Thursday, 21 July 2016

the last communard [gavin bowd]

Gavin Bowd’s book exhumes a fascinating footnote of history. The story of Adrien Lejeune, the last remaining survivor of the Paris commune, who died in Russia during the 2nd world war at the age of 95. This is a scholarly text, written by an academic, which seeks to root out the truth of Lejeune’s story, debunking the myths. As such it’s a somewhat prosaic account, rife in fiddly detail. Lejeune, somewhat disappointedly, didn’t spend years as a prisoner in the South Seas; he didn’t like it when his red wine orders didn’t arrive in the Soviet Union; he perhaps didn’t even really participate in the uprising of the Paris Commune in the way in which some claimed he did. The book is at its most interesting when the myth and the reality confront one another and the truth fails to emerge. For all Bowd’s attention to detail, the actualities of Lejeune’s life remain surprisingly vague. Quite apart from the issue of his actions during the days of the Commune, very little is revealed about his life after he was released from prison, up to the point where he chose to go to the Soviet Union in the thirties. His life there in Soviet Russia is similarly hard to get a fix on: was he an irritable old man, whose neighbours took advantage of him, or was he a saintly figure who radiated millennial calm? Either vision seems possible from Bowd’s book; perhaps both have some truth. If anything, The Last Communard demonstrates how difficult even recent history is to practice, if history is taken to be an investigation into the truth of that which has occurred in the past.

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