repeatedly reminds us of a historical fact – that the Surrealists were not just an artistic movement, but that they had a deep political commitment; they saw themselves as a political as well as an artistic movement (and they had more splits and expulsions than most Trotskyist organisations).

Miéville makes his intentions clear with a detailed appendix (amounting to a tenth of the total length of the book) in which he gives references to the various artworks featured in the narrative. This is a work of considerable erudition. (I found only one error, which I report with due humility since I have made the same mistake myself – the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam is misnamed as Wilfredo.)

To take just one example, the novel features the “wolf table” designed by the Romanian Surrealist painter Victor Brauner, in which a table acquires the head, tail and testicles of a wolf. It is a great pity that Miéville was not able to produce an illustrated edition of his story, but virtually all the images referred to in the book can be seen in a fascinating collection by Nicky Martin available here. The wolf-table is here. The only picture in the volume is of the “exquisite corpse” – a Surrealist visual version of “Consequences” in which various elements are combined at random to make a fantastic body. (See here )

There is a secondary narrative, set in Marseille in 1941. Southern France was not yet occupied by the Germans, and various anti-fascists, including Surrealists like André Breton, as well as others like Victor Serge (who gets a couple of name-checks in the story) had gathered there in the hope of getting a boat to the American continent. (Eventually Breton, Serge and Claude Lévi-Strauss all escaped on the same boat.)

Miéville introduces the historical figure of Varian Fry, a heroic individual who did so much to enable European intellectuals to escape death at the hands of the Nazis. Yet, with an eye to our present world, Miéville also points to the limitations of Fry’s project: “His Emergency Rescue Committee focused, not without shame, on artists and intellectuals. As if the baker, the sewage worker, the nursery teacher didn’t deserve help, too, Fry thought, many times.”

Miéville reminds us several times of Surrealism’s links with Trotsky (Breton visited Trotsky in Mexico in 1938 and subsequently the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Artists was founded) and refers to the “redoubtable Trotskyist Benjamin Péret”. Yet in describing the warfare he constantly equates Germans and “Nazis”. But most German soldiers were not Nazis – they too were victims of Hitler, and came from a country which less than a generation earlier had been on the brink of socialist revolution. Hence the Trotskyist strategy of trying to fraternise with German workers in uniform. But there is no place for this in Miéville’s narrative. Only in the appendix does he remind us of the Surrealists Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe in Jersey, who distributed “flyers and coins painted with anti-Hitler slogans into soldiers’ pockets and through their car windows” in the hope of encouraging “a spirit of mutiny” among the German forces.

But if Miéville’s book encourages a greater interest in the politics of Surrealism and the complex undercurrents of resistance to fascism, it will have served its purpose.

Ian Birchall

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