“La Mémoire des vaincus” by Michel Ragon (Extract from the Prologue; introduction and version originale followed by translation)

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A sort of combination of Warren Beatty’s film “Reds” (inspired by John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World”) and Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,” Michel Ragon’s 1990 novel “La Mémoire des vaincus” resurrects the anarchists and libertarians (in the French sense of the word) who often furnished the foot soldiers for the class warfare and union movements of the first half of the 20th century — before they themselves were crushed by the Communists and obliterated a second time by the history books. It’s a brilliant mosaic in which authentic historical figures like Trotsky intermingle with a protagonist we’re never quite sure is entirely fictional, so much does the trajectory of the narrator to whom he is the mentor correspond with Ragon’s own. (Like the novel’s hero when the narrator first encounters him, Ragon worked as a bouquiniste, or Seine-side bookseller, before he became a celebrated art and architecture critic, curator, and historian of Proletarian literature, to cite just a few of his trades.)

Foster child of the (real-life) Bonnot gang, child groom to a girl he finds on a fish cart when he himself is just a pre-adolescent waif roaming  Les Halles wholesale market and whose adult destiny resembles that of Dina Vierney, the sculptor Aristide Maillol’s muse and inheritor, prodigy of revolutionary militant and writer Victor Serge, aide-de-camp to Zinoviev until he’s forced to flee Soviet Russia after contradicting Trotsky, combatant with the International Brigade in Spain once again forced to flee the Russians attempting to subvert the Republican cause for their own ends, Labor agitator in the era of the Popular Front finally trotted out as a totem by the student rebels of May 1968 before slipping back into obscurity, Ragon’s “Fred Barthélemy” and his entourage of real, composite, and imagined personages embody the ‘losers’ of the 20th century class struggles, their ideals nonetheless persistent and renascent in contemporary France via the “ZAD” (Zone à Défendre) movement, like a cup of sourdough starter passed on from generation to generation even as mainstream bread becomes more and more diluted by additives — making all the more crucial Ragon’s “memory of the vanquished,” a legacy singularly restored and personalized. Romantic and heroic without being romanticized, Ragon’s saga — decorated, through Fred’s intermittent reunions with Flora, with a love story as well as a fresco of the Montparno and Montmartroise art worlds over which Flora reigns supreme first as artist’s muse and later as dealer — restores a lost milieu to its rightful place in popular history. It is for this reason — the regenerative relevance of Ragon’s epic — that in translating the title I’ve opted for the ungainly “The Memory of the Vanquished” in lieu of “In Memory of the Vanquished” because, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

«Les livres meurent aussi, mais ils durent plus longtemps que les hommes. On se les passe de main en main. Comme la flamme des jeux Olympiques portée de relais en relais par les coureurs. Mon ami, mon père, mon grand aîné, tu n’as pas glissé entièrement dans le néant puisque ce livre de ta vie existe.»

— Michel Ragon, Prologue, «La Mémoire des vaincus.»

La vie est un curieux parcours, plein d’embûches et de découvertes, de surprises et de déconvenues. On vient, on va. On rencontre des gens, que l’on oublie, qui disparaissent. D’autres qui s’insinuent, qui ne vous lâchent plus, qui s’accrochent à vous comme des tiques et dont on sait bien que l’on ne pourra s’en débarrasser qu’en disparaissant soi-même, à tout jamais, sans espoir de retour. Ils sont si pesant parfois, que l’on a envie de devancer l’heure. Pourquoi ceux-là et pas ceux-ci, égarés en chemin et dont le souvenir vous obsède. Certains sont morts, du moins on le dit, mais ils ne sont pas morts pour vous. Des prétendus morts nous accompagnent, vivent avec nous, en nous, plus que tant de vivants que l’on côtoie chaque jour avec indifférence. Parfois, on enterre un peu vite ceux que l’on a perdus de vue et dont l’âge avancé nous fait croire à leur effacement définitif. Et il arrive qu’ils ressortent de l’ombre, comme des fantômes, et reprennent leur place, dans notre existence, une place qu’ils n’auraient jamais dû quitter.

C’est le cas de l’homme dont je vais vous raconter la vie.

Sans lui, je ne serais pas ce que je suis. Lorsque je le rencontrai pour la première fois j’avais vingt-trois ans. Il en comptait quarante-huit. Quarante-huit ans, ce n’est pas bien vieux, mais lui était déjà très vieux. Je veux dire qu’il avait vécu de telles aventures, croisé tant de gens illustres, légendaires, joué lui-même un tel rôle dans l’Histoire, qu’il semblait hors du temps. Le temps, les temps nouveaux de l’après-guerre, d’ailleurs le rejetaient. Emprisonné de 1939 à 1945 et n’ayant, de ce fait, participé ni aux conflits de la Résistance et de la Collaboration, ni à la ruée sur les pouvoirs vacants à la Libération, il apparaissait alors tout à fait anachronique. Le seul gagne-pain qu’il avait pu trouver accentuait sa désuétude. Il tenait un étal de bouquiniste en bord de Seine, quai de la Tournelle, non loin de ce qui s’appelait encore la Halle aux Vins.

Le voir ainsi, accoté au parapet, près de ses boites à livres, sa haute taille un peu cassée, l’air toujours ironique, ne me surprenait pas outre mesure. J’avais commencé par être son client, un client qui ignorait à quelle singulier bouquiniste il s’adressait, un client qui passait plus de temps à feuilleter les livres sous l’auvent des couvercles de zinc qu’à les acheter. Les boites de celui qui allait devenir pour moi plus qu’un ami, un père spirituel dont l’influence me marquerait à jamais, ne ressemblaient pas aux autres. Elles ne contenaient ni publications érotiques sous cellophane, ni romans policiers, n’étaient pas encombrées de pseudo-gravures anciennes, ni d’enveloppes de collections de timbres, mais débordaient d’une abondance de brochures, de revues et même de journaux jaunis qui constituaient une extraordinaire collection pour l’amateur d’histoire syndicale, politique et sociale de la première moitié du siécle. Les livres de ce singulier libraire, eux aussi fort rares, certains même dédicacés, n’en coûtes pas plus cher pour cela, car les amateurs d’autographes ne recherchaient pas encore les signatures de Gide, de Malraux, d’Alain, de Giono. Mais moi, elles me fascinaient et c’est sans doute ces longs moments passés à rêver sur d’aussi illustres paraphes, et plus encore ma propension à acquérir des brochures politiques invendables, qui attirèrent l’attention du bouquiniste sur son jeune habitué. Me voyant compter mes sous, il me faisait des prix. Un jour il me dit, de cette voix gouailleuse, parigote, un tantinet bourrue, que je retrouverai inchangée dans son extrême vieillesse :

— Tu m’en bouches un coin, mon gars, à ton âge, de t’intéresser à tout cette drouille. Je te regarde, comme ça, depuis des mois, et tu ne fléchis pas. Qu’est-ce qui peut bien t’attirer là-dedans ? Vraiment, tu m’intrigues ! D’ou viens-tu ? Qu’attends-tu de la vie ?

Je bafouillai je ne sais quoi. Il m’en demandait trop.

Il haussa les épaules, parut agacé et me dit d’un ton peu aimable :

— Ce que je t’en dis, c’est pour ton bien. Tu ne devrais pas t’attarder à toutes ces vieilleries. Ça ne te mènera nulle part. Si je les ai ressorties, c’est qu’elles font l’affaire de quelques copains qui veulent bien se souvenir de moi.

Puis, se radoucissant :

— Il faut que je gagne ma croûte. Enfin, pour quoi dire il faut. Personne ne m’oblige. J’ai échoué là, comme ces vieux rafiots qui ne ressortent plus de la vase du port. Je liquide mon fonds. Après, on verra.

Sa mauvaise humeur revint :

— Allez, déguerpis. Ce n’est pas pour toi. Tu ferais mieux de t’intéresser aux filles. Je ne veux plus te voir. Tu m’agaces. Allez, fous le camp.

Des mois passèrent sans que je revienne quai de la Tournelle. Le bouquiniste m’avait moins effrayé que vexé. Je l’évitais. En passant sur l’autre trottoir, du côté des immeubles, je le voyais le plus souvent entouré des hommes de son âge, ou plus vieux. Ils tenaient de longs conciliables. Certains étaient bizarrement accoutrés, avec des pèlerines, des foulards extravagants, des bonnets de laine tricotés. Il m’apparut alors que ces hommes qui entouraient mon grand escogriffe bourru, sortaient aussi d’un autre temps. Cette similitude entre les familiers du bouquiniste et la marchandise désuète de ses boîtes, me fit mieux comprendre l’anomalie de mon intrusion dans un âge qui n’était pas le mien. Mais j’avais bien le droit de me passionner pour l’histoire politique du début du siècle. Cette conviction me donna le courage de refouiller dans des boîtes qui après tout, n’appartenaient pas à un club privé. J’en ressortis triomphalement  l’Histoire de la Commune de 1871, par Lissagaray, dans l’édition Dentu, datée 1897. Et, ne voulant pas être en reste avec l’agressivité du bouquiniste, je lui demandai d’un air revêche :

— C’est combien, ce bouquin-là ? Vous me ferez bien un prix, je suis un vieux client.

Il feignit de ne pas me reconnaître, prit le livre dans ses mains maigres, le feuilleta, hocha la tête d’un air très triste :

— Lissagaray… C’est un ouvrage qui n’a pas de prix. Bon, puisque tu as le culot de revenir, je te le donne. Non, ne discute pas, c’est un cadeau. Un cadeau sans prix ! Tu es anar ? Fallait le dire.

— Anar ?

Je débarquais de ma province où mon éducation se fit plutôt dans le giron de l’Église catholique, apostolique et romaine. Mais depuis que je commençais à réfléchir, mon attirance allait surtout aux hérétiques, aux réprouvés de tout acabit, aux marginaux, aux hors-la-loi, aux irrespectueux, voire aux anormaux et aux fous. Anar ? Que voulait-il dire ? Je connaissais plus l’histoire du socialisme, des socialismes, et de tous leurs avatars, que celle de l’anarchie.

Voyant mon embarras, le bouquiniste reprit :

— Non, bien sûr, tu n’es pas anar. Ce n’est plus la mode. Ça ne l’a d’ailleurs jamais été. Tu n’es pas coco, tout de même ? Sinon, que chercherais-tu dans mes boîtes ? Ou alors, c’est que tu serais maso.

— Pourquoi voulez-vous que je sois embrigadé dans quelque chose ? dis-je avec brusquerie. Je m’intéresse à la politique, pas aux partis politiques.

— Qu’est que tu fais, dans la vie ?

— Je fais ce que je peux. Et je m’en fiche. Actuellement je suis manœuvre dans une usine. J’ai toujours été manœuvre, ajoutait-je dans une sorte de défie, manœuvre, manutentionnaire, débardeur. Je suis petit, mais je suis costaud. Et travailler avec mes muscles me laisse le cerveau vacant. Je peux lire, étudier.

— Tu lis beaucoup ?

— J’ai tout lu.

— Allons, ne te vante pas.

— Si, j’ai lu tous les petits classiques Larousse, par ordre alphabétique. Comme ça, j’était sûr de ne pas en oublier.

— Le bouquiniste passa ses mains dans sa chevelure grise, geste qui lui était familier, presque un tic. Il me regarda d’un autre air où je devinai à la fois de l’étonnement et de l’affection. Il eut envie de me dire quelque chose, mais se contenta de me prendre l’épaule, de sa main osseuse, et de la serrer à me faire mal.

— Reviens quand tu veux. Farfouille. Cherche, mon gars. Peut-être finiras-tu par trouver.

C’est ainsi que commencèrent mes relations avec celui dont j’ambitionne aujourd’hui, quarante ans après, de devenir le biographe. Je m’aperçus vite que le même nom se répétait à la fois sur les pages de garde de tous les livres dédicacés qui se trouvaient dans ses boîtes, et sur les couvertures de nombreuses brochures que j’achetais. Ce nom était bien sûr le sien. Il bradait sa bibliothèque, son seul avoir.

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak:  

“Books can also die, but they last longer than men. They get passed on from hand to hand, like the Olympic flame relayed by runners. My friend, my father, my older brother, you have not completely slid into Nothingness, because this book of your life exists.”

— Michel Ragon, prologue, “The Memory of the Vanquished.”

Life makes for a curious marathon*, mined with ambushes and discoveries, surprises and mishaps. People arrive, people depart. We come into contact with beings we later forget, or who simply disappear. Others insinuate themselves into our lives and don’t let go, attaching themselves like tics which we know we’ll only get rid of by disappearing ourselves, forever, with no prospect of coming back. Sometimes their presence is so oppressive that we want to fast-forward this moment. Why do certain people never go away while others simply seem to evaporate, misplaced somewhere along the line but who nonetheless still obsess us? Some are dead — or reported dead — and yet they’re anything but dead to us. These so-called dearly departed continue to accompany us, live with us and inhabit us, more than so many of the living that we walk next to indifferently every day. Sometimes we precipitously bury those we’ve lost from sight and whose advanced age makes us believe they’re definitively gone. And then one day, “Poof!,” there they are, stepping out of the shadows like phantoms, resuming their roles in our lives — roles they never should have abdicated in the first place.

Such is the case of the man whose story I’m about to relate.

Without this man, I would not be who I am today. When I first met him, I was just 23 years old. He was 48. Forty-eight is hardly ancient, but he was already very old. What I mean is that he had lived through such adventures, crossed paths with so many renowned, legendary figures, and had himself played such a vital role in History that he seemed as if removed from Time. As for the particular times — the new Post-War era — they had chewed him up and spat him out. Imprisoned from 1939 to 1945 and thus having participated neither in the conflicts between the Resistance and the Collaborationists nor the skirmishes for power that followed the Liberation, he seemed to be an anachronism. The only way to make a living he’d been able to come up with accentuated this very obsolescence. He operated a bookstall on the banks of the Seine, on the Tournelle quay, not far from what was still referred to at the time as the Wine Market.

To see him there, leaning up against a parapet next to his book bins, his imposing stature slightly fractured, with an eternally ironic air, did not really surprise me. At first I was just another customer, albeit a customer oblivious to the particular singularity of the bouquiniste he had in front of him, a customer who spent more time leafing through the books protected by the frayed zinc overhangs** than actually buying them. The book bins of the man who was to become for me more than just a friend, a spiritual father whose influence would mark me forever, had nothing in common with the other bookstands that flanked the river. No cellophane-wrapped erotic novels. No murder mysteries. Unencumbered by faded pseudo-engravings or envelopes stuffed with stamp collections, but overflowing with an abundance of brochures, revues, and even yellowing newspapers, the whole of which constituted an extraordinary collection for the connoisseur of the history of union, political, and social movements of the first half of the 20th century. The books in this singular library, also extremely rare, with some boasting personally dedicated autographs, were not more expensive because of this fact, as the typical autograph collector was not yet looking for the signatures of Gide, Malraux, Alain, or Giono. But they fascinated me, and it was no doubt these long interludes spent mooning over such illustrious signatures, not to mention my propensity for acquiring brochures whose politics usually made them unsellable, that drew the attention of the bouquiniste to his young habitué. Seeing me count my pennies, he offered me special discounts. One day he told me, in his mocking, Parisian, borderline hangman’s voice, which I’d later find intact in his extreme decrepitude:

“M’boy, I’m flabbergasted to see you interested in such drivel at your age. I’ve been observing you, just out of curiosity, for months, and you simply don’t relent. What could possibly interest you in these books? Seriously, you intrigue me! Where do you come from? What do you expect out of life?”

I babbled something. His questions were just a bit too personal for my taste.

He shrugged his shoulders, seemed to grow agitated, and added, in a tone not at all friendly:

“What I’m telling you is for your own good. You shouldn’t loiter over all this obsolete rubbish. It won’t get you anywhere. If I’ve dug it out of mothballs, it’s only because it might interest some old cronies who still remember me fondly.”

Then, softening:

“A man’s gotta make a living, after all. Although for that matter, why should I say ‘gotta’? No one’s forcing me. I’ve hit dry-dock, like those old barges which no longer budge from the mudflats. Liquidation sale! Everything must go! Later on down the line, who knows?”

Then his bad mood resurged:

“Go on, get out of here! This is not for you. You’re better off chasing skirts. I don’t want to see you around here any more. You’re getting on my nerves. Amscray!”

For months I stayed away from the Tournelle Quay. The bouquiniste had not so much frightened as annoyed me. I avoided him. Walking along the opposite sidewalk, on the building side of the street, I saw him more often than not surrounded by men his own age, or older, engaged in prolonged confabs. Some were bizarrely adorned, with capes, extravagant scarves, and cotton-knit bonnets. It thus seemed to me that these men who surrounded my gawky, surly friend had also stepped out of another time. This resemblance between the bouquiniste’s regulars and the outdated merchandise in his bins explained the anomaly of my intrusion in an age circle which was not my own. But I still had the right to be passionate about early 20th-century political history. This conviction gave me the courage to plunge back into his bins — which, after all, didn’t belong to an exclusive club. I emerged triumphantly with Lissagaray’s History of the 1871 Commune, the Dentu edition, published in 1897. Girding myself for more of the same cantankerousness from him, I immediately adopted a pugnacious tone:

“How much for this one? I expect a deal — after all, I’m on old customer.”

He pretended not to recognize me, weighed the book between his thin hands, leafed through it, shook his head sadly, and answered:

“Lissagaray…. This one’s priceless. But because you had the balls to come back, I’m going to give it to you. No — don’t argue; it’s a present. A present without price! You’re an anar ? ‘Fess up.”

“‘Anar’?”

I’d only just landed in Paris from my province, where I’d been educated for the most part in the bosom of the Catholic Church, Roman and Apostolic. But ever since the moment I’d begun to ponder things, I’d been drawn above all to the heretics, the outcasts of all varieties, the marginals, the outlaws, the iconoclasts, even the abnormal and the madmen. “Anar”? What was he talking about? I was more familiar with the history of socialism, of socialisms in their various avatars, than that of anarchism.

Seeing my embarrassment, the bouquiniste resumed:

“No, of course, you’re not an anar. It’s no longer à la mode. For that matter, it’s never been à la mode. You’ve gotta at least be a Communist, no? If not, what could you possibly hope to find in my book bins? Or maybe you’re just a masochist.”

“Why do I have to subscribe to some ‘ism’ in your book?” I brusquely shot back. “I’m interested in politics, not political parties.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“I do what I’m able to do. And I could care less. For the moment I’m an unskilled laborer in a factory. I’ve always been an unskilled laborer,” I added in a moment of defiance. “Unskilled laborer, warehouse worker, docker. I may be petit, but I’m solid. And working with my muscles leaves my brain free. To read, to study.”

“Do you read a lot?”

“I’ve read everything.”

“Don’t be modest!”

“It’s true. I’ve read the entire collection of Larousse Classics, in alphabetical order. That way I’m sure not to leave anything out.”

The bouquiniste ran his hands through his gray hair, a typical gesture for him, practically a tic. He considered me with an air in which I detected both surprise and affection. It seemed like he wanted to tell me something, but in the end he settled for taking my shoulder in his boney hand and squeezing it so hard it hurt.

“Come back whenever you like. Leaf through my stock. Search, m’boy, and maybe ye shall find.”

Thus was born my relationship with the man whose biography I now aspire to write. Before long I noticed that the same name popped up again and again on the fly-leafs of all the signed books in his bins, as well as on the covers of numerous brochures that I bought from him. This name was of course his own. He was slowly selling off his library — his only asset.

Excerpt from “La Mémoire des vaincus” by Michel Ragon. Copyright Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1990. To read sample translations — and the French original — of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l-Oeil,” click here as well as here.

*A more accurate translation of the French original, “parcours,” would be “trajectory.” I’ve proposed “marathon” here to avoid over-using “trajectory” and because in translating in general, I try to give the French author his best expression in American English (without getting so fancy as to risk changing his meaning or betraying his native style), rather than simply mirror his language, particularly when a literal translation risks diminishing the luster of the original. (For instance, where the literal English translation might not offer the literary, cultural, lyrical, or rhythmic resonances of the French. Or may simply be more banal than the French original.) And because, as a former marathoner in San Francisco, I find the image apt for the pacing and landscapes about to unfold in “La Mémoire des vaincus.” Or perhaps it’s simply that Ragon’s own advanced age — 92 as of this writing — makes his own ‘parcours’ and durability resemble that of the marathon runner.

**Here, with the addition of ‘frayed,’ I’ve taken considerable poetic license, as no such qualifier exists in the French original. My justifications include that the adjective could also apply to the dated books and journals in ‘Fred”s stand — and to the protagonist himself; my direct knowledge of these hardly secure structures from a close friendship with one of Fred’s contemporaries, as well as of the fragility of the bouquiniste trade itself; that an Anglophone audience in 2017 might not be as familiar with the bouquiniste stand as a Francophone one in 1990; and, perhaps most irresponsibly, that because Ragon is as of this writing still alive, in theory any full translation for formal publication would be submitted for his approval.

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