Le Transsibérien: fire in every face

I was fascinated by Blaise Cendrars and his long prose poem “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France” when I first heard it ‘performed’ in the Club des Poètes in Paris in 1967. The poem was so moving that I returned several times whenever the comédienne was going to ‘perform’ it again. I knew the poem was originally published as a ‘simultaneity’ expression in 1913, with simultaneous colours by Sonia Delaunay-Terk. 1913 was at a time when arts were coalescing. This was the same year Guillaume Apollinaire published Alcools, a kick-start to surrealism, and Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky’s Le Sacré du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). A vibrant time. (Will we celebrate it in 2013?)

For me, however, 1967 was the time of the Vietnam War. Blaise Cendrars’ poem reflecting the 1905 Russo-Japanese war had so much resonance then (and still today). The 1967 experience generated a recollected episode in a story I wrote a few years ago. The extract begins with the start of Blaise Cendrars’ poem, with a further extract from near the end later. (See below for translation.)


En ce temps-là j’étais en mon adolescence
J’avais à peine seize ans et je ne me souvenais déjà plus de mon enfance
J’étais à 16.000 lieues du lieu de ma naissance
J’étais à Moscou, dans la ville des mille et trois clochers et des sept gares
Et je n’avais pas assez des sept gares et des mille et trois tours
Car mon adolescence était si ardente et si folle
Que mon cœur, tour à tour, brûlait comme le temple d’Éphèse ou comme la Place Rouge de Moscou
Quand le soleil se couche.
Et mes yeux éclairaient des voies anciennes.
Et j’étais déjà si mauvais poète
Que je ne savais pas aller jusqu’au bout.

So began the comédienne to recite by heart Blaise Cendrars’ long prose poem “Prose du Transsibérien”. I sat transfixed. The cadences of her voice transported me to a world of adventure, a world I did not yet know. The majesty of Cendrars’ poem came sparklingly alive, the rhythm of days and nights of the Trans-Siberian railway across the unending plains of Russia, towards the war and its horrors in the Far East.

I had come to Le Club des Poètes in the rue de Bourgogne. Somehow I had seen or heard of it, or someone had told me. Jean-Pierre Rosnay welcomed me in person, seated me at an ideal table.

“Vous êtes poète?” he asked.

“No,” I had replied, “but I like to read poetry and listen to it or hear it.” At the time I thought hearing poetry was more important than listening to it. The very sound could carry me away to imaginary places. The first time I was there, mesmerized by Annette reciting Blaise Cendrars, the horrors of war suddenly came bitingly clear. It was the time of Vietnam, and the French had not forgotten Dien Bien Phu. The strange war experience that students and others can live when far away enabled me to join in protests, in freedom. I felt then, and again later, that the Vietnam war produced in France that same sentiment that sports players experience: if you get knocked out of a competition, you hope that your conquerors will eventually win the competition, so that you can then say ‘we were beaten only by the best team’. And combined with that, an ingrained anti-Americanism, stemming perhaps, whatever history says, from the feeling that we, the French, gave the ideas of liberty and solidarity to the Americans, so they should look up to us.

And in Blaise Cendrars, through the captivating rhythm of her voice, Annette reconstructed the horrors of war..

J’ai vu
J’ai vu les trains silencieux les trains noirs qui revenaient de l’Extrême-Orient et qui passaient en fantômes
Et mon œil, comme le fanal d’arrière, court encore derrière ces trains
A Talga 100.000 blessés agonissaient faute de soins
J’ai visité les hôpitaux de Krasnoïarsk
Et à Khilok nous avons croisé un long convoi de soldats fous
J’ai vu dans les lazarets des plaies béantes des blessures qui saignaient à pleines orgues
Et les membres amputés dansaient autour ou s’envolaient dans l’air rauque
L’incendie était sur toutes les faces dans tous les cœurs
Des doigts idiots tambourinaient sur toutes les vitres
Et sous la pression de la peur les regards crevaient comme des abcès
Dans toutes les gares on brûlait tour les wagons
Et j’ai vu
J’ai vu des trains de 60 locomotives qui s’enfuyaient à toute vapeur pourchassés par les horizons en rut et des bandes de corbeaux qui s’envolaient désespérément après
Dans la direction de Port-Arthur.

Annette created the picture, ingrained the picture in my brain. It might have been the Russo-Japanese war for Blaise Cendrars; it was the same image for Vietnam for me.


I’ve just acquired a copy of Yale University Press‘s splendid facsimile of the original, folded like an accordion just like the original. Timothy Young has produced a powerful and resonating new English translation which accompanies the publication.

The translation of the extracts above is by Ekaterina Likhtik (available on the internet)

I was in my adolescence at the time
Scarcely sixteen and already I no longer remembered my childhood

I was 16,000 leagues from my birthplace
I was in Moscow, in the city of a thousand and three belfries and seven railroad stations
And they weren’t enough for me, the seven railroad stations and the thousand and three towers
For my adolescence was so blazing and so mad
That my heart burned in turns as the temple of Epheseus, or as Red Square in Moscow
When the sun sinks.
And my eyes shone upon the ancient routes
And I was already such a bad poet
That I didn’t know how to go all the way to the end.

I saw
I saw silent trains black trains returning from the Orient passing like phantoms
And my eye, as a headlight, still runs after these trains
In Talga 100,000 wounded were agonizing for lack of care
I visited the hospitals of Krasnoyarsk
And in Khilok we came across a long convoy of soldiers gone mad
I saw in the lazarettos the gaping gashes wounds that bled to the bone
And amputated limbs danced around or soared through the raucous air
Fire was on all faces in all hearts
Idiotic fingers were rapping on all windowpanes
And under the force of fear the stares burst open like abscesses
In all the stations all the wagons burned
And I saw
I saw trains with 60 engines escaping at full steam hounded by horizons in heat and flocks of crows that afterwards took hopeless flight
In the direction of Port Arthur.

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One Response to Le Transsibérien: fire in every face

  1. Pingback: Le Club des Poètes – invitation to you, the voyager | bonxie

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