11 July 2013

Armand Salacrou: Boulevard Durand (1960)

Armand Salacrou's dramatisation of the last years of Le Havre anarchist Jules Durand (1880–1926) had a particular poignancy for him, as he too is from Le Havre and although only ten years old at the time, lived opposite the prison when the unfortunate Durand affair broke out. Boulevard Durand is a powerful, heartfelt indictment of the frame-up of Durand by the authorities.

Durand was Secretary of the union of coal heavers on the docks in Le Havre in the summer of 1910 when a strike for better conditions was called. One evening there was a drunken argument in which a scab, Louis Dongé (whose name Salacrou changed to Capron in consideration for his daughters), was killed. Although the militantly teetotal Durand had nothing to do with this, his company bosses thought this an excellent opportunity to incriminate him, and after a farcical trial in which Durand was accused of complicity in the murder, three of the real killers were imprisoned but Durand sentenced to be beheaded in a public place in Rouen.

Durand had a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered. The photos on the cover of the book above graphically portray the damage: the one on the left shows a young, healthy-looking thirty-year-old with quite chubby cheeks, whereas the one on the right shows a sick-looking, haggard old man: only two years had elapsed between the taking of the photos.

Durand was declared innocent in 1918, although he died insane in Sotteville-lès-Rouen lunatic asylum. In 1956 boulevard Durand in Le Havre was named after him, hence the title of the book.

I was particularly struck by what Julia (Durand's partner) says in Salacrou's play:

'[O]n n'a pas le droit d'amener les hommes affamés à voler, et leur reprocher leur vol; de leur vender de l'alcool et les traiter d'ivrognes'. (My translation: 'No one has the right to force starving men to steal and then reproach them for theft. Nor to sell them alcohol and call them drunkards.')

This reminds me of Sasha's thoughts about her boss in Jean Rhys's novel Good Morning, Midnight: 'Let’s say that you have this mystical right to cut my legs off. But the right to ridicule me afterwards because I am a cripple – no, that I think you haven’t got.'

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