Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Blaise Cendrars

I have No Regrets: The Strange Life of a Diplomat-Vagrant, being the memoirs of Lieutenant Bringolf

This was a tough book to track down, and not necessarily worth it in the end. It is a detailed account of a soldier's experiences surrounding and during World War I. I am still not entirely clear who wrote it. It purports to be an autobiography of a soldier written by Hans Bringolf edited by Blaise Cendrars, but due to its contents, there is some suspicion that it is a work of fiction written by Cendrars, who himself is a work of fiction dreamed up by Frederic Sauser. His entire catalog is built almost exclusively of autobiographies whose veracity is up for argument.

This story is written in a few parts, beginning with an unknown disgrace that the diplomat suffered in his home country of Switzerland and being exiled to South America. He proceeded to lead a nomadic life, wandering throughout the Americas as a businessman, hustler, forger, grifter, and degenerate criminal as he attempts to regain his nobility. Every town he enters he is eventually run out of or jailed, depending on the will of the townspeople. He impersonates diplomats every chance he gets, destroying himself by racking up enormous bills at tailors and fancy hotels. His past follows him up to America, where he uses his connections to get in the good graces of society before he is inevitably found out. He enlists for every war he can, and is always promoted because of his mettle as a soldier.

Unfortunately his past always catches up to him. He is accused of all sorts of perfidy, yet stays just above water, all in his pursuit of aristocracy. As the Great War progresses and Bringolfs medals start to add up, he nears respectability again, only to be thwarted by some past indiscretion. His spirit stays strong throughout, fighting bravely and always confident that he can work his way back into the good graces of society. In the end, there are some lachrymose moments where he finally realizes he is of the doomed.

It is a tough read, in that he is battered constantly. To his credit, he always gets back up and tries another route, only to be knocked down again in a very similar way. These ups and downs are dispiriting, and written in a choppy sort of way that grows tiresome after a while. The book resembles a journal that has been minimally transcribed and put into paragraph form, and who knows, maybe it was.

Its always interesting to read about a time where someone could pass themselves off as one person in one town, then go to the next town and pull the same scam. This stuff simply wouldn't work in the internet age. Bringolf led an adventurous life and paid the price for it, wandering around the world trying anything to get a leg up. It makes one nostalgic for gold rushes and land grabs, but seemed awfully repetitive and slightly boring to me. I would recommend another Cendrars novel first, maybe Sutter's Gold, Dan Yack, or Moravagine, all of which I found amazing. This one is mainly interesting for its historical commentary.